As a 2018 Mittal Institute Visiting Artist, Rajyashri Goody’s art revolves around the complexities of identity seen through the lens of larger social, political, economic, and religious structures at play — and consequently the tug between power and resistance that manifests itself within minority communities.
Before this year’s exhibition and showcase, SAI spoke with her about her background, the arts fellowship, and the importance of art.
Since your background is in ethnography, how and when did you start making artwork?
I started to make artwork three years ago. I was working with my friend, Shraddha Borawake, a lens-based artist and photographer. My city of Pune does not have a strong art scene, and she was passionate about starting a grassroots community that would be a platform for artists to connect to one another.
The community is called the Good Artist, which is a bit ironic, but it also focuses on important questions like “what is a good artist?” The large-scale project that we were working on was an international artist workshop, for which we received some seed funding from Khoj International.
Shraddha’s work has been a huge influence on me. Her work is spiritual but it also deals with images, recycling, and retelling of stories. For me, coming from an academic background to spending time with her, I am inspired by her freedom from boundaries as an artist.
Over time, as we started working together, I found myself making my own art as well. From there, I got opportunities for art residencies, and my work consequently developed.
What materials did you use for your project “Skyscape”?
The Khoj workshop was open and we had two weeks of experimentation. The artists did not have to create something final – they were free to start something.
I decided to make a cloud of shoes and footwear using over 300 pairs of footwear. People would walk in and have a cloud of shoes hovering above them. Because I used volleyball nets, the shoe cloud would slowly lower as time passed.
Because I come from a Dalit background, I always felt the need to address caste in some way, and the cloud of shoes was an interpretation of “Purusha” or the “cosmic man” that sacred Hindu texts believe all people and caste come from. From Purusha’s head come the Brahmins, shoulders come the Kshatriyas, and so forth, and Dalits don’t have a position on Purusha’s body. Their status is below his feet. Having people move in this space below the heaviness of shoes gave the audience a performative insight into the caste system and its rigidity.
How have your exhibits been received by different audiences?
I have mostly been exhibiting my recipe booklet collections and ceramic bhakars. People can take the booklets with them for free. It has been fascinating to speak with people about them, especially at literature festivals, since it gives us a chance to talk about the Dalit authors and literature that the recipes are based on. Though Dalit literature has a strong voice, it is not as well-known as it should be, and this is my small way of gathering more interest.
How does your work deal with intersectionality of identities?
Without even trying, there is a definite female presence in my work — especially when talking about something like food, which women are inherently involved in, whether they want to be or not.
I am in the process of working on my own family photographs for this food and recipe project. I have been trying to crop out all the faces — at the same time, every time I crop photographs of the elements of food in it, somehow there is always a hand in the photo, and almost always it’s a female hand — whether it’s cooking, feeding a baby, or eating.
Men have written most of the autobiographies I have read because as first-generation writers who also were the first to go to school in their families. Even in these male autobiographies, when discussing food, there is always a female presence that is difficult look past.
What are you excited about in terms of this residency? What are you hoping to do here?
I have been attending a few classes on Buddhism and interspecies ethics, materiality and visual media. I am keen on learning and studying as much as I can. Academia will always be my first love!
I am especially interested in learning about parallels between race and caste. I attended a conference called Black Portraitures, which was helpful because I saw so many parallels between black narratives and Dalit narratives. It made me very hopeful that such big communities exist here as well and that maybe I can take this conversation forward. A lot of literature already exists on the idea of black hunger and the critique of soul food. I am trying to educate myself about that and see if I can make work later which interrelates the two narratives.
Do you have a process for condensing complex and layered issues into relatable artwork?
I am making an effort to have more fun with my art. When I first started, for example, the shoe installation was literally dark and so heavy, which made sense for the project. However, I do not necessarily want to bring people down. I want people to think but I also want them to see the lighter and ironic side of things that in a way could be more honest.
One of my recent works includes these gigantic garlands of rock salt and red chilies, called Namak Halaal. The idea came about from seeing photographs of politicians in India with huge garlands that they cannot wear made out of flowers and money. There are awkward photographs of a person standing in the middle, with their hands folded, and seven to 15 people holding a gigantic garland around them because the garland is too heavy. If they would put it on that person, they would fall. At the same time, a garland is supposed to worn, yet this garland is made too big, as if the person’s significance is much larger than their body.
When I hung the rock and chili garland in the exhibition, people instantly got it — just seeing this big garland that people would automatically go and even pose with it and take photographs as if they were some important person within it.
Though the work deals with a mockery of power and performance, it was hard for all of us to verbalize what it was about the very second we encountered it. I guess that is also a big part of making things fun, there is some part of your brain that just gets it but does not need to be explained.
Rather than addressing how to make work relatable, my motive is for it to be honest and be able to carry itself without romanticizing tough times or shower guilt on the viewer. That is all well and good, but the conversations the work generates can get boring and reach a pitiful dead end.
For more information about Goody and her work, please visit her website.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.