Jaishri Abichandani: Flower-Headed Children

The New York Times’ Jillian Steinhauer called Flower-Headed Children “a feminist vision of abundance”

Hyperallergic’s Eva Recinos said: “The show is a reminder that South Asian contemporary artists are ready to be heard, whether or not institutions want to catch up.”

The Art Newspaper called Flower-Headed Children “one of the best shows to see” during Frieze Week in Los Angeles.

The work of Brooklyn-based multimedia artist Jaishri Abichandani responds to her experiences navigating her South Asian heritage and her identity as a woman of color, from immigrating to the United States from India as a teenager, to forging deep connections with anti-racist and feminist activist groups. Abichandani’s painted portraits and imaginative sculptures celebrate feminist and queer bodies, taking their forms from Indian classical art, but their subjects come from contemporary South Asian diaspora culture and activism. While South Asians are increasingly visible in U.S. politics, this diverse population is divided by national, regional, religious, and caste differences, and externally marginalized by a national discourse on race that casts the community as perpetually foreign. For more than 25 years, Jaishri Abichandani has been building spaces where South Asian women, femmes, and queer people can meet in creative community. This has been her focus as a founder of South Asian Women’s Creative Coalition in New York and London, as the inaugural Director of Public Events and Projects at the Queens Museum of Art, and as a Consulting Curator for the Ford Foundation Gallery, and it remains an important aspect of her visual art practice today.

The exhibition includes Abichandani’s ongoing portrait series, Jasmine Blooms at Night, now numbered at over 40 paintings and sculptures, which celebrates the contributions of South Asian women and femmes to 21st century culture and politics in the U.S. Also included are Abichandani’s ornate sculptural works which emulate the lithe, elegant postures of Indian devotional art, appearing as gods, serene even in arduous postures. Forms from Hindu, Buddhist, and African art are often Abichandani’s source material, while her subject matter comes from the inclusive and dynamic queer community that she builds around her art and activism, which extends from her home in Brooklyn to London, Toronto, Mumbai, and around the globe.

South Asian aesthetics inform Abichandani’s approach to art practice which is grounded in Rasa theory, a philosophy originating in medieval Sanskrit texts and re-popularized by Satyajit Ray and other Indian modernists that posits all art as an act of psychic and emotional transference between maker and audience. Using South Asian materials such as gold brocade or zari, silk, floral garlands, and costume jewelry, Abichandani’s artworks vivify their environments to activate the global, feminist ramifications of Rasa theory and broaden American art audiences’ appreciation of aesthetics that represent an unfamiliar cultural experience.

The exhibition Jaishri Abichandani: Flower-Headed Children was at the Craft Contemporary in Los Angeles from January 29-May 8, 2022.

Jasmine Blooms at Night

With the election of Vice President Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal to national office, the role of South Asian women in U.S. politics is more central than ever. Jasmine Blooms at Night celebrates civil rights lawyers, political organizers, culture promoters, academics, and performers—many queer-identified and members of marginalized Muslim or Dalit populations—who are making change for South Asian communities in the U.S. and Canada and working for the larger social good. The most recognizable of these is Congresswoman Jayapal, shown encircled by her gender nonconforming child Janak’s loving embrace. Other notable figures include New York Taxi Workers Alliance leader Bhairavi Desai, Sholay Events DJ Ashu Rai, Bangladeshi American labor organizer Nahar Alam, and Dalit rights activist and artist Thenmozhi Soundararajan. The series takes its name from Irish-Trinidadian writer Shani Mootoo’s 1996 novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, which celebrates the overlap of South Asian and African diasporas in the Caribbean. Originally commissioned for the Asian Arts Initiative’s 25th Anniversary exhibition, the series has been expanded for Los Angeles to include several new paintings of local subjects.

Kamala’s Inheritance

Abichandani embraces the complexity of western audiences’ responses to her work, which aligns with mainstream reactions to queer cultural expression in which an excess of visual pleasure can be experienced as grotesque. In her sculptures, the human figure is invested with surreal, psychic, or mystic attributes. Kamala’s Inheritance contrasts the visibility of Jasmine Blooms at Night’s activist community with a critical edge. Reflecting on the rise of California’s own Vice President Harris, this work’s bold appropriation of the Hindu religious (and sometimes nationalist) symbol of the lotus flower inspired the exhibition’s title. The bird makes reference to the Hindu eagle deity Garuda, as well as to the Greek myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. The Sri Yantra in the place of the sun represents the sunset of American Imperialism and the impending climate crisis. The twin figures gesture toward Harris’s duality: her hopeful affect and potential to lead Americans toward a more inclusive view of leadership, and her hubris, which can push her toward positions that have more flash than substance. As the United States’ first female, Black, and South Asian Vice President, Harris symbolizes South Asian Americans’ aspirations and struggles with assimilation and authentic self-expression.

Predator at Rest

Abichandani has been an advocate for women in the South Asian diaspora community and in the arts for her whole career, founding South Asian Women’s (now Womxn’s) Creative Collective (SAWCC) in the late 1990s as a brave space for gender and cultural expression. In 2013, she led a performance action, Freedom Safety Now, at the Indian Consulate in New York in protest of the violent rape and murder of 22-year-old Jyoti Singh on a bus in New Delhi, and India’s ongoing lack of public safety for women and gender nonconforming individuals. Still, it was not until the Me Too movement brought rape culture to the forefront of conversations in the United States that Abichandani was able to come forward with her own experiences of sexual assault at the hands of prominent Indian photographer, Raghubir Singh. In 2017, Abichandani led another performance protest, Me Too at the Met Breuer, in which she and a cohort of allies silently stood in opposition to the museum’s choice to mount a posthumous retrospective of Singh’s work. Video documentation of both these actions is included in the exhibition.