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Where ART Thou?

May 2004
Where ART Thou?




The desi artists in the region are a varied lot; some have retained their ethnicity in their work while others have liberally flavored it with their ?westernism'. REETIKA KHANNA NIJHAWAN surveys the art scene here to find it scant but unique and growing.

Georgia may not be the nation's beacon for visual arts; yet randomly scattered in this arena is a multifaceted South Asian presence that is making forays in myriad creative fields. Digital art, woodwork, installations, fabric painting and canvas art. Sequestered and almost invisible, South Asian artists face an onerous task. The absence of a cohesive, South Asian visual artists' group compounds the challenge.

Ameeta Jadav, head of the department for Multimedia and Web Design at the Art Institute of Atlanta, says, "I do not see a strong South Asian art presence in America. Perhaps there are pockets?. I believe that if at all a South Asian art form has had a far-reaching influence in the American mainstream, it is music. Visual art and other performing arts such as dance seem to be on the fringes."

Some artists come into the limelight on account of personal initiative while others fall off the wayside because they are simply artists, not marketers. Atlanta offers minimal resources necessary to exploit artistic talent. Cities like New York and San Francisco are enriched by numerous art spots where creative minds interface. Countless galleries, from the only-award-winning-artists-please to the hole-in-the-wall variety, function as cultural vehicles. Wine and cheese art shows are not private pleasures of the rich and famous. Atlanta will perhaps never buzz at the same frequency but it definitely has the makings of a unique art hub. One with discernible South Asian nuances.

Here are a few artists who choose to walk off the beaten path in an attempt to make a mark.

Raka Bose Saha

An astute use of color and interplay of light and shadow characterizes Raka's work. She does landscapes, portraits and still life in oils, watercolor and pastels. Recognized at several national juried shows, Raka is a Signature Member of the National Watercolor Society, a Member of Excellence of the Atlanta Artists' Center, a permanent member of the Fine Art Section of the St. Louis Artist Guild and a currently exhibiting member at the Art League of Alexandria. Her work has been featured in the "Best of Watercolor: Painting Color" by the Rockport Publisher of Massachusetts in 1998.

The artist retails through various galleries in Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C.. Raka has been in many museum shows but her goal is to be in a permanent collection of a national museum.

Her participation in painting competitions during her formative years in Kolkata is perhaps an insight into her need for recognition as an artist. Channeled towards the sciences by her parents, who believed in economic independence for women, she worked as a biochemist for 25 years before emerging as a professional artist in 1994.

She describes her art as post-impressionist. Thrilled by works of Van Gogh, Gauguin Degas and Monet, Raka balances the equation of color and composition with caution. Her artwork, an abstract expression of realistic forms, has received much kudos. A member of the Plein Air group, Raka often makes day trips to picturesque spots with fellow artists. She recalls the expansive view from atop the Stone Mountain with much fondness. Her fascination for the North Georgian Mountains also traced its path to her canvas. Looking out of the window of her studio adjacent to vast farmland in Frederick, Maryland, Raka analyses the capricious hues of the sky. "Ever since I moved from Georgia to Maryland, I have been painting clouds." Awed by the red Georgian clay her earlier works were rubrical by comparison.

"From the colors people know that I was not trained in art in this country." Aside from Raka's spectrum of shades, there are no other clues of her Indian heritage. Art to her is not culture specific or residual ethnic onus. South Asians, who often display a preference for mass-produced Cottage Industries and Delhi Haat art, are not her biggest patrons. Her work is "perhaps too universal." Or too expensive. Unfazed by the pale response from the Indian community, Raka regularly volunteers in charities and shows relating to art and Indian culture. "It is a must for an artist to enrich the community."

Ashraf Gohar Goreja

Mr. Goreja's paintbrushes have been his steadfast companions since he was a little boy. A native of Pakistan, Mr. Goreja walked away from a prosperous family business to study international law in London. He then moved to Vienna, Austria where he worked with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization as an industrial consultant. In Europe he wove himself into the rich cultural tapestry and grew as an artist. Westward bound, he moved to California where he acquired a B.Sc. degree and then to New York where he represented Pakistan at the United Nations. He also lived in Washington before finding a Southern haven.

Living in Atlanta for twenty-three years, Mr. Goreja paints and writes poetry and short stories. Inspired by visits to art galleries and museums in over 300 cities, Mr. Goreja works with oils, acrylics and watercolor. Liz Mangan wrote for the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, "You cannot label this artist with any instantly recognizable category. There is a totally eclectic mix of styles, ranging from representative, though very expressive landscapes from some of the 50 countries Goreja has visited, to the most recent, compositions with a mixture of human forms, abstract shapes and objects in vibrant colors."

Like the celebrated Indian artist M. F. Husain, Goreja's gentle demeanor gives little warning of the torrent of colors that saturate his canvases. A magical palette complements his wand like brush to illustrate his multicultural experiences. Goreja's paintings?landscapes and portraits?are a dynamic nexus between skill and introspection. Poignant and evocative, like well-written memoirs, his oeuvres have been showcased in London, Frankfurt, Vienna, Toronto, New York, Washington and Atlanta. His art and poetry have been published in over 3500 web sites.

Talking about his encounters with fellow desi artists he says, "I have seen some really talented artists and some not so great. But one does not come by many artists as people don't give much importance to art. If art is not just a hobby for you then you need concentration. You need to put your full attention?you have to spend time on it.'

Malika Garrett

Malika, soccer mom, lives the American dream?and conjures rustic images of India. A vortex of color, her larger than life artwork is testimony to her Indian lineage. Great grandniece of scientist Jadgish Chandra Bose, this Kolkata native was nestled amidst art and music. Almost two decades ago she came to Wesleyan College in Macon to study art. Hired by the advertising department of the New York Times she inadvertently found herself on the sales team. Attractive, vivacious and aesthetically fine-tuned, Malika went on to work with large corporations like Coca-Cola and Kodak.

All along Malika painted?a nocturnal pleasure?with a flask of chai at hand. Too busy to approach galleries she created her web site: www.mayonarts.com. South Asians and Americans alike are fascinated by her work, with the latter willing to pay for it. Her paintings retail from $300 to $8,000 depending on the size. Malika participated in the Festival of India a few times but did not get the desired response.

During her sojourns to India she often gets commissions and is pleasantly surprised by the money it brings. "I paint very fast. A 3 ft x 4 ft would take me about two weeks. I paint only with a palette knife." She vivifies her canvas with thick layers of oil paint in spirited colors. Malika describes her work as "The National Geographic in art?it is India. My work is realistic but abstract." It is a marriage between my Indianness and the empirical value system of the West." Malika's fascination for Rajasthan is visible in compositions like "Gossip2". "Hookah", oil on canvas, is an engaging portraiture of a village prostitute, "faceless, as she has no real identity in society."

Ask Malika to name another South Asian artist in the area and she draws a blank. "We are doing well in every other field but where is our art?" questions the passionate painter. "Look at the African-American community or the Native American community -- they promote their artists." Malika seems genuinely despondent by the lack of support. Nonetheless, this versatile mother of two recently quit a lucrative corporate job to become a full time artist. Malika has fashioned a gallery in a portion her house in Woodstock, Georgia.

Monika Nikore

Monika is eagerly waiting for her toddler to begin art class where finger painting is greeted with wows worthy of a Monet. A photographer, a digital artist?she does not "do weddings" like many South Asian folk incorrectly envision. A myopic perception of her craft perhaps encouraged Monika to crop out the Indian factor, at least for a while. Of late, however, she has noticed an influx of eclectic, younger South Asians, who view the arts in a positive light.

Monika graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a BFA in Narrative, Documentary and Editorial photography. As a freelancer on a roll, her contact sheets developed across the globe. Monika has shot extensively for the United Nations, ABC, NBC, Field Museum of Natural History, High Museum of Art, and Associated Press, to name a few. Her work has appeared in several national and international publications including World Monitor, World & I, Airone, Mirabella, Atlanta, Stern, Village Voice, Time, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Monika managed the photography division for Turner Broadcasting for five years before moving to Time Warner. As the Photo Editor for America Online, she creates the optically balanced AOL welcome screen, "which is like the front page of a newspaper."

All along Monika exhibited her "personal work" extensively. In the 80s she focused on issues of cultural identity and immigrant women, "when few if any artists were addressing these in a visual medium." In 1988, she spent nine months in Wales, England capturing quotidian lives of immigrant Pakistani women on film. "Few editors understood or cared about bicultural issues back then, despite which this work showed successfully in galleries in Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles." With the arrival of digital photography, in 1994, Monika employed the progressive technology to create montages exposing issues unique to women of the Indian subcontinent. She trained her lens on dowry, selective abortion, arranged marriages and brought to light the role of tradition and contemporary media in shaping identity. "At the time I was doing these shows, I was the only one working on Indian women's issues. Perhaps back then the American culture was not reflecting on immigrants, diversity and the changing face of demographics. Now, you see so many artists dealing with that theme."

Monika, recently finished work on Atlanta, a coffee table book on the city with an introduction by Jimmy Carter. She is also overseeing the editing of Lessons in Global Health, a book by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sabiha Mujtaba

Articulate and courteous, in a very English way, Sabiha breathes life into wood. Uncommon dexterity, yogic focus and innovation are her tools. Sabiha's fluid designs create illusions of frozen motion. One can almost see the folds of a shawl carved in wood sliding across the back of a bench.

The idea for the Bharatnatyam Dancer came from a coat hanger she had carved in the image of goddess Kali with all the six arms reaching out in varied mudras. "I have always been fascinated by the Goddess and the feminist perspective in spirituality. Kali, as I have understood her persona of duality, has that awesome power of creativity and destruction. Plus her physical appearance of the blue/black, multi-armed entity is frighteningly attractive and artistically inspiring."

Years later, the original concept, tempered with the memory of Bharatnatyam dancing as a teenager in London, was resurrected in a new avatar. "My parents' origins were in Bhopal and Lucknow. Both of them had a great interest in music, especially my father who had a good knowledge of classical Indian music. The Bharatnatyam Dancer evolved from a long time desire to bring forward some of my early experiences and to express the pure delight in watching really accomplished dancers perform such a sensuous art form. There is usually a snake somewhere in my work, so the right hand of the chair is showing the Naga form."

A concept ferments with Sabiha for a while before it matures. She spends weeks on a particular project and eschews the tedious, albeit essential process of sanding. Sabiha stains, paints and goldleafs only specific portions as can be seen in Bharatnatyam Dancer. Her work is being exhibited at the Museum of Design in Atlanta, until August 28th, 2004.

A Karachi native, Sabiha trained at the Hammersmith College of Art near London where she learned sculpting and experimented with woodworking and welding. "I enjoyed using my hands and understanding the materials." In 1985, after an apprenticeship with Sutherland Studios in Atlanta, Sabiha set out on her own with Chrysalis Woodworks. A one on one relationship with clients and the unwillingness to market her craft aggressively lends an endearing, non-commercial veneer to her work. The recipient of the Niche awards two years in a row, she appears to have carved a comfortable niche for herself.

Kavita Singh

"During my textile designing days at the New Delhi Polytechnic we were made to study and draw details of infinite leaves." California-based Kavita has applied that training inventively. Using the gutta serti technique she paints abstractions of nature on silk. "The glue acts like a resist and the dye spreads within the outline. It is similar to batik where you use a wax instead of a glue." She is also proficient in Japanese brush painting.

Over the years Kavita has designed for Yves Saint Laurent, Lavin of Paris, Cannon, Burlington, Schumacher and the royal family in Malaysia. She was also asked to fabricate a Christmas ornament for the White House. Scarves, ruanas, jackets, wall art?her esoteric work falls on the cusp of fine art and fine craft. An effervescent blend of verve and grace, Kavita participates in nearly 30 art and craft shows annually. The "joy of painting" comes from creating wall art where she conjures a palette and subject of her choosing. "With the wearable I have to be cognizant of what will have a wider appeal." Kavita fared well at the American Craft Council show held in Atlanta this March.

"Californians have a lighter approach to life. To them art?be it in the form of pottery or fashion?is tomorrow's treasure. Wine and cheese art shows are very common." Wearable art or paintings, Kavita caters to a niche market. An artist and a businesswoman, she succeeds on both counts.

Asha Parikh

Born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, Asha studied Fine Art at the Visva Bharti University, in Shantiniketan, India. Returning to South Africa to teach art and sculpture she played a pivotal role in introducing art as an examination subject in Asian schools. A scholarship from the Indian government drew her to the J. J. School of Art in Mumbai for postgraduate work. Asha moved to Cincinnati in 1980 where she has been teaching art and participating in local art shows.

Asha began a project in January 2003 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Gujarati Samaj in Cincinnati. With the intent of "suspending the symbol ?OM' in the heavens," she began painting clouds. After the Columbia space shuttle disaster in February, "the painting became an emotional one. The song by Rabindranath Tagore: "In these heavens is my Salvation? light... O... light" kept ringing in my ears." Paint, foam and crystals united in a horizonless composition--"Eternal Light". At the unveiling Asha dedicated the artwork to the Columbia astronauts. On the prompting of a friend she informed the Kennedy Space Center of this dedication and "Eternal Light" found a place in the Center's Space Education and Technology Hall. A print also resides in the Cultural and Document Center in Durban, South Africa. "People started asking for prints and donating money. We collected $11,000 and I added $107 -- STS 107 was the shuttle's number -- and donated it to the Astronauts Memorial Foundation." Prints of "Eternal Light" will be available at the Global Mall Mela in Atlanta from the 7th to the 9th of May.

Avantika Bawa

Professor of Foundation Studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Avantika is often mistaken for a student. This loquacious 30-year-old began her career with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, India. The desire to delve into contemporary art brought her to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Avantika's work evolved as she experimented with varied mediums like film, animation, and installation. As an educator she prods her students, "try out different things at the risk of failing."

Avantika doesn't walk the straight and narrow. Her inventive, site specific installations in mixed media are "minimal, formal and relatively abstract and to some extent conceptual." By contrast, her cathartic paintings in India were charged and expressive. As a curator for Aquaspace gallery in Savannah she aims to spark an interest in contemporary/conceptual art. Avantika had a solo show at Saltworks gallery in Atlanta last September. "It is one of the stronger galleries in the south that promotes such work."

A traveling show of contemporary works on paper?Carry on Drawing?began two years ago with Avantika wanting to show friends in the West what was happening in the East and vice versa. She packed drawings in a carry bag and traveled to Canada, Europe, India and Australia. The bag holds works of about 160 artists from 15 different counties. "Closed in a time capsule for now, I want to see how people will react to it 10 years later."

The daughter of a naval officer Avantika often reflects on her voyage from India. "My work is Asian only because I, an Indian, have created it. A slight pet peeve of mine is that Asians coming here are primarily making work that is about them. There are a lot of artists cashing on the so-called culture-card. I am using strong words here but I think it overpowers the integrity and beauty of a lot of the other work that is happening by Asian artists that is not necessarily about being Asian on the surface." This forthright artist is not afraid to speak her mind. Or live in a submarine.

Ashraf Ali

There is a coffee shop where artists convene. These folks are not accolade heavy, just driven to express creatively. The owner of this aesthetic dimension is a proud Pakistani woman. This is a crystal ball vision ? a future that will come to pass if Ashraf Ali has her way.

In "The Love Goddess" Ali explores the life of an Asian woman "who is usually looked down upon by society, but in this interpretation she is the one in control." Ali is a gifted artist with a determination that is as intense as her artwork. Breaking free from the shackles of dogmatic expectations she dropped a business major to follow her heart. Ali hopes to set an example for others who nurse similar dreams but are afraid to nurture them.

Ali's passion, to a great degree, is buttressed on support from kith and kin. Recognized by her community as an artist, she was an integral part of a group that painted a mural at the annual partnership walk?a fundraiser for third world countries?at Centennial Park last October. In her opinion, "Not many people are into art because it is not a very solid way of making money and there are no guarantees. If I were living in New York, I would not struggle so much. Maybe there is a move in the future but not just because the struggle is harder here."

Much like an ?artist' Ali totes a sketchpad, translating every inspiration on paper. She maintains a pictorial journal of the day's events and describes her interpretation as " very abstract. I do a lot of Arabic calligraphy in collaboration with bright colors. The brush strokes are very defined and there is some form of figure drawing in there, somehow. I do painting, sketching, charcoal sketching?. I have been working with acrylics and recently I started working with oil paints as well."

The state of the art: scant, but upwardly mobile.

In a region such as Georgia, which is far removed from the known Meccas' of international art, those few who have carved a niche for themselves are exemplary ? simply because all challenges that dog artists are only magnified for this lot.

Raka Bose Saha warns, "Art is very competitive." According to Sundaram Tagore, Director of the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in New York, "The nature of modernism is not only to have creative talent but also packaging skill. Successful artists have created a certain persona type. That is the reality, you simply cannot disengage yourself from it." Indian artist M.F. Husain's success serves as case in point.

There is a relatively small market for Avantika Bawa's edgy installations. Aesthetic sensibilities border on conservative in the South. Sunny Walker, Director of Frameworks Art Gallery in Atlanta, has been actively involved in the business for over 30 years. Her clientele exhibits an affinity for "traditional landscapes". Temme Barkin-Leeds, Curator of the SunTrust Plaza gallery downtown, says, "Atlanta has grown a tremendous amount since the High Museum in 1984. We have made many strides. For the most part, in the corporate sector, Atlanta is fairly conservative. We are however, becoming more adventurous."

Contemporary work finds a limited audience in the city but it is slowly gaining appreciation. Barkin-Leeds also highlights the fact that Atlanta is not as multicultural as some other metropolitans. New York and California readily absorb artists from diverse ethnic backgrounds. According to Sundaram, "Whether it is San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle or New York -- America has always been more receptive to newer ideas on the coastal belt. Culture is absorbed on the coast and then disseminated further."

On a micro level, communities play a significant role in preserving and diffusing culture. As South Asians some of us choose to congregate while others avoid the tedium of social flocking. Mr. Amitabh Sharma is Regional Vice President, National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA); Director on Board of India Awareness Foundation (IAF); President, IACA (2002) and an integral member of Saakaar theatre group. He says, "It is very unfortunate that the community has not come to value and lend adequate support to the artists who are devoted to promoting performing arts. This is visible from the poor attendance in creative shows staged in Atlanta. This same apathy is not visible when it comes to making a beeline to cinema oriented mega shows or western art forms". Ameeta Jadav is as disenchanted as Sharma, "It is disappointing that many South Asian communities are fragmented and so totally focused on Bollywood. Even the so-called traditional art forms seem to be impacted by the populist Bollywood hoopla. Now, if Bollywood had some values and depth that went beyond 0.25 cms, it would be a different story."

Referring to the likeminded people Monika Nikore relates to, Jadav says,"The younger generation seems to be a lot more willing to experiment, explore and accept. This group can look inwards at its own culture, express creatively, distinguish between the "pure" and the "derived", and has the capacity to overcome (read ignore) internal and external perceptions about who they are. I believe this group has the openness, insight and ability to share art for the sake of art."

Jadav's optimism calls for a stronger role of South Asian art in dispensing myths shrouding our culture. "To project an image of a real, thinking, feeling, creative and independent culture?beyond the hungry mouths, sati and arranged marriages." Sharma emphasizes the need for "a transformation in perception and much higher level of endorsement to Indian performing arts. Of late few creative groups have emerged with dedication to serve this cause by raising the bar and extending/outreaching the Indian art forms deeper into Atlanta fabric."

Kaya Collective, a space for uncensored creative exploration in varied mediums, is a step in that direction. Alka Roy, one of its versatile founders, moved to Atlanta three years ago. "I thought Atlanta was a big enough city for it to have a cultural platform. I did not find anything apart from a platform for classical art." Kaya was born out of an urgent need for progressive expression "We don't come up with a message," Alka elucidates. "We ask, ?What do we think about this topic?' then we organically explore the complexities. We don't say, ?No you can't think that way, or that is not a valid way of thinking.' At Kaya, you can participate whether you are a writer, philosopher, thinker, activist, organizer or none of the above."

As creative folk, following the yellow brick road, we seek a common Mecca. Whether we meet at Ashraf Ali's coffeehouse or at a virtual location, we need to interface. Most Georgian artists featured here expressed, in various degrees, a willingness to forge an alliance. Kaya Collective filled a lacuna and surfaced this February. Like a tip of the iceberg, it is indicative of a dynamic force. One that needs direction.

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