Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Look Here! Project: An Interview with Nirmal Raja

This is the third installment in our interview series with artists participating in the Look Here! project. Nirmal Raja is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in Milwaukee. She received her Master of Fine Arts degree in painting and drawing at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She was a mentoring resident at RedLine Milwaukee, an urban arts incubator, for over 6 years. Currently, she works out of her studio at Material Studios and Gallery in downtown Milwaukee.

Why are you interested in participating in the Look Here! project?

We don’t look at history enough and libraries are repositories of histories among other things– our relationship with libraries in general has changed so much because information is available seemingly so easily. But it’s wonderful being able to wander in an actual physical library and being able to find things you wouldn’t necessarily find with keywords.

Additionally, to have some guidance is great! I’ve always noticed that once I start digging into a concept or subject matter for my artwork it seems to divide its self, as if it’s this never-ending tunnel that you get into. It’s exhausting in some ways, because then you think that you don’t have a resolution. But also just incredibly fascinating to see how much information there is to absorb.

I really started to think of my artwork as a process of research in graduate school; it’s great to tie that aspect of making with research in knowledge bases and how those can be intertwined. With this project, I am referencing or in conversation with the past, and figuring out how to bring the past to light somehow; processed through my own lens. It seems like any material can be reframed by who is speaking to it, and we could use that framing power as an artist to create a space for examination and contemplation.

What collections are you using or did you begin to use for your project?

Initially I was really taken by the Jeypore Portfolio in the Special Collections library. I was amazed by the pains someone took to record architectural details, and the beauty that existed in India at the time; and the pains that the actual mason or architect took in creating those details in the first place. This portfolio was my starting point but the project has expanded since then.

There are certain things that I have tucked away in my mental notebook to expand on. This project has given me an opportunity to address a couple of those. One of them is the trope of the screen. In South Asian architecture, it is called the “Jaali” – it’s been used in South Asian cultures for many, many centuries as a device for gender segregation, a device for power; so how do you take something so beautiful and so intricate and decorative and infuse it with meaning that is relevant to the present, and investigate what’s going on around us now – that’s what interests me. The screen is also a filtering mechanism. The person who is surrounded by the screen is looking out on the world, but also the world is wondering what must be inside. And so I initially thought that’s what I would be making work about, but it’s expanded. Which is the condition of research, I guess. Beauty is very much present in my work and Jaalis are wonderfully intricate and beautiful, but I also seek depth and meaning in my work. Beauty can be a tool to bring the viewer into the work, but also to bring the viewer to a different plane, making them think and question.

We’re living in a time of anxiety. It took me a long time to feel like I belong in this country, only to doubt that again this past year. I’m trying to figure out how I fit into this dynamic of power, but also what is my role as an immigrant artist who considers herself American but also from elsewhere. I think as a culture, we’re becoming very unidimensional. But art can be a place where we can find richness and complexity, and also where we can possibly place the viewer in a situation where they have a choice to look reality in the face or to look past it. I want to use the screen as a place where the viewer is confronted with this choice.

I will be printing a list of recent hate crimes on vinyl and having patterns sourced from the Jeypore portfolio cut into this vinyl and this will be pasted onto the glass panes at the Villa Terrace around one of the sleeping porches. When the viewer enters this space they are surrounded by a beautifully intricate screen; with light streaming through it, shadows being cast. But when they look closely they can read a whole list of recent hate crimes on the vinyl. This screen will become a frame for some of the artifacts that I will be curating from the AGSL and the Special Collections library. (note: the Look Here! project will culminate in an exhibit at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, opening June 28, 2018)

Max Yela, (Head of Special Collections) has been pulling out early books by travelers in the 16th century, to the Far East and South Asia. They are mostly travelogues, but also children’s books – from the turn of the century to 1930s. It’s interesting to see what kids were being taught about the rest of the world. The things you are taught as a kid before you know how to be critical.

Marcy Bidney at AGSL (American Geographical Society Library) has been pulling maps of South
Asia from as early as the 1500s and into the 19th century; in addition to travelogues by early explorers of the East. The commentary and the
images in these books are fascinating peeks into what caught the eye of Western explorers. There is a first edition travelogue by American painter Edwin Lord Weeks who focused on painting the people and places of Afghanistan and India. All the material I’ve been looking at so far is what we would now call “Orientalist.”

I’ve been interested lately in the gaze and how that could possibly be expressed or represented. Orientalism in a sense is an expression of the gaze, so you’re looking at the East and this certain notion that it’s exotic or savage and there is an implied power play that cannot be ignored. Representation or even looking is an act of power, and if a certain way of representing becomes the only way, then the subject loses their power to represent themselves. My effort to dig into some of these older publications and objects is to understand how the East has been represented and understood in the West over the centuries and how that might influence perceptions of those cultures now.

But then what do I do with this information? This knowledge base is so large, so much has been written about it; there is the sheer number of books that have been written about the East, but also scholarly works about Orientalism.

I decided to facilitate an experience through an installation of curated objects framed by the screen in a specific way. I am using the screen as a tool for gazing and placing the curated objects in the context of the present. The viewers are left to decide for themselves what they want to look at. That’s my idea… so let’s hope it succeeds! You never know with artwork – but in general it seems like once I have a direction, the work seems to make itself.

How does having so much content available digitally affect the work you're creating? Or does it?

I’ve been browsing photographs in the digital collections, especially the AGSL photo portals; and some of the maps are digitized as well. I think for me this project itself has a lot of potential digitally. You’ll be creating a digital database based on this exhibition and that’s kind of fascinating to see how my work will eventually exist in a digital space.

Having the Jeypore portfolio digitized makes it possible for me to create the screen, create the vinyl; it’s not possible otherwise to make this work. Some of this almost seems like a given now; the digital lies underneath the work, it enables the work but it’s sort of the unseen labor maybe. And the archiving capacity – for example, the whole content of the hate crime list that I am using is on www.saalt.org. That would not have been possible before the digital – the network enables this kind of sourcing and documentation.

The other thing that’s digital is the music – converting my great uncle’s records from the 1940s to the digital was an interesting process to watch. Because the music has to be played on its original medium, it has to be captured in a way where the digital is forced back into the analog world. Sticking the digital microphone right in the horn is the perfect juxtaposition.

A: Would you say that what you're doing is an act of curation as opposed to an act of hand-making, perhaps?

The work is very much in process, in a research stage. I haven’t really made anything yet. The making will really just be a culmination of this whole project. This is the first project where I am not really creating with my own hands  – Which is really strange for me. I’m working from a digital copy of the portfolio, a machine does the printing, and the cutting is done by yet another machine. It’s like being the director/producer. It’s interesting...

More about Nirmal Raja's work can be found at her site, http://www.nirmalraja.com/ and at her Instagram site: https://www.instagram.com/nirmal.raja/

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