In “Where She Comes From,” on view at the NEIU Fine Arts Gallery, curator Pia Singh thoughtfully brings together five artists working between the United States and India, each of whom explores that in-betweenness, that marginality imposed by patriarchal and colonial societal frameworks.
The curatorial theme is tied together by a series of early photographs by Sheba Chhachhi, gorgeous silver gelatin prints that greet the viewer upon entering the gallery. Made in 1979 while Chhachhi was still a student, “Subhadra” depicts a half-clothed ascetic who is living on the back veranda of a temple. Subhadra is clearly at ease with the camera and at peace with herself; though she’s living a precarious life, she exists on a level unconcerned with social mores or societal constructs. Chhachhi’s presence also helps situate the exhibition in slowness, a thoughtfulness that encourages long looking.
A nearby print and takeaway zine by Falaks Vasa stems from an in-progress book the artist is writing, “Shor.” The dystopian sci-fi plot follows a group of trans friends who, like Cassandra, are the only ones to heed a vision of a coming cataclysm—which involves fish raining from the sky, a scene depicted here in “soft horizons.”
At the center of the gallery are works by Chicago-based artist Kushala Vora. From the ceiling hang pod-shaped ceramic vessels, bearing words found in children’s cursive writing books: man, mango, queen. Beneath the vessels, on the floor, sit an arrangement of photographs, “Flowers have no name,” printed on transparencies and mounted on red oak boards. The photos were taken early in the pandemic, when Vora would take daily walks of the ever-changing flora near her home in Panchgani. Her hand gently reaches to touch the plants. Both series deal with breaking colonial conditioning, such as the desire to name things, compare them and thus cast judgment. The whites in the photographs were highlighted delicately in silver, another subtle, unplanned reference to Chhachhi’s earlier works.
That attention to detail also comes through in the sensorial installation, “Sapna,” by Janhavi Khemka. Visitors are encouraged to stand on a raised platform and watch a looping stop-motion video, playing on a TV ensconced in a two-sided room meant to mimic the artist’s bedroom. Khemka is hearing-impaired, and in her work aims to share what she calls her “visual voice.” While studying at SAIC, Khemka learned to use woodcut prints to create animations, learning where to put the audio by watching sound waves in the editing software. The resulting work references Khemka’s learning to lip-read from her mother, who passed away from cancer. In the piece, Khemka conjures images of anxiety and fear, of being unaware of impending danger, or of the stress of depending on her eyesight to communicate. Beneath the platform is a speaker, which vibrates in time with the video, so you feel the rumble of a thunderstorm or the whirr of a fan—for a few minutes, you’re sharing the artist’s experience of sound.
Slow processes are also on view in gorgeous dyed fabric works by Neha Puri Dhir, hung throughout the space. The resist-dyed silks—even the term is a perfect fit for this show—are made by folding and stitching the fabric, then dying it in deep shades of indigo. Often working with a circular form, Dhir’s work referencse both natural elements, like the sun and moon, and her own complicated identity, as an artist and mother frequently on the move due to family obligations.
Though each work is vital in its own way, for me the heartbeat is Ashwini Bhat’s site-specific installation, “The Earth Under Our Feet.” On the back wall of the gallery, a video is projected onto a drying slab of local clay, a holistic tie to the moving image itself, which shows the artist wedging clay with her feet. While wedging, Bhat reads a text on identity and belonging, positing that the earth is but a collection of footprints, footprints both violent and communal. It is absolutely worth the trip out to NEIU to see these works in person; while you’re there, be sure to read the detailed curatorial essay by Singh for more context on the interconnectedness of these artists. (Kerry Cardoza)
“Where She Comes From,” NEIU Fine Arts Gallery, on view through October 28.