I could say many things about the upcoming two person exhibition and my collaboration with Lois Bielefeld. I could load this post with art theory terms, postcolonial phrases, race and political commentary and technical jargon. But it will not explain what this work has meant to me over the last two years. I will simply tell you a story.
Two years ago, I came back from one of my trips to India to experience what felt like a different country. With a new president, each day brought sensationalist headlines, new announcements and events that highlighted an increasingly polarized America. I needed to wrap my head around what was going on, observe, read, speak to mentors and friends before I returned to the studio, questioning whether my work was relevant anymore.
An idea slowly began to emerge that demanded more courage from me than I have ever given before. For the first time, I included my physical self in the production of a body of work. I reached out to Lois Bielefeld, who I did not know at that time, with the idea to explore how race is perceived visually through garment and skin color and how intimately tied the body’s relationship to place is. I donned each of my barely used saris and worked with Lois to produce photographs that show me overtly performing difference while exploring and embedding myself in the landscape of Milwaukee. We titled this work Reaching Across 5 1/2 yards / 8497 miles. It spoke to both the length of the sari fabric and the distance between my place of birth and the place I live in now. Over the next year and half we traversed Milwaukee’s pocketed and segregated spaces and experienced each other’s personal sanctuaries and the city’s public places of power. The result is a visual quilt of photographs that reflect different facets of Milwaukee.
Throughout this journey, Lois and I had many conversations- on her childhood memories of Milwaukee, on religion, identity, politics and art. We were walking by the Milwaukee Riverwalk one day and came across the American history engraved on its boardwalk. This led to discussions on how each of us understood this history, mostly written by white men. The burden of America’s violent and racist history weighed heavy on us as we discussed the Muslim ban, riots in Charlottesville, Standing Rock protests, police brutality against African Americans, border walls, shootings at Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and Olathe Kansas in addition to other racist incidents against people of color. I made a rubbing of the history engraving onto 30 meters of organdy fabric which then became a prop for another body of collaborative work with Lois. We titled this work that included 12 performance based photographs, What is Recorded / What is Remembered.
We expanded this work by reaching out to our friends, diverse women of different ages, races and sexual orientations involving them in a performance based three channel video work. It was magical to see how generous and willing they were to perform with us not knowing what the end product may look like.
The circle grew even larger with the production of an audio archive that not only included the women we invited to perform but also community members we admired and respected. This is an ongoing project that explores how each of us contend with history- personal, national and global and includes our hopes and fears for the future in addition to how we have come to understand what being American is.
All this may sound confusing – with subjects that are vast and complex, but it all comes down to the personal, the self and moves outward to the community like ripples. We hope that our work is the pebble that causes those ripples. What was an impulsive act of reaching out to a stranger in a desperate need to understand and build something together, has led to a special friendship and incredible learning. I have come to understand my community better, to gain comfort through human connection, learn from wise and knowledgeable women, listen to the hope in young people’s voices. These are the intangibles that are behind the work. We hope that you may feel these intangibles, invisible as they are, filtering through the exhibition and for those of you far away, perhaps through the images and links on our websites.
It takes courage to reach out to a stranger who is different from us. To have conversations that are uncomfortable and new, but if we approach it with a spirit of inquiry and learning, we may realize that we all have the same fears and concerns. You never know what might come of that interaction.
No art can be shared without the support of space and visibility. We are incredibly grateful to The Warehouse, John Shannon and Laura Sims Peck at Guardian Fine Arts to generously host this exhibition at their 4000 square foot pristine gallery space. A space large and generous enough to hold this work and share it with Milwaukee.
opens March 8th and will be up till May 31st,
The Warehouse, 1635 W. Saint Paul Ave., Floor 1, Milwaukee, WI 53233
Opening reception is on March 8th, 5-8 pm
The gallery is open by appointment Monday – Friday. Please call 414-252-0677 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Nirmal Raja is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in Milwaukee. She approaches her practice as a process of sifting and communicating sensations and ideas with varied materials and processes. Conceptually driven and thematic, her work straddles the personal and the political and is a response to lived experiences that are distilled and strengthened by research in the studio and through reading. She examines notions of memory, identity, place and belonging. Performative collaborations with other artists and the larger community have recently become part of her practice. Occasionally, she curates exhibitions and organizes and facilitates situations that articulate moments of connection and empathy.