by Rosamond S. King
Originally published in “Engendered” print catalogue for solo exhibition at Diaspora Vibe Gallery, April 2007
Swati Khurana is not afraid to have fun – and she’s not afraid of kitsch either. Bollywood scenes, surges of color, and frolicking children and animals are staples of her work. These elements draw in viewers. Once you come closer, however, you are struck by more political – and sometimes more sinister – elements.
Khurana’s work is startling because it refuses the irony ever-present in contemporary art. She takes kitschy, clichéd images seriously, re-presenting them in ways that make them new and interesting again. But even while she addresses the serious issues of misogyny, consumerism, and globalization, there is always aesthetic pleasure – and often, also, fun. She skewers patriarchy and conspicuous consumption without falling out of love with the cultures she inhabits.
“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.” So goes the popular children’s ditty Khurana has excerpted for the title of this exhibit. For me, the phrase also brings to mind the song with lyrics “…love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. Let me tell you, brother, you can’t have one without the other.”
In first comes love, love, marriage, and childhood are often inseparable, as are romance and consumption, marriage and misogyny, and childhood and globalization.
first comes love and consumerism
At first, “Love in the Time of Sisila” and “Sisila Landscapes” seem to be uncritical of romantic love. But they portray love only as the fantasy of Bollywood films and material pleasure. Everything is beautiful and easy. The lush props – recurring fruit and chandeliers, protruding tulips, and enveloping plants – can be read as stand-ins for Bollywood seduction, which is ever-present but never consummated. The very unreality of the images implies that no one can ever achieve such ecstasy. Indeed, the near-absence of color in “Sisila Landscapes” comments on the truth of the more colorful collages – they are very pretty, and very emotionally empty.Like “Sisila Landscapes,” “Popular Pastoral” uses line drawings to present fantasy and material opulence. But there is less romance here. A few couples embrace – without looking directly at each other. Animals and oversize men gaze at unsuspecting women. The women smile and laugh alone, suggesting female agency and pleasure without men. Here, love and pleasure are not channeled into Bollywood heteronormativity.
then comes marriage and misogyny
Is the luxury surrounding the “Malabar Bride” comforting or suffocating her – or both? While the colors and incongruous scenes are fun to look at, they are also a bit unsettling precisely because the narrative is unclear. The brides’ lack of color amidst her lush surroundings suggests that the role of bride makes her only an outline, a sketch character who does not fully participate in her own life.
“Save 49,500 Rupees” critiques marriage and misogyny more directly. Each element of this installation, from Gandhi’s image to the notion of what is “reserved” by “The Reserve Bank of India,” could be deconstructed in a longer essay. And as with other pieces in the show, this work – the gold wall and colorful money with embellished drawings – is aesthetically attractive. But the more context the viewer has, the more sinister the piece becomes. The 50 rupee notes refer to the cost of determining the gender of an unborn child, while the 500 rupee notes refer to the cost of a girl’s dowry. The cost of aborting a girl is literally absent, but still palpably present. Looking at this installation, I wonder: Is the bride’s henna-decorated hand caressing Gandhi, the father of the nation, or pushing away patriarchal nationalism? And what is the earnest girl watering – what new life is she trying to grow?
then comes childhood and globalization
Childhood, particularly girlhood, is implied throughout first comes love. After all, if girls are not aborted, they grow up surrounded by romantic fantasies that will culminate in a very real marriage.
In “Garden State Reveries,” however, childhood is Khurana’s explicit focus. Children cavort in a land of plenty, filled with food, toys – and advertisements. The prices that appear in these digital prints suggest that everything, including children and childhood, are for sale. The ethnicity and nationality of the children is unclear. And that the very North American images of pancakes, farmhouses, and hopscotch are punctuated with Spanish prices only disorients the viewer more. Is “Americanness” for sale too? And to whom is it being sold? Here globalization is critiqued, but not necessarily condemned. Again, we see Khurana’s juxtaposition of outlined figures who seem less real than the colorful scenes around them. But while the scenes in “Garden State” are fantasy, the international commodification of objects and experiences, and the popularity of conspicuous consumption are very real.
Throughout her new work, Khurana welcomes globalization while questioning the pervasive emphasis on material wealth. While many immigrants and children of immigrants glorify the “homeland” and criticize the USA, Khurana avoids such simplistic clichés. Instead, she embraces a world of multiple experiences and mixed heritages. She does criticize our contemporary situation – especially conspicuous consumption, myths of romantic love, and gender hierarchies. But in the spirit of “third wave” feminism, she is able to communicate disapproval, even condemnation, while still loving her many cultures and their kitsch.
you can’t have One without the Other
In Khurana’s art, the “One,” the subject of the work, is often an Indian woman or couple; the “Other,” then is everyone who is not Indian. This already reverses the still pervasive trend of treating women and people of color as objects. In “Malabar Bride” and the Sisila pieces, for instance, we, the spectators, are left out of the scene and unacknowledged. But sometimes the iconic Indian woman is objectified, implying that she is the other. “Save 49,500 Rupees” and the “Least Suitable Girl Awards” recognize our gaze and challenge our agency. What anti-trophy will we give the women around us? Will we save 500 rupees or spend 50,000, or will we reject these limited choices?
The source materials for the works in first comes love reflect the fun the artist has referencing and recreating our globalized world. Bollywood, Motown, Ikea catalogues, Indian money, European landscapes, and American food all make appearances. As neither traditional prints nor photographs, the hybridization of Khurana’s process is as engaging as that of her content. She turns movies into photographs, photographs into drawings, and drawings into imaginary movie posters. Perhaps because she does not engage one technique without borrowing from another, Khurana describes much of the work in first comes love as collage. We usually consider collage to be the combination of various disparate elements to create a new image. The beauty of this medium is that it fuses familiar images into a new whole with a fresh energy and voice. Khurana’s collages, presented as prints, drawings, and videos, do offer a unique, exhilarating perspective, one that is authentic to her experience and to our complex experiences of plenty and oppression today.
In Khurana’s world, we really can’t have “one” without the “other.” She won’t let us. We can’t think about love without also considering marriage and childhood. And we can’t – or shouldn’t – see gender-based oppression without engaged feminism, the pleasures of globalization without its dangers, or politics without fun. The world Swati Khurana creates in first comes love is lush, unusual, and difficult – like the world we all share.
Rosamond S. King, Ph.D., is a creative and critical writer and performer. Her scholarship and poetry have been published in over two dozen journals and anthologies, and she has read and performed in venues around the world. For more informatin, visit www.rosamondking.com or http://www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/web/academics/faculty/faculty_profile.jsp?faculty=774<