Chitra Ganesh has made her name in the art world by defamiliarizing canonical narratives—integrating popular imagery like Bollywood posters, anime, and comic books with lesser known Hindu and Buddhist icons as well as 19th century European fairly tales. The resulting images participate in the nuanced conversation surrounding contemporary imperialism, subalternity, and the subversion of power. Specifically, much of Ganesh’s work engages with the colonial Indian term junglee, which literally translates to “of the jungle.” Though the idiom is traditionally used to denote women who are perceived as wild, defiant, or transgressive, Ganesh utilizes the term to empower her female protagonists who often include pin-ups, priestesses, warriors, witches, mothers, and goddesses.1
Her mixed media collage, Cat Women Series, epitomizes this kitschy, enigmatic, and complex style, making use of handmade paper, embroidery, drawing, and painting, as well as a wealth of inscrutable folkloric references. While bizarre and slippery, Cat Women Series seems to deal with conflicting expectations of femininity in practical application. Though the smoking, nude, headless, and three-breasted heroine appears to be running, given the position of her leg and athletic footwear, her other leg has been taken over by an enormous rose—a clichéd indicator of romantic love in Western traditions. In this struggle between running and the rose, the protagonist is reproachfully monitored by an open book, which may indicate expectations of female independence derived from higher education or the omnipresence of patriarchal narratives. Overall, the work imparts a vibrant sense of stasis—trapped headless between domineering narratives, expectant love, and an enormous plume of smoke—that can be read as a commentary on the condition of being a woman in post-colonial post-modernity.
Ganesh has remained relatively close-lipped about the exact meanings of her pieces. In fact, she has stated that she intends her images to have “friction” and “dissonance” between text and image, which contributes significantly to the general sense of mystery and peculiarity in her work.2 She has however been very clear about her intent to confront and subvert traditional power dynamics through her work by privileging “buried narratives or marginalized figures typically excluded from official canons of history, literature, and art.”3
Ganesh has exhibited widely in the United States and abroad and has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, Art Matters Foundation Grant, and a Columbia University Dean’s Fellowship. She is currently a collaborator with artist Miriam Ghani on the Index of the Disappeared, an ongoing so-called “parasitic archive” of the disappearance of immigrant, ‘other,’ and dissenting communities post-9/11. She received her MFA in painting from Columbia University and her undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature and Art-Semiotics from Brown.
– Rica Maestas
1Gopenath, Gayatri. “Chitra Ganesh’s Queer Re-Visions.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies (2009): 469.