Homa Taj In Conversation with Chitra Ganesh & Simone Leigh on "Divine Horsemen"

Divine Horsemen: Chitra Ganesh & Simone Leigh is on view at Mason Gross Galleries, Courtesy Chitra Ganesh & Simone Leigh

Curated by LaToya Ruby Frazier, Divine Horsemen: Chitra Ganesh & Simone Leigh is on view at Mason Gross Galleries, Rutgers University until January 15, 2011.

Homa Nasab – When and how did you two meet?

Simone Leigh & Chitra Ganesh – We met several years ago through mutual friends and colleagues. Since then, we have occupied intersecting spaces in the NYC arts communities we inhabit, and in the process have begun to discuss and develop our overlapping formal and conceptual concerns. In this time, we have participated in residencies and exhibitions in NYC based artist-centered spaces such as Exit Art and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

HN – How did the idea of your collaboration come about? Have either of your collaborated with other artists before…?

CG – The idea of the project came about in thinking about how to further activate the relationship between our practices – which are formally quite divergent, but share certain key conceptual investigations. Simone’s work is object based and my practice is more focused on drawing. The piece isn’t a collaboration as such in the ways that I have collaborated with artists previously – where both of us work together to make a singular final product. In this case, the collaboration was more about creating an environment, or responding to a similar set of concerns, by juxtaposing and contextualizing our two discrete works and practices – Simone’s hanging sculpture and gravel drawing, along with my wall installation, together formed a response and way of rethinking some of the ideas presented in Maya Deren’s film Divine Horsemen.

SL – This experience felt like an outcome of a conversation I’ve had with Chitra over the years. I wanted to show my work alongside Chitra’s for many years because there is so much discursive overlap. This may not be obvious because of our use of different materials and approaches.

HN – To what does the Divine Horsemen refer? What is the premise of the show…?

The title of the show, Divine Horsemen, refers to experimental Film-maker Maya Deren’s ethnographic project exploring Vodoun, its origin and development, as well as the complex systems of signification that the practice of Vodoun mobilizes.

CG – I was first introduced to Maya Deren through her experimental film. My interest in Divine Horsemen, and further exploring the culture of Voudoun came out of learning of certain formal links between the Veves, or floor drawings which are completed as a part of the performative process, and the Kolam forms (line drawings made of flour, in much of a similar technique as the Veves) which have been part of my practice for several years. The wall installation I present combines my ongoing interest in the iconic femininties that mythic forms animate (such as Buddhist and Greek mythic narratives), and extends that interest by drawing upon the iconic power of colour within the tradition of Voudoun – each mythological form or deity has very specific colours and associations – much like the Orishas in Santeria and Condomble.

SL – I was drawn to Deren’s relationships with the subjects in her work and her approach to anthropology as a participant observer. Her approach to me is similar to Zora Neale Hurston’s travel journal, Tell My Horse, which is another one of my preoccupations. I have been interested in bad education and the impossibility of accessing Art histories that I am influenced by because of poor documentation. My often times anthropomorphic sculpture explores tropes of the black body as well as tropes of objects called ethnographic. This film dramatically locates the black body as site for both the creation of culture and transformation, as subject and object in simultaneity.

HN – Was there a division/ complementation of views where each of you would take a complimentary or contrasting binary approach to communicating your message(s)?

CG – Well, I would say we are both interested in both extending and troubling other elements which the film explores; specifically, in complicating binary relationships participant/observer & inside/outside, oppositions that seem key to how an audience might go about producing meaning in my work. My interest also lies in revealing the histories behind the ethnographic framework, which I would argue continues to inform a viewer’s prior visual knowledge, which he or she might bring to contemporary artworks that include visual languages and discourses that both exceed and question the Euro-American canon.

SL – Many of the other signs in our work are illegible because of a viewer’s experience or lack of experiences with the histories that we draw from. This includes experience with everyday rituals and gestures that I would include in the arena of African aesthetics that are the backbone of modernism and therefore the contemporary while simultaneously remaining relegated to the realms called subaltern or indigenous.

HN – How does your collaboration – as a transitory summation of your respective oeuvre, during the length of the exhibition – relate to the Euro-American canon of art history?

SL & CG – The collaboration amplifies the ideas we’ve discussed and the ways in which our practices overlap. It has also been an opportunity for me to respond to Chitra’s work as well as Deren’s. For example, the gravel and Kool-Aid drawing is a response to Chitra’s Kolam that inspired the work as much as Loa/VEVE in Haitian art.

HN – Talk about the various materials/media that you engage in this exhibition – murals, sculpture, installation, etc…

SL – I use terracotta, toilet plungers, graphite and gravel among other materials. I also used Kool-Aid, poured as libation on the gravel. This use of Kool-Aid is my first response to my research on the AfriCobra collective and the paintings of Wadsworth Jarell. In classic AfriCobra style an artist would use Kool-Aid colours in their work. They also discussed in their manifesto a style or quality called shine, a manifestation of black skin and hair. Jeff Donaldson, a founding member of AfriCobra, said that Jarrell “Want[ed] things to shine, to have the rich lustre of a just-washed Afro.”

HN – The nature of your work – Simone’s sculptures & Chitra’s murals – is intensely laborious. What does this sense of personal (craftsmanship) signify …in an age of digital mass proliferation (vs. mechanical reproduction)?

SL – My interest in objects began with a study of art objects made by anonymous [artist/craftsmen] in mostly west African countries. Learning how to make these objects was how my engagement with anthropology began. These objects  were usually made by women. Accumulation as a discussion about women’s work and essentialist ideas critiqued in feminism is another source that supports my continued use of objects made by my own hand. Lastly improvisation, as a goal in African American aesthetics, emerges out of a high level of craftsmanship and has always been a personal goal in how I want my work to develop.

CG – The presence of the hand – my interest in using certain kinds of line quality as a key element in communicating visual narrative – has always been a part of my work. The sculptural elements in my work, which are frequently mass-produced, whether these are party confetti used to stuff Easter baskets, or printed canvas fragments of iconic eyes, taken from Bollywood album covers and hand-painted idols of Hindu deities, activate a conversation between more traditional processes such as hand-carved linoleum prints and the centuries old tradition of site-specific painting, with the digitization of images and the centrality of cheap mass production that have come to dominate our everyday experience of 21st century visual culture. By overlapping a variety of palettes and visual languages, and incorporating both sculptural and textual elements into the work, I aim to provide the viewer with multiple points of entry into alternate mythologies of sexuality, femininity and power, where untold stories rise to the surface.

HN – What are you next big projects?

SL – I am currently in the artist-in residence program at the Studio Museum in Harlem. I am developing a new body of work for the exhibition next summer. I am presenting work in a show called Weltraum / Space – Exploration and Exploitation that will take place at Kunsthalle Wien in Austria, in March  2011. Curators are Cathérine Hug and Gerald Matt with the advisory support of Walter Famler. I am also collaborating with many of my colleagues including—Rashida Bumbray, Kenya (Robinson), Michael Paul Britto, Latasha Diggs, Uri McMillan, Dean Daderko, Khary Polk, Lorraine O’Grady and Liz Magic Laser –on an ongoing performance event called Be Black Baby: A House Party,  which I organize with RECESS Activities.

CG – I am involved in a few key current and future projects. I’m currently finishing up a suite of prints for my residency at the Lower East Side Print Shop, as well as work I will be showing at the upcoming Indian Art Summit in New Delhi. This winter I will be working on two large-scale site-specific wall installations –at the Helsinki Art Museum, and at the David Winton Bell Gallery at the List Arts Centre at Brown University. The second is a three person exhibition with myself, Nalini Malani, and Nilima Sheikh, two international contemporary artists working in South Asia, whose work and practices have had profound influence on my own artistic development. I first encountered Nilima’s work as part of a two-person exhibition with Shahzia Sikander at the Asia society, and Nalini Malani’s work at the New Museum of Art, in an exhibition curated by Dan Cameron.