Born in America, schooled in India, Maya Varadaraj has a connection with India that is unlike most first generation Americans. The multiple layers of that perspective play out in her heavily researched artwork. Despite having plenty of her own lived experiences, Maya takes an almost academic artistic approach to South Asian feminism, giving meaning to the smallest details. As a result, the audience, should they choose to take a bite, is left with much to digest.
Maya sat down with us to discuss her work.
The first artwork we saw of yours was your women & machine paintings. Can you tell us a bit about them – the thought process, why in most of them the machines carry the fabric pattern of the woman’s dress, why all the women are wearing sneakers, and anything else.
The concept for the work continues from Khandayati actually. While I was looking for calendar illustrations to work with, I ran into a lot of painted photographs and I wanted to do something with them. At the same time, I was really enjoying working with the machines. So as a new project idea I wanted to bridge these two interests together.
You don’t see many images of women with machines that are not highly sexualized or commodified, so I was working to build a new narrative visually. The machines “wearing” the same fabric pattern as the women’s clothing is to build that non-sexualized relationship between the woman and the machine. The choice to keep the sneakers in was just to root the work – I’m alluding to a lot of vintage poses, and production processes, so I wanted to leave in the sneakers to represent the performative aspect to the work.
I think the series can be separated into two distinct types – one where I’m painting more loosely and the women are not dressed so traditionally. The other where I’m trying to paint more traditionally; I’m also wearing traditional clothing and jewelry. I went traditionally tighter on the latter works because I thought it would tie into the concept more securely, but I’m not sure. I’m interested in revisiting the latter works in this series and reworking them a little bit. We’ll see….
Works from “The Woman And The Machine 1” by Maya Varadaraj
You have also done a series of ink drawings that focus on women’s hair. It’s something that many Indian women can relate to – the pressure to keep long hair. Why is it that in each of these pieces, you never show the woman/girl’s faces?
The style of these drawings are very illustrative and graphic, and I didn’t want them to be even more illustrative so I left out the faces. I also think it makes the work more relatable when you don’t see a face staring back at you. The focus is on the hair and you can feel that because there is no other reaction on the canvas.
“On And On And On” by Maya Varadaraj
In the piece where two girls’ braids are tied together…are they the same girl or different girls?
I think that is up to you.
“They Seemed Busy” by Maya Varadaraj
Your piece, Khandayati, has a somewhat personal connection, being that your dad has a machine business. Can you tell us about that?
I think machines in general are coming up a lot in my work and I didn’t realize how much I loved working with them and their aesthetics until I started working on Khandayati. I did grow up around machines since my family is involved in machine production and I’m sure that has something to do with it.
I love them, and I don’t like that a lot of the times their innards are covered up to make them look better. This is why I stripped all of the machines I worked with in Khandayati – it was also a nice connection to being “dolled up”.
Khandayati is on tour right now. Can you tell us where it’s been, where it’s going, and how it feels to have one of your pieces traveling the art world?
Yes! She was at Vitra Design museum, and then went to Museo del Disseny in Barcelona, and most recently it has arrived in C-Mine in Genk. The whole world is in standstill now, so I’m guessing the exhibition dates in C-Mine will be extended and she will stay there. I’m not sure where she is going next, but hopefully I can join her there.
It feels fucking amazing! I worked really hard on Khandayati and learned so much from it. I think for emerging artists, like me, having a piece in an exhibition that relates so well to your work is so gratifying. I was reading Victor Papanek in graduate school while conceptualizing Khandayati, so having it in his retrospective feels like a nicely packaged gift.
I’m so grateful for the Vitra team for being so diligent with finding work for the show – they have wonderful, insightful, and intelligent women in their team and I’m so glad I got to meet all of them.
“Khandayati” by Maya Varadaraj
Your piece “Death & Taxes” is one of your pieces that doesn’t really feel like it was influenced by South Asian or South Asian diaspora experience – does it?
I think it does. Death, the after life, and consciousness is such a South Asian topic, no?
Death and Taxes is not as objective as my other work I would say. I’ve always been interested in death, even as a child. Can you imagine what that was like for my parents? Haha.
I was working through some ideas and I was reading about hierarchies of consciousness and became very interested in how assured we as humans are in our “elevated” consciousness. Which led me to research consciousness in “the other”. I actually did a whole bunch of work on Octopodes and worked with a scientist who worked with Octopodes.
Did you know that Octopodes are colour blind but their pupils detect colour in their environment and they can mimic those colours to camouflage? It’s wild. Also we have 3 colour receptors and we see colours through the reflection of these 3 receptors, like most other animals, but shrimp have 12 colour receptors so their world is completely different. After learning all this I realized that we can’t really be sure of anything….except death and taxes according to Benji Franklin.
I thought it was a really interesting statement to explore. I was reading Deepak Chopra “Life After Death” as another form of research to tie in Eastern philosophy to dying and the after life, so it is all connected I would say.
“Death & Taxes” by Maya Varadaraj
Your collage work feels quite unique in that it seems you work with one image at a time. Is there a symbolic reason behind that “clean” approach to collage art?
There isn’t a symbolic reason behind the clean approach, it’s more of a personal choice – one that I feel most comfortable with.
I think I’m still figuring this out. I think one of the biggest hurdles emerging artists face is honing aesthetics. You see a million images everyday thanks to social media and the google machine. It’s hard to not be swayed this way or that way because you see something that you respond to. I personally feel like I make my most authentic work when I tune out of that.
That being said it is good to see what is happening around you and be clear enough to know what you want to use and what you don’t want to use.
Over the past two years (the length of which I’ve been fully committed to my art practice) I’ve tried so many different things. I’ve enjoyed doing all of it and I’ve learnt so much about my own practice from doing different things.
Collages by Maya Varadaraj
Can you tell us what it’s like to be a South Asian artist working in New York City? (broad question, but perhaps, how is your work understood, do you feel there is tokenism in the art scene? Anything else you want to share that we wouldn’t know… and our readers would find interesting)
I feel most at home in New York City, but being in the art scene can feel quite overwhelming because there is soooo much going on at every level. The nice thing is that you can find your niche because there are so many artists that work here.
Is it isolating? Yes, for sure it can be. I think that comes from having grown up in India and now living in the States. Initially I felt like I was caught in the crossfire between a largely Black and White discourse, but I’ve realized that I am a part of that conversation. South Asians are a part of the problem as well as the solution so it is important to participate. For me that participation has come in the form of, well, research. I’m learning the history of this country and its founding principles, focusing on how the conversation and prejudices of race have evolved. It is definitely informing my work. I’m finding that putting in the work is also allowing me to reflect my own diverse identity and interests more accurately.
Since I reference a lot of traditionally South Asian visuals, people generally understand where I’m coming from. That being said, I never had to label myself anything until I came to the states. It hasn’t been until the recent events that I’ve realized how much I hate that. I find that labels allow people to put you in a box, and worse yet put yourself in a box. Which is one of the reasons why I want to revisit my second painted photograph series, because I definitely put myself in a box and it didn’t sit well with me.
I’m grateful for having cultivated a network of artist friends, curators, and collectors who are interested in diverse conversations and work, which I think New York in all its loveliness facilitates.