Briefly describe the work you do.
Concepts of memory, subjective experience and passage of time are overall interests in my work. As a result I approach art making as a communication of sensations rather than production of objects. I incorporate many different media including video and video performance along with traditional forms of art like painting and printmaking. I use personal video recordings, releasing them from the specificities of time and place and give importance to the experience of moments. Fleeting and ephemeral, these moments are activated and brought to the present through installation strategies. Sometimes, I use video performance in order to pin these moments down, stitching them into a new narrative. Often times I implicate the audience in the installation to form unexpected juxtapositions through shadows and reflections questioning what is imagined and what is real. My work asks the audience to engage with the potentials in and of memory: multiplicity, malleability and ephemerality and traverse boundaries if only in the confines of an installation.
The articulation of cultural negotiation is also a big part of my work. The fragmentation and partiality of my experience as a transplanted individual with multiple identities is expressed through the incorporation of layers, methods and materials. Iconic diagrams and visual culture from my country of origin- India, never fully disappear much like the embodied cultural memory of childhood that leaves indelible traces despite the passage of time. Text and language become part of this conversation quite often. Non-referential text is used as image in my work often, as a tool for communication beyond language.
My approach to making art is very inter-disciplinary. I believe the “idea” supersedes all. With this in mind, I pick and choose the material/ mode of communication that is best suited for the idea at hand. This approach has benefited me greatly in terms of encouraging a sense of play and risk taking in my practice. I have chosen 3 works to describe- Emergence, Cloud Palace and Negotiate.
I had the opportunity to live or travel not only in India but also in Hong Kong, S. Korea, Thailand and China. Every time I come back to the U.S, I am struck by the change in the rhythm of life- the way people interact and live. One aspect that always takes me some time to get used to is the idea of personal space. Due to the density of population and difference in cultural nuances, personal space sometimes is non-existent in Asia. Nothing makes one more aware of this loss of personal space more than being inside an Indian temple during a crowded holiday celebration. The density of bodies gathered for the sole purpose of “Darshan” (seeing and being seen) makes the multitude of people feel like a single organism humming in search of truth.
South Indian temples date back to the 2nd century. They can still be seen today as spiritual and community centers. Known for their exceptional architecture and sculpture, these temples also have extensive murals that are now barely visible and often go unnoticed. Although they are deteriorating and decaying, they have a beauty of their own that only age and climate can create. I am fascinated by the texture and mystery of these murals and old temple walls. This work is about my experience of visiting ancient and remote temples in Southern India.
Cloud Palace is an immersive installation that is inspired by “Badal Mahal” a room covered with murals of clouds, thunder and rain in the Junagarh fort, Bikaner, Rajasthan (India) and dates back to the late 1500s. This is a unique space where clouds are depicted as all enveloping in rich blue tones. The other inspiration for “Cloud Palace” is an epic poem titled “Meghdoot” or “cloud messenger” written by a 4th century poet- Kalidasa. Meghdoot is a love poem written for his wife from whom he was separated. This literary work is packed with reference to myth and allusion, longing and romance. Most of all the work draws attention to the human connection to nature and place as the cloud traverses the landscape on its journey to bring the poet’s message to his wife.
Clouds have a very special significance in India. They are much anticipated as the carriers of the monsoon season after a long, dry summer. They bring hope and new growth in dry arid regions of NW India. Gathering dark clouds become metaphors of impending doom and parting clouds become metaphors of hope in mythological stories.
Clouds have long invited and provoked our imagination worldwide. Much like the inkblot test, the associations and narratives we come up with as we gaze up to the sky can be reflective of our subconscious. Cloud analysis is used in studies to predict natural disasters in present day meteorology. And of course cloud computing is used extensively now. Through remote servers, the cloud as a virtual repository of information that we can access at will, releases us from the burden of storing information- much like a kite without a string.
Negotiate engages an ancient diagram which functions as “form”, rooted in its history and culture, somewhat frozen in time. Many centuries ago, it was designed as a problem solving tool- the problem being, aiding the mind to focus on meditation. By activating this diagram through animation and performance, I release it from its specificity and “intensify” an inherent potential- one of “virtuality”. The evolution of the work is two fold. The animation dissects the form into infinite moments in time gradually building up and producing the gestalt of a diagram, at a certain point of completion, eventually becoming “still” and standing out as a “figure”. But my interventional performance of making changes to this figure activates it again, dissecting and morphing what is already there. Coupled with the looping installation, it becomes a never-ending repetition of transformation – of becoming figure and then disintegrating into the virtual and becoming figure again. The animation makes the cracks between each mark visible, bringing awareness to the perceptual “bridging “ that enables the marks to be perceived as line and the mind to “oversee” as diagram.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I grew up moving every 2-3 years all over India and then briefly to S. Korea and Hong Kong. I migrated to this country in 1991 after marrying my husband Sharath. For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be an artist. Due to several challenges, I was not able to fully devote myself to art making till recently. As a middle-aged mom and wife, the process of reinventing myself as a professional artist has been an incredible journey. I am fortunate to have had innumerable people in my life that helped me along the way. My friends and family, the exceptional faculty at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts, and an amazing support system at Redline Milwaukee (where I am a mentor resident), have all had a hand in my growth as an artist. Due to migration and moving, my life has been a collage of experiences. As a result, my artwork is a collage too- of these experiences ruminated, digested and expressed in visual production. Nurturing a poetic sensibility towards life helps me reconcile diverse memories of a fragmented past with the here and now and come through in my work.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
The course I teach at UWM- ART 150: Multicultural America and my work at Redline Milwaukee keeps me up to date on what is happening in the contemporary art field. Teaching Art 150 provides me with a space to foster cultural understanding among diverse racial groups through visual analysis and exposure to art production by artists of color. At Redline, I mentor two wonderful artists- Stefani Quam and Nina Ghanbharzadeh. Spending time with them, while problem solving, sharing technique and researching other relevant artists inevitably influences my work as well. I enjoy collaborating with other artists. Most recently, I co-curated the show Chasing Horizons with Christopher Willey (Villa Terrace Museum of Decorative Arts), collaborated with Jessica M. Ganger for Frame Story (Carroll University) and teamed up with Dara Larson for Transitions in Perspective: Myth and Mirror (Redline Milwaukee)
I believe that art cannot be made in isolation- “alone in a room”. It is a response to lived experience and interaction with other thinkers and makers.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
When I first started making art, I never thought that it would involve so much research! I am fascinated with what encompasses pursuing an idea. An exciting thought can result in weeks of reading, online research and failed experiments in the studio. I am constantly surprised at how when I think I have almost narrowed my focus, innumerable paths and questions present themselves which then take me into seemingly never-ending unexplored territories. This is what I find most interesting and exciting: going down the rabbit hole of art making.
I also did not expect to write and speak so much! Articulating one’s intention in the work through writing statements and giving visiting artist talks is so much part of being an artist nowadays…
I never thought video performance would become part of work. The idea of including myself as part of the work came naturally and unexpectedly.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
Since I still have a child at home, I try to keep the hours between 8am and 3 pm at my disposal- time that is truly mine. I set aside the 3 days that I am not teaching as mentoring and studio days. I know it is a luxury and I feel incredibly fortunate that I have this time.
I take a lot of photographs as part of my practice. They are my journal, my sketchbook and diary. These pictures may seem random but they are records of what struck me as interesting, inspiring, weird or intriguing. They find their way into my work through collage or trigger memories of a certain experience even if I don’t remember the time and place they were taken.
My favorite place to think is by the shores of Lake Michigan. I find the many moods of Lake Michigan fascinating, its waves calming and the sandy beach, a great place to mull over ideas. So much better than within the four walls of the studio!
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
In the past five years, I have explored other media beyond painting and drawing. I am constantly learning new techniques and modes of expression- printmaking, video, sculpture, installation etc. I find this growth so liberating!
I have also found the joy of teaching and mentoring! I didn’t think I would enjoy it but I do. It is so gratifying to see the spark of understanding in a student and the excitement that comes with it.
My love for materials remains the same. I enjoy the exploration of techniques like I always did. Also, my interest in subjects of nature, migration, culture and mythology has remained constant.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
I keep track of work made by my favorite international artists like William Kentridge, Ann Hamilton, Kiki Smith, Wolfgang Laib, Aneesh Kapoor, Bill Viola, and James Turrell etc. along with spending time with other local Milwaukee artists.
I especially enjoy reading and listening to William Kentridge’s many lectures.
Joseph Campbell’s work on mythology is a constant resource.
I find Buddhist and Hindu ideas of balance, interconnectedness and the cyclical nature of life inspiring.
My husband is the main influence in my life. He has an insatiable thirst for knowledge. His curiosity and attitude towards life – as a gift and an opportunity to learn is infectious, and my discussions with him have influenced my work tremendously.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
I would have loved to be a cellist. For some reason, I am drawn to this instrument. Maybe, due to its soulful sound that has a way of touching something deep within.
Nirmal Raja is an interdisciplinary artist and associate lecturer at UWM. Born in India, Raja has lived and travelled in several countries. Raja received a Bachelor’s of Arts in English Literature in India, a diploma in Graphic Design from the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia and a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Painting at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. She received her Master of Fine Arts degree in painting and drawing at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.
She has participated in solo and group shows in the Midwest, nationally and
internationally including Richmond, VA (Art 6), Parkridge, IL (Brickton Art Center), Queens, NY (Crossing Art), North Selam, NY(Hammond Museum), throughout Wisconsin and also in Jonjou, S. Korea and Bangalore, India. She recently co-curated a show at the Villa Terrace Museum of Decorative Arts in Milwaukee, which opened May 3rd, 2013. She has won several awards including second place at the Wisconsin Artists’ Biennale in 2012.
She is a resident mentor at Redline Milwaukee and has recently received grants
from the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Milwaukee Arts Board supporting the exhibition Transitions in Perspective: Myth and Mirror at Redline Milwaukee.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.
Nirmal Raja’s thoughts and work is a feast for the thinking and creative mind. It’s so good to see her independent spirit traverse her art; and yet how she links it with personal history, and her past experiences. Great interview.
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