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.

1 comment:

Arti said...

Thank you once again for writing about me!!! I have posted new works here