Monday, October 27, 2008

The Migrant Artist - Interview with Arti Sandhu

Arti Sandhu has been in Chicago for one year where she teaches Fashion at Columbia College Chicago. She moved to Chicago from New Zealand where she had been for five and a half years. She grew up in India. I sat down and spoke with Arti last week. Note: click on the images in order to see them up close and in finer detail.

Arti: I am not from anywhere in particular in India because my father was in the army and we moved from place to place. I left India at the age of twenty-one when I finished my degree and I moved to England to complete my masters degree. I considered moving back to India, but decided not to. My mother says that when you are in the army you get a three and four year itch when you think that you want to move again. This two to three year itch phenomenon did drive me to move to New Zealand and then here, but I still think of India as home because I lived there the longest. My parents still live in Dehli and I return there about twice a year.

Elizabeth: Do you think of yourself as an Indian artist?

Arti: I’d like to think of myself as a migrant artist. You have a vernacular identity as an migrant because you don’t have a place of your own, but you’re always thinking about places you want to be. I did some writing about how people dress in this ‘migrant’ mode as well. You can have an identity that doesn’t belong to either one place or another. I know that here people think I am from New Zealand and in New Zealand people thought I was from England and in England people thought I was from India. I don’t know if I’m an Indian artist, per se. There seems to be a very spiritual vein to Indian art that I don’t associate with at all.

Elizabeth: But looking at your artwork, there is something ‘Indian’ about your work…the color, the intricate detail is reminiscent of Indian miniature paintings that depict Hindu deities.

Arti: I don’t see how it could be that I don’t carry some ethnic or ancestral seeds that make these things come out in my work. It is about India, but its also about not being in India. If I was there, I would not be making this kind of work. When I am in India I am photographing constantly. I take pictures of things that I would never have noticed when I was growing up or when I was living there. When I go back to visit, people ask, “Why are you taking a photography of that? It’s just a sign or it’s just a car or it’s just a cow?”
In my first series work, entitled, The Alphabet Series, I looked at things in India like rickshaws and other urban things. I showed these images to a lot of Indian friends and they couldn’t understand why I took pictures of things that are often taken for granted.

Elizabeth: Was the alphabet Roman or Hindi?

Arti: It was the Hindi alphabet. You know how there are children’s books that say “A for Apple” and “B for Ball?” That’s when I started making things again. I had this big gap between when I was making clothing and then all of a sudden life changed. I was in India in 2004 with my fiancĂ©, who is not Indian, and we experienced a culture gap. I was trying to explain things to him. He was really intrigued with things that we all took for granted when we were growing up. The culture shock that he was experiencing focused on very simple things like traffic or the language of signs. We went through a process where I was trying to teach him words. We had a joke and he asked me why I didn’t do a little alphabet book that would teach words. I made a number of these alphabet cards. One was of a toilet because people think India is the world’s toilet. I took pictures of everyday things which I don’t think a lot of people could understand because there is an expectation that when you take a photo you have to photograph something special whereas I was taking images that were quite mundane.

Elizabeth: I notice that some of your drawings/photographs include paisley shapes and paisley is also a very ubiquitous or mundane decorative motif as well. You have one here that is full of traffic lights and traffic cones.

Arti: There are traffic lights everywhere in India, but the idea of having one that says, “Relax,” instead of “Stop!” is really intriguing.

Elizabeth: Why would it say, “Relax?”

Arti: Traffic lights in India are not like they are here. The whole point of stopping and waiting seems sort of futile for some people. We went through a phase in Delhi where traffic was terrible so they promoted the idea that the red light say, ‘relax’ as opposed to ‘stop.” They wanted to let people know that stopping was like a little break you could take and that you didn’t have to rush along. This is very Indian.

Someone once told me that I take photographs like a textile designer. I didn’t quite understand what that meant, but I am always trying to find a pattern within things and to try to create repetition out of seemingly random visual stimulus. If you take something really ugly like a truck or a car or a traffic light and you try to repeat it in a textile manner it becomes decorative. I particularly like the traffic cones and how they can be repeated to form a pattern. The paisley pattern is the most pedestrian pattern I could think of because it’s so recognizable and pervasive. One rarely thinks of a paisley pattern anymore. It sinks into the background. It is so visible that it is almost invisible. That is why I use it.

Elizabeth: I really liked your work for this reason. Everything is about the double-take. You see a paisley pattern and so your brain makes this easy association, but upon closer inspection, you realize that the pattern is made up of traffic cones, stacks of low cost housing, traffic lights and other things that the brain processes automatically. You put these things into another context and it is kind of delightful. The images take on a whole other layer of meaning about the nature of design and repetition. How do these concepts enter into your fashion work?

Arti: I struggle with the idea of fashion now. I was trained in fashion in a very un-critical manner which I think is very characteristic of fashion designer’s discipline in general. At this point I don’t see myself practicing in fashion though I am still very interested in textiles. In my other life, I’m very interested in writing about fashion. Many people write about costume, but I’m more interested in how people make those everyday choices; how they try to express themselves through a mis-matched aesthetic. The fashion side of art has become more about a commentary on contemporary culture. As a migrant designer, my interest is not in the fashion I see in the place where I am living. I’m still interested in how fashion is being performed in other parts of the world. The creative process and the process of critical thinking are very much a part of my teaching style. The students are not just making clothes, they are also thinking about the idea of clothes from many perspectives. Fashion is the most immediate message board that a person has. People respond to fashion individually, but it is also a collective response. In the classroom, when I was in school, I was never made to reflect on fashion in that way. Students designed things as a product that could be around for a little while and then was replaced by something new. I try to impress upon students that clothing is an important canvas. There is a great deal of thought that can go into a garment.

Elizabeth: Is there a fashion designer that reflects your ideas, your aesthetic?

Arti: I’ve always been drawn to the Japanese especially Rei Kawa-Kuba’s work. She founded the company Commes des Garcons. I like that the label is Commes des Garcons, which means ‘like the boys.” She does work that can at first come across as deeply ugly, but very, very current. She looks at the meaning of clothing and how we engage with our bodies. It is, however, difficult to express this to students who are 18 or 19 years old who only want to make really pretty prom dresses with the sweetheart neckline. Trying to find a way in which I can express my agenda to them and then they can get what they want to get out of it.

Elizabeth: Are you currently constructing clothing yourself?

Arti: No. I’m putting a lot of effort into designing textiles. These could be made into clothing, of course, but the textile I make is really just about the textile itself. Whether it is made into clothing is something entirely different. It doesn’t fit into fashion design really, but it does fit into what I’m writing about. I’m trying to write about everyday life and clothing and the aesthetic that comes about subconsciously with the choices that people make when they decide what to buy or what to wear. If I try to clump together all of these ideas there is a mis-match there as well. I think my work is sort of indulgent to who I am.

Elizabeth: In fashion there are choices that can be made to either stand out or fade into the background. I see you having the tendency to want to fade into the background, but with aesthetic intention. Again, there is that veneer of the mundane, but it’s a kind of joke on the mundane or a celebration of the banal which is quite funny especially if you’re creating fashion.

Arti: I don’t like things that are overstated. At first glance, you see one thing, but when you see if again you see something else which is what clothing does. When you look at Commes des Garcons designs you don’t immediately think that they are beautifully made. Maybe it’s a design thing, but I am editing or turning the volume down in a way that they don’t jump out at you. It’s a hard place to be. I don’t get the fame and fortune. I make great connections with the people who connect with my work. They are the ones who are really looking. They are not interested in the loudest thing, but in things that go beyond the veneer. In my Alphabet Series there were people who made a cultural connection even if they were not from India. Many people think that if I am from India I should be making big orange canvasses with elephants praying on them, people with their legs crossed or silk fabrics tasseled in gold. I guess if I had done that I would be in a very different place, but I don’t think I’d be myself at all. Even though I’m not show-stopper, I have appreciated the people with whom I have made connections and I think that is more important.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Experienced Gatherer - Arti Sandhu

Arti Sandhu, artist, traveler, self-proclaimed migrant and gatherer of images, is a faculty member in Columbia College Chicago's Art and Design Department where she teaches fashion design. I sat down with Arti last week and we talked about her love of traffic cones, peeling paint, her favorite designer and her love of collecting images that most people would never notice. I will be posting our wonderful interview next week. I am also including a link to one of her favorite blogsites, masalachai. Check it out and I'll see you next week.

Monday, October 13, 2008


I sat down last week with two Columbia College photography alums, Sarah McKemie and Terttu Uibopuu, and talked to them about their collaboration. I often wonder how it is that two artists can put their own ego aside in the name of making something together. I hope this interview informs you on what it takes to do an artistic collaboration.

Elizabeth Burke-Dain: What is it about your work that lends itself well to collaboration with each other?

Terttu: A lot of people have asked us why we collaborated. It has much to do with our personalities and our coming together as friends. We wanted to do this collaboration because we like each other’s work. I like Sarah’s approach to photographing people. Her work is portraiture like my own. Sarah is not so predictable and she gives her pictures her own twist. I think she takes some very interesting risks in her work.

Sarah: I like the way Terttu can mix still lifes and portraiture. Her way of representing women and the way she is able to hone in on quiet moments that create a sense of intimacy is something you feel in her work. The viewer can definitely see what she saw in the moment she took the photograph. Terttu well represents the people she chooses to photograph. They are beautiful, but slightly off. She finds something beautiful in the women in her photographs even though you might not notice them if you saw them on the street. She questions them in her photographs by how she depicts them.

Elizabeth: Do you feel like the collaboration completed something about your own work through working with each other?

Terttu: When we started, we were just started to learn what we liked taking pictures of. Up until the point of this collaboration, we had just taken the beginning photo classes here at Columbia. We didn’t really know what we liked doing as individual artists . Doing this work together and by being playful, I have learned a lot from Sarah. We are different, but there are so many things I admire about her. I still learn from her. I have a strictly German approach to things. I like perfection, but Sarah is free and more playful. I like that. It has influenced my work.

Sarah: Both approaches came together, the formal and the improvisational, in this collaboration. We feed each other. The work in this project is something we couldn’t have produced on our own. We needed each other to complete this work. We admired each others ideas. There is no one else I would have done with this. We appreciate enough of the same things, but we also bring something different to the table.

Terttu: In working on and off for two years, our individual work has grown, but it doesn’t look like our collaborative work. I couldn’t carry the same ideas on my own because the work was about the two of us, about our relationship.

Sarah: The photos were about our relationship at the beginning and that’s what they stayed about throughout the project. The narrative of the relationship in the photos changed.

Elizabeth: Some of the photos looked like you were trying to go back to childhood by creating scenes from a remembered idea of childhood. In the photos, you seem to be in this transitional place between being young and entering adulthood.

Sarah: I definitely think that transition is a heavy theme in our work: teen to young adult, young adult to more adult. Even being together in a friendship and an artistic collaboration, we are in a transitional place. In some ways these images are less about having to grow up and more about the process of growing apart.

Elizabeth: What did you learn about your own work through this collaboration? Did it help you more clearly define your own work?

Terttu: I learned about risk taking, but that is directly from Sarah’s approach. One example is the picture of the mermaid on the shower door. There are no people in this photo, just the mermaid. I liked it, but I didn’t think we could take a picture of the mermaid for technical reasons. I would have walked away and not taken the picture for purely technical reasons. Sarah got excited about the idea of the mermaid in order to create a metaphor about our relationship. I framed the photo, but we were struggling with it. From this experience, I learned to not walk away if something doesn’t seem right or perfect. I never would have taken that photo, but now it’s my favorite picture.

Elizabeth to Sarah: Do you think Terttu is more technical?

Sarah: No. The tables are always going back and forth with ideas and other issues. It all becomes one thing. One of us has the will and the other resists, but we end up pushing each other. I would never have gone to the house where we took the photos if Terttu hadn’t suggested it. We made it work together. The initial challenge was like working on a math problem together. It’s hard, but it was satisfying to have figured it out.

Elizabeth: Did you figure out anything about your own aesthetic after this experience?

Sarah: I think I have started taking more risks and pushing boundaries. I’m not afraid to show an ugly or weird awkward side. Just take the photo and worry about it later. Push the moment as much as you can.

Terttu: We have always compared this collaboration to being in a marriage. We have to make decisions together. We surrender things in the name of the project.

Sarah: We choose our battles wisely.

Elizabeth: Did this collaboration help you to think of what you want to do next?

Terttu: We started the collaboration to get away from heavy thinking. Being in school you are forced to think about a series and larger conceptual ideas. For us, the collaboration was an escape, but as we worked on it, the things we learned in school started to make sense. We had to come up with bigger ideas and really think about what is was we were doing.

Elizabeth: What was the bigger idea?

Sarah: About being friends and what that means. It sounds elementary and sweet, but that is at its core. Maintaining strong relationships have a push and pull affect. Whether it’s your lover or your friend, you want to be with them, but you also want to maintain and uphold your own identity.

Elizabeth: Was there any attraction to Terttu because she is from Estonia and is not American?

Sarah: Maybe it did and I didn’t even know it. I like things that are different than me. I’m sure subconsciously, I was probably like, wow, I want to know about Estonia.

Terttu: Sarah seemed like she was from another place. I’ve never met anybody like her. She is not a typical American. I can remember the first picture I saw of hers. I was very attracted to her work. She is mysterious and her work has a lot of mystery that comes across. I’ve gotten to know her better over the years, but she and her work are still very interesting to me. In the future, I am exploring the idea of doing documentary work. I still question what the documentary is and how much words can add to images.

Sarah: I’m listening to our answers and thinking that maybe we are very different. I want to explore music and Terttu wants to explore documentary work. Maybe one of us is more formal and one of us is more loose. We need these opposites. Our answers reinforce that we are different, but those differences are wonderful. We have different things to bring to the table.

Thanks Sarah and Terttu. Please leave comments about this interview. Thanks everybody.