Nirmal Raja, 2020
Nirmal Raja is an interdisciplinary artist living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She had lived in India, South Korea, and Hong Kong before immigrating to the United States thirty years ago. She holds a BA in English Literature from St. Francis College in Hyderabad, India; a BFA from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and an MFA from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She has participated in solo and group shows in the Midwest, nationally and internationally. She is the recipient of several awards including “Graduate of The Decade” from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She collaborates with other artists and strongly believes in investing energy into her immediate community while also considering the global. She curates exhibitions that bring people from different cultures and backgrounds together. She was a mentor at RedLine Milwaukee, a community arts incubator for six years, and is now a mentor for the Milwaukee Artists Resource Network.
Learn more about Nirmal at nirmalraja.com
Image Credit: Kevin Miyazaki, 2020
Usha Akella: Your work has turned more socio-political in the last three-four years. Comment?
Nirmal Raja: Anyone who has taught will know that when you teach, you also learn. I taught a course for three years in the art department here at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. It is titled ‘Multicultural America’ and it examined American history, race, representation through the lens of art, and popular media. Teaching this course enhanced my understanding of America and laid the foundation for my curiosity about all things connected to American identity and its historical roots.
My work always starts with questions. Sometimes they remain questions and sometimes they lead to a journey of learning and growth. The disturbing results of the 2016 elections were a trigger for me to ask many questions- Who are my neighbors? Do I really know the place that I have called home for thirty years now? Will I ever feel like I belong? What kind of future do my children have in this country? What is my role as an artist in a time of such change? How can my practice be an exercise of citizenship? I did not set out to make socio-political work but that is where my questions led me. Sometimes I resent that art is asked to take on an activist role when it should be anything the artist wants it to be. But art is also a reflection of its times and these are compelling times. I want to tap into art’s transformative power to bring about thoughtfulness in the context of current events.
UA: How did you come to the vision of using the mask as an artistic trope? Though obvious, you elevated its suggestive power. Please speak at some length on the recent work you’ve done with the masks exhibit.
NR: Fragility and feebleness has become second nature to us these days. But some experience this more acutely than others. Viewing the COVID-19 virus as the “great equalizer” has quickly been revealed as a farcical idea. The masks we wear have been ripped and the ugliness within has been revealed. Our healthcare workers, first responders and essential workers continue their jobs with danger lurking at every turn. They face each day not knowing if they will continue to be the same that night. They bear witness to horrific situations of life and death, suffering and survival in their raw “unmasked” state.
The mask has become a symbol for many conflicting ideas today; protection and consideration for others but also fear and partisanship. This thin piece of fabric has become a fault line where political identities are determined when it should simply be what it is, a feeble barrier against a pandemic. Many stories are being written on it—some about last breaths, some about courage and valor, some about love, some about inequality, some about survival, some about the ripple effects of COVID 19. Feeble Barriers is a record of our times as seen through the eyes of health care workers as we battle a mysterious monster in the dark.
When the rules for masks changed and masks were recommended for all in this country by the CDC, I started making cloth utilitarian masks for donation. I made over 550 masks and donated them to various organizations like nursing homes, grocery stores etc. The supply for masks had not caught up yet in March so these were desperately in need for essential workers.
My husband is a healthcare worker and we have lots of friends in healthcare who are on the frontlines. They were sharing a lot of information about the conditions in local hospitals and their own fears of being exposed. I wanted to document these feelings and the mask became a form to give voice to their fears. The first quote was from a friend who is a critical care physician asking "How did we get into this nightmare?". Initially the idea was to have him share a quote everyday as a portrait of one person navigating this dangerous journey. But it quickly became apparent that the project needs to be more inclusive and diverse. So, I created a "call to participate" and spread the word through social media. I invited health care workers in all capacities- nurses, physicians, first responders, lab techs etc. to share their feelings in short quotations. I received quite a few - mostly about their own fears, the ripple effects of Covid on their families but also the life and death situations they were witnessing at work. The emotional burden that healthcare workers face with the management of not only their feelings but also their staff and patients, is simply daunting. I also read a lot of articles and sourced quotes from there. I created a booklet of all my sources which is included as part of the exhibition. It is important for me to recognize the research behind the project and acknowledge my sources. Now, it has become a document for future research as well. In March, I also lost access to my studio and needed to work on something that can be put away easily. So, embroidery became a great medium. Each mask is hand embroidered on cotton organdy and machine constructed. I had a vision for this work to exist as an installation sometime in the future. So, I made the ties really long to take on more of an exaggerated emotive presence. I made one mask each day over the last three months. I posted an image of each mask on Instagram as a virtual document and for additional visibility because when I started the project, I had no idea whether it would be shown anywhere.
Brett Waterhouse from Grove Gallery in Milwaukee contacted me and invited me to exhibit in his gallery and that is what happened for the month of July.
I made 75 masks so far and have plans to finish the series at a 101. In the exhibition, these are suspended from the ceiling using fishing line, hanging approximately at human height. The intent is to make viewers feel like they are passing through ghost like forms that stand in for bodies speaking to them. Each mask has a number associated on the clip which corresponds to the source booklet in the gallery. This provides not only the source but also any contextual information of healthcare role, place and date submitted. The installation is essentially a room-sized book and each mask can be seen as a page in the collective story.
Links to this project-
2. This is the link to the gallery, last day of the exhibit is 7/30/2020 - http://www.gallerygrove.com/
3. PBS interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqjX6iXlT_0&feature=emb_logo
UA: Have you been forced to reinterpret the artist’s role during COVID?
NR: I think this goes back to my approach to my practice as place of enquiry. I seek understanding on all things through making art. As I process everything that goes on around me in my practice, the pandemic is one more iconic moment to dwell on. COVID has made me ask existentialist questions on human fragility. It has not made me reinterpret my role as an artist but has become one more trigger for exploration. Yes, the question did pass through my mind- If I had only today, what would I leave behind. But who cares if I leave anything behind at all; My practice is serving its purpose for me to live today with mindfulness and that is enough.
UA: What are some of your works that are especially relevant to you since we last spoke in 2010?
a. Vergence, An Orientalist Dystopia addresses questions I had about how the West views the East through a lens colored with
conflicting ideas of fear and exoticism.
In this installation I bring together a selection of materials from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s Special Collections and The American Geographical Society libraries and ephemera from my own personal collection, in an interactive and exploratory installation. I investigate how early perceptions of South Asia were formed and urge the viewers to form their own connections to the present. Most often, the West has seen Asia as either exotic and beautiful or dangerous and perverse. These perceptions continue to inform present day understanding of this region and people. I give the audience an opportunity to approach these materials with fresh eyes, reframed by the screen that surrounds the sleeping porch. Using this structure of the “jaali” as a trope, I surround the viewer with a deceptively decorative screen inscribed with a listing of ongoing hate crimes against South Asian Americans sourced from the South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) website. I ask the viewers to exercise “vergence”- an ophthalmic term that refers to the focus and alignment of eye movements. The viewers have the choice to focus on this list or look through the screen towards the blue lake and ignore the violence that is happening around them. By giving the audience agency to make their own connections and come to their own conclusions, I hope to bring attention to how our perceptions of the “other” have been mediated historically and how we make choices that unconsciously or consciously reflect bias and apathy.
Link to this project - https://nirmal-raja.squarespace.com/vergence-an-orientalist-dystopia
b. After the last elections, I wanted to reclaim the belief that one can look different, wear culturally specific clothes and have an accent and still be American. As a resistance towards the increasing xenophobia in this country, I collaborated with another artist Lois Bielefeld to make performance-based photographs of me dressed in each of my saris traversing the many segments of Milwaukee urban landscape. This work not only examined notions of belonging but also became a portrait of Milwaukee which is one of the most segregated cities in America. It takes a long time for immigrants to feel like they are home. We often stick to our own culturally specific communities for comfort and to retain cultures for the next generation. But it is not until you actively engage with the wider community that you fully feel like you belong. As a result of this collaboration, I reached a certain understanding on how I fit into this patchwork of a place I now call home.
Link to this project - http://www.nirmalraja.com/reaching-through-5-yards-reaching-across-8497-miles
c. There was and is much debate on historical monuments and what to do about the violent and racially charged roots of this nation. As an immigrant, we all enter the timeline of a nation midway—having to embrace a history that was not ours and come to terms with its troubled past. This debate on what to do with historical monuments with the burden of racial injustice laden history led to another collaboration with Lois Bielefeld asking questions about representation and exclusion and the biased writing of history. We connected with women from various backgrounds to make a performance-based video installation and an audio archive that focused on rectifying the lack of women’s voices in American history and spoke to how memory and history are like two parallel rivers of time.
Links to this project –
Together, these 3 major projects helped me understand that citizenship and art practice can be aligned together. Beauty and aesthetics can be more when partnered with relevant human concerns.
d. I also decided to keep my more personal, intimate and spiritual exploration of time, place and memory as an ongoing theme. I recently had a solo exhibition that brings this work together – “Wrapping Air in Cloth”. The title was inspired by an ancient metaphor form the Bhagavad Gita that states “Harnessing the mind is like wrapping air in cloth”- seemingly impossible. When my mother mentioned this metaphor to me in a conversation, I was blown away by its elegance to express our search for meaning. I consider the work in this exhibition as a series of propositions towards a macro perspective of the world.
Here is a link to the documentation video of this exhibition - https://vimeo.com/380005518
e. The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Movement led to two bodies of work. One is the “Feeble Barriers” series which I have already talked about. But the other is “The Wall Within” which expresses what I see happening in the country now. The struggle to revisit the ideals of this nation, push for social change, dismantle racist power systems, and reinvent a better country. The bricks stand for each one of us who live and contribute to this structure and how something like George Floyd’s murder can trigger systemic change and rebuilding of a country. I end with hope for a better nation and a better world.
Here is a link to this project - https://vimeo.com/436177645
UA: I am constantly amazed at the immense growth in your work year after year, Nirmal. Kudos! Looking forward to seeing more monumental work in the future.