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Nirmal Raja, 2014


Nirmal Raja is aglow from the inclusion of her work in the recent IAAC Erasing Borders 2012 exhibit curated by Vijay Kumar for IAAC, New York City. The ‘Erasing Borders’ exhibit is self-described as “ a richly provocative exhibition by artists of the Indian diaspora who confront issues of sexuality, terror, disease, the environment, racial and sectarian politics in painting, prints, installations, video, and sculpture…these works combine traditional Indian aesthetics with Western elements, and speak to the powerful experience of personal and cultural dislocation in the global village.”


Nirmal Raja was born in India and has also lived in S. Korea and Hong Kong briefly. After moving to the United States in 1991 she received a Diploma in Graphic Design from Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, a Bachelors in Fine Art from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and a Masters of Art from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.  After working in 2D media, primarily painting and drawing for many years, her work has recently transformed into mixed media and video installations. Exploring concepts of time, change and memory have been consistent in her work. In a recent body of work, “Continuum,” she explored visual representation of music, cultural distance and subjective experience of time. Her current research and art making involves the “ground” as concept and the diagram as archetype, symbol and process of thinking. She has continuously been challenging herself to find a satisfying means of expression and is unafraid to make that journey whichever way the compass points. One gets the sense that her work reflects a quest and her strongest ally and adversary is her own self. Currently, Raja lives in Milwaukee with her family and is completing her Master's of Fine Arts at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee this fall.

Learn more about Nirmal at

Interview by Usha Akella (Published in India Currents, Houston, USA, 2014)

"Each work I make is a sincere attempt that could not be made any better by more time or effort."


Usha Akella: Nirmal, I would like to begin with an innocuous question- Which artists inspired you early in your career and why? And whom are you looking to now?

Nirmal Raja: Since I did not study art on a formal setting in India, my techniques and modes of thought are very influenced by Western artists. My first encounter with Western art was at the Art Institute of Chicago where I spent hours with their exceptional collection of Impressionist works by Monet, Caillebotte and Seurat. In contrast to the vernacular representational visual culture that I was exposed to in India, I was very inspired by color field painters like Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still and their effort to distill the essence of the sublime. At present, I look at inter disciplinary artists like Ann Hamilton and Shahzia Sikander, installation artists like Do Ho Suh and Wolfgang Laib and video / New Media artists like Bill Viola and Camille Utterback.  I find that looking at the work of other artists immediately around me is an important part of my creative growth as well. The discourse and connections that form through really getting to know the thought process behind the work of my artist friends continue to trigger ideas and help me push my boundaries. 


UA: What do you bring from India and your roots stylistically?

NR: There are a lot of aspects of India that seep into my work consistently. For a long time, it persisted in my work through pattern and color and a need for ornament and decoration. Now, I am interested in more conceptual aspects of my heritage. I love reading about the deeper meanings behind Hindu rituals, yoga and meditation.  But this never comes through in a literal way. For example, in one work, I utilized pages from a hand written ritual chant book "Rama koti" (please change if you can explain this better) as collage material to talk more about writing and visual rhythm. In doing so the focus becomes abstract ideas of meditation rather than aspects of prayer and devotion. This work always reminds me of Agnes Martin's painstaking grids, her attention to detail and faithfulness to form. My intention is not to deny the importance of devotion that inspires people to make these time consuming offerings to God but to focus on the impulse that makes them want to do it in the first place. I contend that the very same impulse exists in Agnes Martin's work. It is this search for deeper meaning that inspires me now and there is no better place to investigate than my very own heritage. I will continue to return to it to learn more and make it relevant to my life and work.

UA: I’ve admired your integrity for years; the relentless struggle to find your artistic idiom. 


NR: Yes, for now, I feel like I have finally found the vocabulary for what I want to say. At present, that happens to be drawing animation and video performance. By giving myself permission to explore new ways of making work, I feel liberated and open to possibilities. The message drives the medium and the present work is demanding a medium that is time based. I may return to drawing and painting if my ideas demand it in the future. I really enjoy the process of not only finding the right medium for my concept but also learning new techniques and processes along the way. The studio becomes a laboratory for playful experimentation and unexpected results.


UA: You were unwilling to exhibit or sell for years till you satisfied an inner standard. Have you found it?


NR: Yes. Earlier, I never felt comfortable sharing my work because I didn’t have the vocabulary or the confidence to articulate my intentions. I also felt like I needed the academic validation of a BFA and an MFA. Having obtained both, I still feel like I have much more to learn! So, I am concluding that work will always be in flux because I am constantly influenced by what I read and experience. My work is a way to process everything. Each work I make is a sincere attempt that could not be made any better by more time or effort. At some point I have to say, this is it! This is all I have to say for now and release it to the world, knowing fully well that some people will connect with it and others will not. 


UA: “Home” “Immigration” “Identity” dominate your work? Would you say, the particular expressions of these themes have shifted since the 80s and 90s in general and in your work? Is the West/East dichotomy becoming passé

NR: With the groundbreaking book– Orientalism by Edward Said, the foundations of Post Colonial theory were laid. Ideas of the “other” and its relationship to power were acknowledged and negotiated. I feel like with increasing globalization and inter continental travel, the “exotic” is slowly being replaced by Homi Bhabha’s idea of the “border dweller”. The “in-between space” or “interstice” is embraced increasingly by not only immigrants, but also the larger population in general. Negotiating the dichotomy of my Eastern roots with my Western present has been an important part of my work for a long time but how I approach this perceived polarity has changed to a large extent due to these readings. Just as I have become more adept at negotiating the two worlds in my personal life, I have come to accept both influences in my art making. I do not choose one or the other but incorporate both. It is a continuous negotiation. I think it is naive for immigrants to reject this notion of “hybridity”. We are all products of our experiences and it is impossible to remain static. Change is the only thing that is constant and not acknowledging this universal law will lead us to not fully experience the present.

UA:  ou have a diploma in Graphic Design- has this impacted your work?


NR: Yes, I feel like my brief engagement with graphic design still helps me in formal aspects of my work. A strong understanding of color and design goes across any medium


UA: What does it mean to be a woman artist of Indian origin in the West and a Diasporic woman artist in India?


NR: There is always the danger of being pigeon holed into a certain identity when you are a woman artist from the east. However this is also an area where I have attained some resolution in my mind. I cannot exclude what is Indian in me in order to break out of other people’s expectations. Nor do I want to exploit my exotic heritage to grab attention. I am whatever I am due to my life experience in India and also in the US. So, I let both aspects seep into my thinking and try to be honest in my work. 

UA: Have you organically grown as an artist or have you been molded consciously and unconsciously by contemporary art standards? And if so, how would you define it?


NR: I think it is both. I’ve learned to incorporate research into my work increasingly. So much so that it has become the most important aspect. Ideas that percolate within me are often enhanced or evolved through readings and work by other artists. A germ of an idea can become a whole body of work by delving deeper and doing some research. Travel is the other area that continues to impact my work. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have seen so much of the world, to observe and learn from the way other people conduct their lives. My recent trip to S. Korea through the university, I am sure will influence my upcoming work. I was really taken with the landscape and the connection to nature on my trip. Also, we stayed briefly at Mihwangsa temple in the southernmost tip of S.Korea. The serenity of place and the meditative experience of time are going to linger in my mind for a long time.

UA: Do you find your inner “voice” or let’s say ‘brush” hampered by inner cultural restraints?

NR: I believe in the idea of “soft power”. Constraints and challenges will always be there. One can either struggle, make waves and violently break out of limitations or work with them while still not giving up a dream. My traditional upbringing has conditioned me to be as conscientious as possible with family life but an inner determination and not to mention my husband’s incredible support has helped me retain my passion for art making. It took me 20 years to complete my academic education in art- in bits and pieces, between raising children and moving cities. Initially I saw this as social conditioning and lack of strength. Now I see it as soft power, going with the flow and doing what I can within limitations. It’s like detangling a knot in a thread. The harder you tug, the tighter the knot becomes. Give it some slack and it is easier to sort through the problems.

UA: I identify your signature with the emotive and earthy as in the ‘Grandmother’s project’ and work till about 2009. While excited, I am still adjusting to your newer more cerebral work in ‘Continuum’. Comment?

NR: My work seems to alternate between the personal and the social. I viewed the Grandmother’s project as a way to learn from the life experience of others. At that point in time, I was looking for direction and felt confused about an appropriate attitude towards life. That project was as rewarding to me in my personal growth as it was gratifying for the women I interviewed. Strength and patience and most of all an ability to adapt to change was what I absorbed from them.  Continuum was more an academic and philosophical exploration of time as a concept and cultural distance, memory and history as content. The player piano rolls and the scroll format became triggers and containers for this exploration. The transition between the Grandmothers project and Continuum has a lot to do with my struggle to break away from illustrative work.  I am interested in making work that evokes rather than illustrates. For me, it should be a dialogue between the viewer and the work and this dialogue may be different for each and every person who views the very same work. The Grandmothers project involved narrative portraits that were steeped in specificity. It straddled the definitions of oral history, documentary and illustration while “Continuum” was a more open, conceptual exploration. It should be a dialogue between the viewer and the work and this dialogue may be different for each and every person who views the very same work. The Grandmothers project involved narrative portraits of others illustrated by me while “Continuum” was a conceptual exploration.  My present work continues along these lines but is more personal. I incorporate the Shri Yantra as a diagrammatic archetype and use it as a cultural symbol that I negotiate through video performance. I make connections across cultures using line and the universal urge to use diagramming as a mode for thinking. Geometry has been used to represent the indescribable in many cultures. I personalize this exploration through video performance and installations. 

UA: Do you see collaborations with other art forms as a possibility in the future and how would you foresee that cross over?


NR: I have several ideas for future work. I am fascinated by line and its power to express with brevity- paring things down to the essential. A line can be used to denote so many  different things- a river, a thread, a boundary , a threshold. It can also express serenity or struggle, action or stability, a moment or a continuum, fracture or unity. All of this can be addressed with such simplicity though line. . I am contemplating an interactive work that investigates lineI am contemplating an interactive work that incorporates the line. Although my recent exposure to interactive and video work has me really excited about the possibilities, I need to acknowledge that it is better for me to collaborate with people who have been doing this for years and my work is better served by collaborating with them. My recent research also has me thinking about movement and relationality of the human body. I am contemplating a collaborative work with a local classical dancer. There are two oral history projects brewing in my mind. One is a website for the documentation of Indian American stories and the other is a documentary on old Chennai. I have come to acknowledge that projects like these are better when collaborating with experts in that particular field. For example, I am looking for a documentary filmmaker or a web designer in Chennai for the two oral history projects. I think the most important aspect of collaborating is a meeting of minds. The discourse that happens when two people meet for a common goal can be invigorating, inspiring and powerful when approached with an attitude of willingness to listen and also contribute.

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