Artist Chitra Ganesh — artist in residence at the Center for Women in the Arts and Humanities at Rutgers — is interested in the intersection of ancient myth and popular culture. Using drawing, mixed media, and site-specific as well as text-based works, the artist draws from Hindu, Greek, Buddhist, and 19th-century European portraiture to comics, Bollywood, and anime. She even incorporates Louise Bourgeois’ endlessly repeating eyes.
A solo exhibition, showing her “alternate articulations of femininity,” is on view at the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series Galleries, Douglass Library, New Brunswick, through December 10. On Tuesday, November 3, at 5:30 p.m. Ganesh will give a public lecture in the library, preceded by a reception at 5 p.m.
Ganesh’s paintings are dreamlike and stream-of-consciousness. She uses a process of automatic writing — writing from the heart and ignoring messages from the head — resulting in nonlinear narratives that combine “collective imagined pasts and distant futures.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by how dreams and their repressions shape personal and social crises,” Ganesh writes. “My installation, photography, and sculptural work is inspired by mythological narratives, present day imperialism, queer politics, lyric poetry, and erased moments in South Asian history. Taking these stories and integrating them with my own mythic imagery, the hybrid world of drawing and sculpture articulate both historical conflict and psychic transformation. Much of my visual vocabulary engages the term junglee, an old Indian idiom that describes women who transgress social norms.”
The exhibition’s opening work, “Hers, An Inner Web,” shows a feathered, mirrored figure with one eye where a head might be, seated on a claw-footed chair, crossing her own three legs — clad in polka dots and Mary Janes. Hands, adorned with purple stones for fingernails, are also crossed. To one side, fangs protruding from a woman’s lips are lassoed by a silver chain. The artist asks her viewers to “seek and consider new narratives of sexuality and power.” These images hint at the confusing expectations and pressures on women, to be both girlish and seductress, to be beautifully soft and yet have the power to bite and sting.
“The Wipe” is an intimate moment with a roll of toilet paper suspended from a broken limb, either a tree or a human hand. Conjoined women have two heads, four arms, and noses descending into arms, making them look like elephants, and suggesting the Hindu god Ganesh — coincidentally the artist’s last name. The lower end of these conjoined figures forms a sort of mermaid fin, or tail, and one of those four hands — this one with about seven fingers — is wiping the yoni.
Other works show women in impossible contortions, holding scissors, one with no arms but six breasts equipped with eyes. Recurring themes are conjoined figures, eyes, fangs, claw-like fingernails, and truncated body parts. Ganesh employs materials from the sewing box — beads, eyes, sequins, and mesh — materials historically associated with female crafters.
“Rabbit Hole,” an animated video, combines Ganesh’s imagery with a scene from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a goddess in the place of the Cheshire cat, wagging its tail in a tree while the main figure makes her descent into the dark pit.
Chitra Ganesh is the artist’s given name. Chitra means painting, drawing, or visual art. “I feel it’s a lovely coincidence that my name describes one of my greatest passions,” she says. “Having a deity attached to one’s name is also quite common.” Ganesha is the Hindu remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences, and the deva (divine being) of intellect and wisdom.
The Brooklyn-based artist has exhibited in India, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, South Korea, and China, and at PS1/MOMA in New York. Her installation “Eyes of Time,” 2014, was on view in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art’s Herstory Gallery at the Brooklyn Museum, a large-scale, site-specific mural of Kali, the Hindu goddess of time, destruction, and regeneration. The deity is a popular figure with feminist scholars and is included in Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” in the adjacent gallery.
Ganesh portrays Kali as a towering figure with three legs, three breasts, six arms, a clock with no hands for a head, and, in keeping with traditional portrayals, a skirt made of severed human arms. A time-lapse video in the Douglass Library exhibit shows Ganesh drawing her mural at the Brooklyn Museum.
Ganesh was born in New York in 1975 to parents who emigrated from Calcutta. Her family of bankers, engineers, and teachers encouraged her as the first artist in the family. An only child, she doodled stream-of-consciousness on whatever paper was around, and would hide it for fear of what it revealed about her. She was also a voracious reader, and when the family summered in India, she would read anything from Reader’s Digest to P.G. Wodehouse, comics to classics. She read Amar Chitra Katha, one of India’s best-selling comic series that retells stories from the great Indian epics, mythology, history, folklore, and fables.
Back in Brooklyn, Indian stores carried Archie comics — the all-American redhead was a favorite among Desis (Indians living abroad) — then they moved on to alternatives such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series.
“I have always loved comics,” she says. “I love that they are a medium accessible to a wide variety of audiences. I like the way comics tell stories and the complexity and power that the form delivers to young audiences by integrating image and text.”
At Brown University Ganesh earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and art-semiotics, then an MFA in visual arts from Columbia University in 2002.
At the Douglass Library there are two lenticular prints — as you walk past, the image changes from a beautiful woman to one with scars and then to one stripped of her flesh, revealing sinew and bone. The text also changes, from “The ocean itself a memory” to “our two time bombs ticking.”
One room is devoted to her comics, rendered with an artist’s use of color and form, with classical Indian bejeweled female figures, dismembered, also dreamlike, blended with comic stylization such as the word “amaze” separated into “a MAZE,” rays coming out of the last four letters. “I wandered through all those years, stumbling in the dark, searching for you: smells, spells, and broken scars . . . to be in the flare and the blaze of you, the opposite of digging up my own grave.”
In another room, two figures lie in bed. From the male figure’s fiery innards extends a long tentacle with a hand at the end, resting on the female figure’s breasts. Her eyes are closed, his are wide open, and a third eye emerges from the flame of a lantern on the night table.
There are views of the future, with a figure clad in a space suit and globular helmet from which protrude suction cups and wires. From a nozzle emanates the head of a bejeweled goddess.
At press time Ganesh was in South Africa, in an area called the Cradle of Humankind, about 45 minutes outside of Johannesburg. “I am working on a few new projects — a print project working with science fiction themes, an ongoing collaboration, Index of the Disappeared, with artist Mariam Ghani, for a new project that will be shown in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and some photographs inspired by the natural environment here.”
She is interested in multiplicity because representations, “whether of the female body or of immigrant communities, are often reduced to create narrow and constricting versions of the bodies and communities at hand. Think of advertising and entertainment, for example. In actuality, there are endless variations of how femininity and feminism are spoken, lived, performed, and imagined. I am interested in engaging all the imaginative possibilities of representation through the images I create.”
Chitra Ganesh, Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series Galleries, Center for Women in the Arts and Humanities, Rutgers University, Douglass Library, 8 Chapel Drive, New Brunswick. Through Thursday, December 10, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Chitra Ganesh will give a public lecture on Tuesday, November 3, at 5:30 p.m. iaw.rutgers.edu.