Their Stories

This interview was conducted on the occasion of the exhibition Her Stories (August 11–October 7, 2012) at the Queens Museum of Art.  The exhibition commemorated fifteen years of the New York-based South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC).  Last Fall, I spoke with several members of the collective—founder, Jaishri Abichandani; and members Marcy Chevali; Mona Kamal; and Pooneh Maghazehe—about their participation in the collective.


Members of SAWCC at the Exhibition SAWCC: Her Stories, Queens Museum of Art

Erin:  Tell me a little bit about the founding of the SAWCC, Jaishri.  How did SAWCC start and how it is structured? Did you initiate it when you were at the MFA program at Goldsmiths in London or was it here in New York?

Jaishri:  I first started SAWCC in New York in 1997.  At that point there were a lot of feminist activist spaces.  The organization Sahki was a South Asian feminist organization that we all accessed within the progressive community and there was a festival called Desh Pardesh in Toronto for ten years that was like the best of the South Asian Diaspora in terms of art, culture, and politics.  I went to Desh Pardesh for a couple of years, and wondered how come New York did not have such an event when we had the critical mass to make it happen?

The first SAWCC meeting was actually at the Sister Fund offices a grant-making organization.  One of their employees, Sunita Vishwanath, who was also a board member of Sakhi, offered us the conference room to talk about the possibility of having something like Desh Pardesh in New York.  I invited 15 women.  Actually, I invited 40 women and 15 showed up.  But at the next meeting, there were 25 women, a completely different set from the first.  It grew from there.  There was a really wide range of ages, interests, and disciplines from the very beginning—from academics now in their 60’s to young artists, dancers, musicians, and filmmakers at the beginning of their careers.  The only name I could come up with South Asian Woman’s Creative Collective and everyone said, “Ok, that’s good enough for us.” The name just stuck.

Then we got a space in the Asian Americans Writers’ Workshop.  That first meeting, we had seven presenters.  As time went on, we realized that seven presenters were too many.  We went down to two presenters and, for ten years, that was the format.  We would have monthly meetings that were South Asian Women-only spaces.  A different woman facilitated each meeting, presenting works by other women, so it was a way to bring in a diversity work from all over the Diaspora.  Ten years in, the attendance for the monthly meetings started to decline and we realized that the community had really changed.  At that point, we started to focus on public events.  Still, we have a listserv that is only South Asian women; we have Brown Eyed Girls, a writer’s group of only South Asian Women; and a Studio Circle.  And for us South Asian has always included Iranian women, from day one.

Exhibition installation view, SAWCC: Her Stories, Queens Museum of Art, August 11–October 7, 2012

Erin:  What are the internal activities that you do as a group?

Jaishri:  We started doing studio visits when I came back from London in ‘05 or ‘06.  Right now, Marcy and Shelly Bahl orchestrate the visits.  We also do slide slams and portfolio reviews.  In 2010, we had something called Process/Practice/Portfolio at Pratt University and had twenty-two women from around the country participate.  It was really instructive.  It started off with three artist presentations; we had Samira Abbassy, Yamini Nayyar, and Ruby Chishti talk about their work and then we had the twenty-two participants do a slide slam.  Then we moved into curatorial presentations and then individual portfolio reviews.  At the end we had a social mixer.  The Board followed up with studio visits and many women, including Marcy, came into the collective that way.  That seminar was intended to introduce young artists to older artists in the collective and curators in the collective.  Besides these seminars, we also host public talks, film screenings, auctions, and literary festivals.

Mona:  I was really sick that day, but I attended the seminar for 10 minutes and even in that short amount of time, I thought, “This is so incredible.”

Pooneh:  The SAWCC events are always very well attended.  It’s really amazing to me because I have seen so many collectives start and then fall apart, but SAWCC keeps going and growing.

Marcy:  I think it is because it’s such a rich community.  There are so many good artists involved.

Mona:  SAWCC is a very welcoming space for all different creative South Asian women, who have different forms of involvement, not just women from the visual arts.  There are members who are writers or involved with the performing arts.

Jaishri:  Defining membership has been a consistent problem, because it is completely self-defined. That also allows for a fruitful dialogue.  The way we function, as I see it, is that the board is a board of peers who function as the main decision-making body for determining the programming.  Then there are members.  Basically, you just have to self-identify as a South Asian Woman and an artist of some kind to a member.  Every time, we’ve thought about charging membership fees, the thought of the logistics involved defeats us.

Our pride event for June, Witnessing the Revolutions, consisted of three presenters.  There was Sabelo Narasimhan who is transgendered Indian and was studying in Cairo at the time of the protests and revolution and was posting pictures on Facebook of everything that he was going through.  Then there was Faizan Fiaz, who is from SAWCC London.  I knew him as a woman and then I watched him transition from a woman to a man in Pakistan while he was reporting on live TV.  The third presenter was Anjali Kamath, who is an Indian woman who worked for Democracy Now and now works for Al Jazeera.  The event wasn’t about South Asian queerness.  It was about the Arab Spring Revolution, but done through the voices of South Asian women with very complicated identities.

Jaishri Abichandani, Borg as self, 2012

Mona:  So it is a collective but it is a very loose idea of collective.

Erin:  Do you meet regularly?

Jaishri:  Yes, we do.  The board meets once a month and we have ten events per year.

Erin:  Can anyone initiate an event under the name of SAWCC?

Jaishri:  No, the events are pretty much initiated by the board, although members often come to us and say, “We’d like to do this.” If we think it’s a great idea, one of the board members will take it on.  There is a certain amount of flexibility, but because everything is done by the board in terms of fundraising, programming, everything, we have to have a certain amount of structure or we just wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything.

Erin:  Are there a lot of collaborations between artists and writers or people from different disciplines within SAWCC?

Jaishri:  Absolutely.

Erin:  What does it mean for you to have this community? How does it benefit your practice as an artist?  Has your work changed from it?

Jaishri:  When I first started out as an artist, I was doing a lot of photography, which made sense for me at the time.  At some point, I realized that I was not as interested in my practice representing my community as I was in my practice representing my individual voice.  The reason I became an artist in the first place was because I love making things.  So after I founded SAWCC I went from being a photographer to a painter, sculptor, and installation artist, so my studio practice remains more solitary even though my larger life practice is very social.

Mona:  I think for me the biggest thing is that I want my work to be relevant.  The support I get from SAWCC, doing studio visits, sharing readings together, etc., gives the work I do a different importance.  It is great to know that there is a community of artists whose work is so different from mine and whose backgrounds are different than mine, but we have enough of a shared experience that we don’t always have to defend what we are doing, because the others know what we are after.

Marcy:  My dad ran away from his culture, so I was always asking these questions about my identity.  SAWCC is a way for me to find my culture but since it is so varied and everyone has their own definition of what it means to be South Asian, I am able to find my own place but still have my questions answered.

SAWCC has definitely helped me in terms of creating a community.  It helps me to take myself and my work more seriously.  I know that there are people who are interested in seeing me and my work, whether it is finished or not.  I also feel comfortable coming to many women in the collective with questions or problems in my work.  I tend to be rather private with my work so this is saying a lot.  I am part of other communities but there is something different about SAWCC.  I’m not exactly sure what makes it that way but it is very welcoming and accepting.  Again I’m not sure why this is or if its related but I think of all the communities that I am involved in, SAWCC has the highest quality of work and the work that I am the most interested in, both on an individual and group level.  There are women here who have done what I have tried to do in terms of awards and recognition but also conceptually.

Mona:  I first showed my work with SAWCC in 2006 when I moved to New York from Toronto where I already had this South Asian arts community.  I’d been involved with non-profit organizations in Toronto, but I can easily say the support that I’ve gotten from SAWCC is far greater than any of my other non-profit experiences.  Because it is a women’s organization, it has a different set of dynamics.  SAWCC helps brings curators to my work.  It has also helped me meet people outside the SAWCC community to support my work and to support me.  I don’t know what my experience in New York would be like without it.

Jaishri:  I think that the intimacy of the exchanges is really important and really different from other professional organizations or Graduate School.

Exhibition installation view, SAWCC: Her Stories, Queens Museum of Art, August 11–October 7, 2012

Mona:  Where I went to graduate school, there was a fear of critical dialogue.  The students and professors were more interested in formalism, which was really hard for me because I went to grad school for critical dialogue and I wasn’t getting it from my instructors.  I don’t know why there was such a resistance to any form of social concern.  That’s why, in many ways, SAWCC’s great because I can have those conversations.  Maybe it’s having enough of a similar perspective and not being scared to say, “Well, I know what you’re saying but I disagree.” But when no one is open to that dialogue, it’s hard.

Pooneh:  I was in New York for 5 years before I really started taking up opportunities to be in exhibitions.  Some of the first people I met in New York were SAWCC members, but at the time politics and identity were not at the forefront of my mind.  It was only later in critiques and in reviews of my work where others were defining me in a particular way that these issues of identity became important for me.  I have gone through so many emotions in understanding not only what community is, but also what identity can be, and how two-dimensional it has become through institutions and media.

When I was accepted into graduate school, one of the first people I talked to was Jaishri because she also went to a really prominent program.  I thought that she was someone who could help me with this issue about how identity is viewed in the art world, because for me at the time, it felt like a problem.  She said, “Don’t expect to get answers, you are going to have to figure it out yourself.”  So when I had to integrate academia’s notion of identity that is more conceptual and distanced into my studio practice, it came full circle and SAWCC became a consistent thread.  The conversations I have now are less about what it means to be part of a collective than about what it means to be in a group that internally, has a very flexible idea of identity, but from the outside is judged very differently.

I am arriving at this place, where I realize the layers are much deeper.  We come to the table with a series of issues, not a beautiful graphic about our identity.  I rely on the kinds of dialogue I have with SAWCC members, even conversations I had three or four years ago, to make sense of what is happening in my studio right now even though I don’t yet understand where these forms are coming from.  Many of my friends from graduate school don’t know about this other aspect of my life.  So when I say I’m going to a SAWCC event, it’s like I am admitting that there is this other part of myself.  When I find someone who knows both sides, both dialogues, I am super excited.  My question is what happens in that gap because I am really in the middle of it.  My job is not to be a translator, but it does feel like there are points of conflict that I must negotiate.

Erin:  Are any of you part of any other collectives or organizations?

Marcy:  I’m part of a textile arts collective.  It’s a great group but it’s not as cohesive as SAWCC.  It’s rather new and perhaps that’s why it doesn’t have as strong of a community.  The artists are amazing, we meet every few months at someone’s studio to look at and give feedback on art.  We share opportunities and have relevant discussions.

Jaishri:  Marcy is being quiet, but she’s had a very intense experience.  She came in December 2010 and has since become incredibly involved.

Marcy:  I was in the ‘Look Left’ show and that was my first time meeting most of the SAWCC people.  Shortly after, I joined the studio circle and then the board.  It’s a really great community to have at your fingertips.  To work for SAWCC is really satisfying because all of this means something to me.  Its so rewarding be part of an organization that puts out such high quality programs and shows.  I really do feel proud of the work that we do.  It’s also great to meet and be in contact with so many amazing artists.

Erin:  And in terms of identity, what does it mean to you to form a collective around a shared notion of identity?

Mona:  It’s not like there is one identity.

Jaishri:  You can see the complexity of the identities in SAWCC right here.  Like Indrani Ashe and Marcy are half South Asian, Mona is Pakistani, Pooneh is Iranian, and I’m Indian.  We are first generation, second generation, third generation and all of our experiences are completely different.

Pooneh:  The common denominator is that we’re interested in the notion of community, and, on some level, understanding how identity is translated through the different facets of life.

Jaishri:  But it’s more than that.  Having this environment forces you to individualize your practice more than ever.  When you are in a room full of South Asian women, you see the repetition of tropes across the work of your peers.  And so, the way that you use those tropes becomes emphasized; you have to become more true to yourself.  Otherwise, the symbols appear false and the work doesn’t hold up.  The real crux of SAWCC’s work is to foster a supportive investigation of one another’s work—it is critique, but in a beautiful, healthy way.  It forces every one of us to make really good work, because when we go back to the studio we know how our work compares to our peers.  That is something we don’t get from being around a bunch of Latino, or White or Black or Asian artists because there is a commonality between our experiences and the tropes and languages that we use.

And then there are current events that we are trying to digest together, like the Occupy movement.  Naeem Mohaiemen is an artist, writer, and friend of SAWCC who is always posting different thoughts about Occupy and how he’s using the Occupy movement to deal with other cultural issues related to our communities.  So, it is not only visual artists but also writers and academics reporting on current events that help us make sense of our contemporary moment.

Chitra Ganesh, The Awakening, 2004

Erin:  And there is probably a trust you develop by working with the same people over a long time.

Pooneh:  Yes, and it allows us to add dimension to the notion of stereotype and trope.  If you understand a trope as a symbol, you can play with the nuances around it.  I think people dismiss the notion of trope offhand because of the word, but there is definite power in dealing with it.

Erin:  Deploying a symbol or symbolic system that has some prior meaning can have a real richness to it.

Jaishri:  Yes, Vikram Chandra wrote an essay called Cult of Authenticity which has been really, really crucial for me.  In his advice to Indian writers, he says, “Don’t be afraid of writing about the snake charmers and elephants.  These are as real as globalization.  Don’t turn your back on these stereotypes.  What you have to do is take them and twist them, wring new meaning out of them, and refresh them.  Don’t run away from them, because running away from them is as much an act of self-deception as anything.” His advice really pinpoints what we do in using multiple languages and symbols to say what we are doing.

Erin:  I also came of art age in the late 90’s, when there was a very different discourse about identity.  What seems to be happening now is a real struggle to define difference as an activating force rather than as a stable category.  To find people who can support one another in creative explorations that are sidelined from the mainstream is really important.  Traditionally, however, these same support networks also had a ghettoizing effect on the participants, in that their collective identity was often used by the mainstream discourse to dismiss them as parochial or lacking in formal innovation.

Mona:  I think there will always be a need for organizations such as SAWCC, because there is a ghettoizing effect imposed on us from the outside and we have to find a way to deal with it.

Erin:  Yes, but I think that the difference between then and now was that the prior dynamic set up an illusion of stable categories of cultural identity, that there was a dominant, mainstream, European-derived art discourse that emphasized technical or formal innovation, and then there was art from everywhere else which was just an expression of static culture, a supposedly fixed, hermetically sealed system of symbols and referents.  The attempt to reduce everything to those two categories created a dualism that was sometimes reinforced by artists or groups who defined their practices only or mostly in opposition to European ideas and categories of art.  I always feel a little schizophrenic to be part of these various communities that aren’t talking to each other, but I do think there is a transition occurring today that may mean that a potentially richer conversation around identity could occur in the near future.  I am not saying that marginalization or oppression no longer exist, but just that the terms are different.

Jaishri:  I guess for me, the consistent point I’ve been trying to make within the shows that I curate, which are all feminist pretty much, is that identity is always an ongoing investigation.  None of us define ourselves only one way.  Every one of us has multiple definitions of who we are, multiple affinities that we negotiate.  The main thing for me is to break down this idea of community, no matter who is addressed whether it’s the art world, or the funding world, or the academic world.

The idea of community is almost always defined as kind of illiterate, working class, the Other.  What I propose is that community also means a community of intellectuals, a community of artists, a community of activists and cultural workers who are actively creating and defining social structures, not just waiting for change to come to them or to have it imposed upon them, to be rescued, to be educated.  Actually, we are capable of educating as well.  Community means individual voices that are very specific that represent themselves and are not just kind of this faceless blob.  We don’t have to only represent South Asian-ness.  We are interested in representing ourselves as individuals while claiming our South Asian-ness.  It is a way of saying, “don’t render this part of us invisible.”  It is as relevant as whether we went to Colombia or Goldsmiths, or whether we are a socio-political artist or an abstract sculptor.

Pooneh:  Last year, I was in Germany and I was part of a show called The Global Contemporary: Art Worlds After 1989 that was taking on this monster discourse around identity.  There was a series of visiting curators who worked in short term collaborations and suggested artists for the show.  The first week I got there, there was a symposium where the conversations that had come out of putting together the show erupted into disagreements, exposing all the disjunctions.  That schizophrenic feeling you mention—it had infiltrated this auditorium and everyone was offering his or her opinion on globalization, and how to manage identity politics, specifically from the nineties until now.

At some point, the Chief Curator, Hans Belting, stopped the conversation and said, “The reason why we mounted this show was not to give answers.  The show was an expected failure and through this failure, we are making way for these conversations.”  I think there has to be this breaking down.  And so, coming back to your question, why after the money boom, are we in this place, taking up these conversations again?  There is a residue that we are trying to make sense of without making it one thing again.  I think we are in a good place with it as confusing as it is.

Erin:  I think there is a real feeling the Western culture logic of modernism is dying and so you get people who want to hook it up to any kind of life support system they can.  I am more interested in the other tact, which I think it comes through a feminist perspective, which is to create a hospice for the patient, to act as a witness and caretaker, assisting this phase change in art as it transitions into something else.  The first response is to try to hold tight to a disappearing world; the second comes from accepting change as inevitable and encouraging the reorganization of all these categories, even if that means embracing uncertainty and accepting failure.

Pooneh:  And we are trying to figure out the terminology for these shifts, right? You know, like what the hell do you call this stuff? I feel like you can have a thesaurus of all the different terms that different communities come up with to define this cultural shift in art and understand the politics of identity.  It has taken on so many different iterations.  I think it is important that we can’t figure out what to name it and that we should stay there for a while.  Or at least we should understand that these labels—multiculturalism, transnationalism—are only temporary labels that will later be displaced or archived.  But I think what is also important to remember when assigning these labels is that we are not talking about objects here, we are also attaching these labels to people.

Mona:  I think it is good that we can’t figure out what to name it.  I think that maybe these schizophrenic conversations are interesting and what we have to hold onto.

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