Sharmistha Ray: In Search of Rainbows
Exploring Love & Sexuality in Sharmistha’s Art
By Koel Chakraborty
Sharmistha Ray aims to address the issues of sexuality with the help of a paintbrush. Her works speak of a sublime confidence that is also reflective of the openness of the youth of India today. One of the things that struck me even before I interviewed her was her foray into the transcendental spaces. A lot of her work oscillates between the esoteric and the familiar, a brilliant way to talk about gender and the human sexuality spectrum. Sharmistha lives and works by the adage of noted painter Georgia O’Keeffe, ‘Making your unknown known is the important thing’. Taking that as a cue, with the help of this interview, I tried to explore if and/or how coming out has helped her evolve an artist.
Here is an excerpt from the interview.
Do you think India is inching on to a more open space for queer artists?
I’m careful about making pronouncements about our culture, primarily because it’s not a fixed thing. Situations appear to change dramatically, and just when it appears there is change, we have taken a few steps back as was the case with the Supreme Court’s stay of IPC 377 a few years ago. I do believe that I exist in a privileged space, and especially given my insider-outsider status, probably have the freedom to say and do a lot more than others. That said, I’m not an activist, unless you see that being channeled indirectly through my art making. Activists work on the frontlines to change laws and policies in our society. Artists confront an inner reality. My inner reality is that I have embraced my truth, so that reflects in my work. Ultimately, that does translate into a more open space for expression. But I don’t think that’s everyone’s reality at present.
Have you noted any difference in the landscape of the industry for queer women in India and abroad? What are your thoughts on inclusivity in the Indian arts space?
Recently, the Guerilla Girls, those Gorilla-mask wearing feminist freedom fighters for the arts, were on the The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. They emerged on the art scene in New York in the latter day of second-wave feminism in the mid-80’s. That time also frames the cusp of third-wave gender politics. They are still here. They are still relevant. Why? Apparently, you still have to be a naked woman to get into a major museum. The throne of culture is still reserved for men, and not all men, predominantly straight white men. We are still struggling with feminism, with gender discrimination. Within this, queer politics is a tiny margin within the conversation. There’s no industry. There are some fantastic women who are queer who are making compelling work, and a smaller percentage of them are making work that addresses gender and sexuality. They are lucky if there’s a conversation happening around what they do. They are even luckier if there’s a market for their work. In the visual arts, you can’t rely on identity politics to get ahead. The work itself has to be very, very good. The space for queer artists and queer art is wide open for new talent in all art forms, and it’s critical to engage with these social issues. But no one should do it expecting fame, acclaim or money. They should do it because it compels them, and it’s an important thing to do. I like the work that Blank Noise is doing, for instance. Chitra Ganesh and Tejal Shah are queer and feminist, and have been quite successful.
Do you strive to push the boundaries of gender and sexuality through your work? Why do you think it’s important to push and open up those boundaries?
My art making is a sacred space into which I pour my psyche. That space doesn’t really have a name. For some people, the name is important, and certainly, in my outer life, I’ve pushed many boundaries with my appearance, the way I present myself, and the views I continue to challenge on a daily basis. In that sense, I suppose I am sort of an accidental activist. I believe it’s important to be who you are, and to stand up for it, no matter how difficult that may be. I believe it’s important to be a role model for all those who may be fighting with themselves, with their families and loved ones, just to stay true to who they are. Society needs names, so boundaries exist. There are no boundaries when you are alone in the studio. I’ve made work that addresses an intimate approach to the female body, and I also talk about “queering” as the primary lens through which to look at my work. However, if most people want to enjoy it from the perspective of beauty and aesthetics too, that is also valuable. As an artist, it’s important not to limit the possible interpretations of your own work.
An artist has the right to express herself through her work. However, she is denied the same rights in a public space. How do you seek to explore the identity struggle vis-à-vis freedom of expression?
True, an artist has the right to express herself through her work, but she has to be equally open to the reality that she may be ignored, overlooked or misunderstood once the work enters the public domain. Audience is a highly complex thing for an artist, which is why art has resided primarily in rarefied spaces like museums and galleries. It requires a high-level of education to engage with art else it can be easily misconstrued. My work in the space of gender and sexuality is more abstract, than literal. It encompasses expressive abstraction, nude paintings and intimate drawings of women. Currently, I am working on a large-scale installation that addresses feminist narratives.
The best art in my mind is boundless. It is effortlessly androgynous so you don’t know if it was a man or woman that made it, whether that man or woman was queer or not. Art is a space for open enquiry, in the Utopian sense, but the world we live in is not Utopian. It’s a kind of post-dystopia that is unraveling constantly. There are many, many successful male artists abroad who are openly gay or bisexual. That is not a limited space anymore. But for women, the story is vastly different. It comes down to power, and who controls the art world. I highly recommend watching the short video interview of the Guerilla Girls I mentioned earlier. It says it all.