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Moving Materials: Reclaiming Histories of Migration
In the introduction to Exiles, Diasporas, and Strangers, Kobena Mercer states that “Migration throws objects, identities and ideas into flux…Taking account of life-changing journeys…deepen our understanding of the critical and creative role of estrangement and displacement…” Mercer’s statement empowers mobility, viewing it as a crucible from where creativity struggles into productive action. The dynamic movement inherent in migration, though troubling and unsettling, acts as “critical and creative” perspectives that ultimately turn victimization into agency. For artists Laura Kina and Shelly Jyoti, materials hold the power to invoke histories of mobility, to tell stories and to empower change. In a unique collaboration, Kina and Jyoti utilize indigo and khadi fabric to retell a story of a torrid colonial past filled with displacement and relocation. Through the processes of making objects the artists reclaim the terror of indigo’s past and enable the material to create change.
Indigo and khadi in India’s history move through stories of colonization, rebellion, empowerment and struggles of independence. Through these two materials, the artists examine patterns of migration influenced by economies formed by the high demand for indigo – demand that inflicted cruelty upon communities, but ultimately also worked to form and shape them. By reminding viewers of the fraught history surrounding these materials, Kina and Jyoti’s objects literally migrate through time and space and, in turn, cast a critical and productive eye towards the distressing history inherent in their chosen materials. Both in the creation and exhibition of the work, Jyoti’s Indigo Narratives and Kina’s Devon Avenue Sampler are displaced and re-placed into diverse spaces. From a multi-ethnic street in the heart of Chicago, Illinois to the small town of Bhuj, Gujarat, Kina and Jyoti’s work remind us of the innate motion situated within art objects.
From the outset, the coming together of artists Laura Kina and Shelly Jyoti is unusual. Based out of Chicago, Kina self-associates with a mixed racial and ethnic heritage. Born to Japanese/Anglo American Christian parents and holding a BFA and an MFA, Kina creates work that emerges from an academic and Western art discourse. Inspired by the ethnically-diverse avenue of Chicago, Devon Avenue Sampler makes visual the ever-changing diversity of immigrant communities. Jyoti, on the other hand, holds bachelor’s and post graduate degrees in English literature. From this literary background, the Baroda, India-based artist presents Indigo Narratives, a series that appropriately finds its inspiration in a literary text, Neel Darpan, an 1860 play written by Dinabandhu Mitra. Through the narrative of indigo in pre-, present-, and post-colonial India, Jyoti’s project traces hierarchies within indigo farming imposed by the British upon the indigenous farmers and craftsmen of India.
Through the three-part series of Indigo Narratives, Jyoti chronologically moves through the macro history of indigo brought to Bhuj, India in the 1600s to the colonial exploitation of indigo farming and craft and the subsequent intervention of Mahatma Ghandi. Now, in 2009, Jyoti arrived in contemporary Bhuj to work with 9th generation Azrak artisans to give form to her sculptural textiles. Descendants of migrating communities from Sindh and Baluchistan, these artisans represent a history of “interchanges within communities.” Thus, through the complicated history of Indigo, Jyoti’s work refuses a stagnant conceptualization of colonizer and colonized, insisting on the influencing powers of communities upon each other. In the final component of this series, An Ode to “Neel Darpan,” Jyoti created a visual conception of the literary play. Each panel of the triptych exhibits hawks with lotuses in their beaks rising over a ground with worms. The hawks, representing the British colonizers, twist and manipulate lotuses in their beaks. The lotuses signal planters, British and Indian individuals who acted as intercessors and translators between the British colonizers and the indigo farmers, here represented as the hardworking and severely underappreciated worms. Jyoti’s decision to utilize Neel Darpan, a text the artist likens to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin published just a few years earlier in the United States, highlights the importance of a text that shed light upon a specific and cruel political and social situation. In addition, however, Jyoti selected a text that was translated by a British missionary and distributed in the United Kingdom where it raised awareness among the commonwealth population of its own people’s exploitation of indigo farmers. Thus, Indigo Narratives highlight the impact of migrations as evoked by the spatial movements of artisans from Sindh and Baluchistan to Bhuj, by the collision of a British missionary and an Indian text, by the return of Ghandi from South Africa to India, and finally by Jyoti’s own movement from Baroda to Bhuj.
Such histories of colonization, immigration, transnationalism, and the collision and influence of cultures upon one another are as relevant in the American diaspora. In Kina’s work, the blending of cultures is dizzying. Devon Avenue, the multi-cultural stretch of Chicago that serves as both Kina’s home and influence, is situated in the heart of Little India and boasts a myriad of immigrant communities. The street, quite literally, explodes with signage signifying the intense diversity of the place. Kina’s work brings forth diaspora in all its colorful vivacity, and yet invokes the struggles inherent in migration and relocation. For example, in Devon Avenue Sampler: Eyebrows Threading, Kina re-creates a sign advertising the low cost of beauty services suggesting an immigrant-run business. While the sign advertises eyebrow threading and waxing, it can be imagined displayed prominently on a nail salon’s window. Such salons are typically associated with Asian women who have developed a significant skill in order to create a livelihood. Embroidered on khadi fabric and dyed an indigo blue, Kina’s work indirectly reminds of the Indigo narratives of India so implicit in Jyoti’s work, suggesting both the area’s identity as Little India and the economic struggle that, though contextually different, are experienced by both Jyoti’s Indigo artisans and Kina’s immigrant communities. Still, like Devon Avenue itself, Kina’s work extends beyond only an Indian diasporic identity to represent a jumble of cultures, interwoven but not without distinct borders. Kina’s work is a reminder of the strength of identity and history. While the subjects of her pieces hint at a myriad of cultures – Jewish, Pakistani, Russian, Desi, Vietnamese, Muslim, etc – literally woven into fabrics suggestive of another and specific culture, each one stands on its own. Kina’s Devon Avenue is no melting pot where cultures come to melt into one another, losing identity and inimitability. Instead, it is a conglomeration of cultures; each undeniably influenced and impacted, yet still determinedly its unique own.
Situated at this point of cultural collision where Kina and Jyoti’s projects meet sits another point of intersection – one as fundamental as their chosen mediums. Here resides decades of conversations and dialogues about the role of textiles in fine art. As art historian Paula Birnbaum reminds, “Since the early 1970s feminine artists have been using embroidery as a vehicle to reclaim female agency…and to question the validity of a hierarchy of genres in the history of art.” Artists such as Elaine Reichek and Judy Chicago have sought to “[unravel] the tradition of the embroidered sampler” to “critique the patriarchal and modernist assumptions of our culture.” Like Reichek and Chicago, Kina and Jyoti’s work resonate with feminist concerns and utilize embroidery as legitimate art mediums. However, Kina and Jyoti have both extended beyond a feminist concern for historical representation and instead turned their art into vehicles to assist women in contemporary society. By employing fair trade women collectives based in India to give form to their artistic concepts, the artists provide business for these collectives, owned and operated by, and with the purpose of providing, women with the “opportunity and the chance to earn a dignified living.” By turning their “high art” concepts over to the hands of craftswoman, Kina and Jyoti do not merely critique “patriarchal… assumptions,” but also tangibly affect lives. They reclaim not only textiles as a legitimate art form, but also the history of labor associated with indigo. They utilize the past to empower the women of the present.
Textiles, while questioning the [masculine] perspectives of high art versus low art, also arrest attention on the actual materiality of an art object. With its tactile quality, textiles remind the viewer of the objects very object-ness – inviting the viewer to touch, handle, and thus move. As Kina and Jyoti’s projects moved from studios to cooperatives back to studios and finally into the galleries for exhibition, they are shipped across oceans, adjusted and handled by innumerable hands, building and holding the meaning that will ultimately be inseparable from their physical presence. More importantly, in the journeys that each object will travel, the art itself will impact, remind of and change its surroundings. Mirroring the interaction of humans through migration and mobility, the movements of art objects inform and influence every destination.
Finally when these objects reach the galleries meant for viewers’ eyes, they will already hold weighty meaning from decades of conflicted powers in India, from cultures coming together in the immigrant-heavy society of the United States, from the empowerment of women, and from the transnational and nuanced diversity of the world. For Laura Kina and Shelly Jyoti, art is an enabler. It enables history to influence and affect the decisions of the present. Art questions and dismantles its own hierarchies to bring light upon the implications forced upon simple materials. Finally, it enables such implications to be questioned and reworked to create tangible change, not just in perceptions of history, but in the status quo of today’s societies.
New York City, NY
Michelle Yee is currently a doctoral student in Art History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She holds an MA in Art History from the University of Connecticut and a BA in Art History and English from Georgetown University.
Kobena Mercer, “Introduction” in Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 7.
Shelly Jyoti, Artist’s Statement, 2009.
It is important to note that Reverend James Long, the English missionary who translated, published and distributed the text, was arguably more concerned with the dissemination of Biblical values and norms upon an indigenous (and presumably heathen) population than with the rights of the farmers as human beings. A relevant and interesting perspective is presented in Purabi Panwar’s article, “Vernacular Dressing and English Re-dressings: Translating Neel Darpan” in Translation Today Journal, vol. 1, no. 2 (October 2004), 6 November 2009, http://www.anukriti.net/tt/vernacular.asp.
Shelly Jyoti, Artist’s Statement, 2009.
Eric Lai and Dennis Arguelles, eds. The New Face of Asian Pacific America: Numbers, Diversity & Change in the 21st Century (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center press, 2003), 240. Lai and Arguelles present the staggering statistic that “30 percent of the 22,000 nail manicure salons in the United States” are owned by Vietnamese immigrants, primarily women.
Paula Birnbaum, “Elaine Reichek: Pixels, Bytes, and Stitches” CAA Art Journal vol. 67, no. 2 (Summer 2008), 19. For Judy Chicago, see Paula Harper. “The Chicago Resolutions.” Art in America vol. 88 no. 6 (June 2000), 112-15, 137-8