Monday, March 29, 2010

San-Studio, Closer to Home

Guest Blogger:
Arti Sandhu,
Assistant Professor at Columbia College Chicago, Art and Design Department, Fashion Design

As I write this piece on a warm sunny afternoon at my in-laws place in a small town in New Zealand, I can’t help but think how it seems rather strange to have traveled this far to try and write a blog post. And as expected all my previous ideas of how I was going to approach this post have since gone out the window…of a long haul flight. But in hindsight my attempt to cobble together this piece while I am at my husband’s (and now my) home, far from our current home and even further from my original home is typical of my relationship with a studio space and my work; that is being in between spaces and longing for an imaginary ideal space which I once had. I am still deeply nostalgic about it and in which I would like to be right NOW.
My choice to move from my home in India to live overseas was not a planned decision and came about through a number of happy accidents that led me from studying fashion design in the UK to teaching and settling in New Zealand then moving to Chicago. Through all the geographical displacement, my work, though evolving, always comes back and makes reference to an epicentric space situated somewhere in between my memory of India and its past. Together, they shape an idealized version of “home” that perhaps never existed and I’m sure I never even acknowledged in all the years I spent growing up there. 

The construction of a romanticized, ideal “home” space is a common symptom of being an immigrant and one often sees the collective construction of imaginary space within Diasporic communities where people share a common experience of home and migration. Appadurai (1990, cf. Rayaprol, 2001, p.174) suggests the creation of ‘imagined spaces’ within which immigrants dwell. This ‘imagined’ world relies heavily on memory and nostalgia to create a new cultural space. This nostalgia is both for the past (that was left behind) and the present (which they are missing currently); memories are a contested terrain as they tend to be ‘subjective constructions of reality rather than [an] objective fixed phenomenon’ (Gillis, 1994, cf. Rayaprol, 2001, p.165). The confluence of nostalgia and memory can lead to a cherishing of Indianness, which Russell refers to a ‘museumization of practices’, the roots of which go back to India that was (before leaving). The concept of belonging becomes a composite of being and longing (Russel, 2002, p.xiii) where home is a series of somewheres, a place of belonging, a utopian space, a plane journey between two cities or perhaps a landscape of a dream that is always there but difficult to reach (ibid, p.xiv). In this way, home is also elsewhere and not always ‘here’ whether it be the host country or back home. 

To begin with, the above notion of museumization of practices and places was not apparent to me. However I began to see my body of work evolve, from my Masters collection to my research on Indian fashion to my art making, I became highly aware of the way my desire to be back home in India was shaping my work, as was my lack of a fixed studio space. The former was also the case with my photographic practice where I would bypass the bright and shiny newness of modern India on my visits home by giving preference to the traces of the past that could still be found in certain street corners, in old parts of the cities, in small towns and local bazaars, on old signboards and in the peeling paint on old doors and windows. In 2005, I began working on what I called the ‘Alphabet series’ while I was visiting my family in India. The Alphabet series began as an exercise of making digital collages with photographs I had taken - to mimic an alphabet chart that could represent and perhaps even preserve for me the aspects of India I most cherished, as well as in danger of forgetting. Unlike the usual stereotype of exotic and ethnic India, I was (and still am) more interested in the mundane and its details like rickshaws, electricity cables, traffic, signposts etc. that I knew and recognized through my own experience of living in India that I could not take back with me. Subsequent to the Alphabet series, which was more sub-conscious in its reference to the aforementioned imagined space, my more recent explorations are deliberate in tapping into this concept of nostalgia and desire to be elsewhere. In Solan Paisley (2008) for example, I consider ways in which modern India with its large scale, unplanned urban development could be bypassed or viewed through rose tinted glasses - by taking images of stacked concrete constructions (photographed in small towns in the Himalayan foothills) and turning them into classic paisleys borrowed from Indian traditional textile motifs. Thus making them aesthetically more pleasing and in someway in line in with India’s past. 

In Mahila Moments (2009 – current) I finally begin to unravel my own personal journey of growing up in a rapidly modernizing India where Punjabi aunties in polyester suits and saris co-exist with designer handbags. Through the central character – an over weight, slightly morose Indian woman who features in this series of illustrations - I am able to explore aspects of past and present scenarios of being Indian and experiencing Indian modernity. 

Like most of my artwork and writing (which includes this blog post) these were all made “on the go”, cobbled together in ad-hoc, sans-studio spaces at my parent’s house in India, on my great grandfather’s monogrammed sofa, on an ironing table, while shifting apartments in Chicago, on airplanes etc. using materials that were close at hand and not always ideal for archival art making. Though outwardly limiting, this lack of a fixed physical [read geographical] space to make work has never bothered me as it is through the process of making (and in my research – through the process of writing) that I am able to maintain a sense of permanence and fully indulge my sense of longing for “home” that I know I will never be able to achieve elsewhere.

Growing up in an Army family meant Arti Sandhu covered a lot of ground in India from a young age. A love of drawing and customizing of her Barbie doll led her to study fashion at NIFT in Delhi (India) and later in the UK. Since then she has taught Fashion Design in New Zealand and the US with frequent lectures on Indian fashion across the globe. Her artworks, which explore identity and migration, have been exhibited in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Netherlands and India. She currently holds a position of Assistant Professor in Fashion Design at the Columbia College in Chicago from where she continues to pursue research and creative practice around Indian fashion plus global and local identity.


Reference List:
Breckenridge, C. A., & Appadurai, A. (1995). Ch.1: Public Modernity in India. In C. A. Breckenridge (Ed.), Consuming Modernity :Public Culture in a South Asian World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Rayaprol, A. (2001). 'Can You Talk Indian?' Shifting Notions of Community and Identity in the Indian Diaspora. In S. S. Jodhka (Ed.), Community and identities: contemporary discourses on culture and politics in India. New Delhi, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Russell, E. (Ed.). (2002). Caught Between Cultures: Women, Writing & Subjectivities. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Image Captions and Credits - from top to bottom:
Sad Farewell, Dull Reception, Sandhu, 2009
Laundry Park, Sandhu, 2010

Pah Sey Pani (Water), Alphabet Series, 2005, Arti Sandhu
Solan Paisley, 2008, Arti Sandhu, (Collage and pen on paper)
Modern Living, Arti Sandhu (Pen, acrylic and color pencil on paper)

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