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  • Time is a Feminist Medium:A Roundtable Discussion
  • Urmila Seshagiri (bio), Chitra Ganesh (bio), Aditi Sriram (bio), and Kelly Tsai (bio)

The shock of form-breaking newness, the familiarity of ancient patterns of knowledge: colliding temporalities animate feminist artworks by the visual artist chitra ganesh, the writer-storyteller aditi sriram, and the spoken-word poet kelly tsai. Time itself serves as a malleable, expressive medium for these artists, whose wide-ranging and globally lauded feminisms uphold an ethos of art-as-advocacy. ganesh's oversized installation The Eyes of Time (2014), for example, features a three-breasted, clock-faced, six-armed goddess spread over a museum wall, counterposing the Hindu deity Kali's cycles of creative-destructive energy against the impersonal time of industrial production (Fig. 1). sriram's collaborative performance piece The Girl with the Sideways Bun (2013) celebrates the transgressiveness of a village girl's love for a god through playful alternations between contemporary spoken English and classical Tamil lyrics (Fig. 2). In tsai's Say You Heard My Echo (2012), a New York City play-poem blending the words of female survivors of 9/11 with the speech of three female saints, lived history and premodern myth conjoin in a feminist vision of safety and solidarity (Fig. 3).1 Each work combines the steeliness of a manifesto with the elasticity of a dialogue, and it is this combination that shaped my conversation about creative process with the artists at New York University's Asian/Pacific/American Institute in December 2016. As practitioners of complex feminist aesthetics, ganesh, tsai, and sriram aspire to untrammel human authenticity from [End Page 13] constraining cultural categories. Their oeuvres variously reveal the "beauty, dread, power" that James Baldwin, in his 1949 writings about literary and political truths, deemed art's highest calling.2 Channeling Baldwin's famed objections to the conventions of protest art, kelly tsai voices a collective credo: "We are whole, real, important, and relevant, not in relationship to, but just in essence as ourselves."3

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Figure 1.

Chitra Ganesh, detail from Eyes of Time (2014). Mixed-media wall mural, 4.5 × 12 m. Installed at Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum, 2014-2015. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.

What are the aesthetic manifestations, and the affective registers, of that essence? Chitra Ganesh's figurations of dismembered or monstrous bodies explore the corporeal-material basis of identity. Her paintings, self-portraits, digital collages, and multimedia installations engage the legacies of Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, and the Indian comics called Amar Chitra Katha.4 Ganesh [End Page 14]

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Figure 2.

Urban Harikatha performance still. Left to right: Aparaajit Sriram, Aditi Sriram, Shiv Subramaniam. Photo by Anusha Sriram, 2013.

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Figure 3.

Kelly Tsai, Say You Heard My Echo (2012). Left to right: YaliniDream, Kelly Tsai, Adeeba Rana. Photographed at Locating the Sacred Festival by Asian American Arts Alliance, HERE Arts Center, New York, NY, September 2012.

creates art about the scale of culture, locating composite mythologies and histories in the twenty-first-century plight of Bangladeshi garment-factory workers as well as in small mass-produced objects (toilet paper, barrettes, tinfoil). Her dialectical images reimagine and thereby politicize the terms of classical myth. In contrast, Aditi Sriram restores to sacred texts the contradictions and provocations that have been silenced over time. Sriram's Urban Harikatha troupe mobilizes the Hindu oral tradition of harikatha (or god stories) for contemporary secular audiences, breathing feminist life into classical as well as original texts. Radicalizing the achievements of C. Saraswati Bai [End Page 15] and Padmasini Bai—early twentieth-century women who first stepped into harikatha's male-dominated performance arenas—Sriram conjoins her storyteller's freedom to the improvisatory possibilities of Carnatic music's ragam and talam.5 And Kelly Tsai's poetry, film, and solo and collaborative performances multiply the formal possibilities of feminist auto/biography and history. Tsai traces her spoken-word roots to the multicultural worlds of Chicago and New York City slam poetry clubs in the mid-1990s through the early 2000s...


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