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Protest and Pleasure: Riffs on Classical Indian Art

Protest and Pleasure: Riffs on Classical Indian Art

LOS ANGELES — Some of Jaishri Abichandani’s artworks are so palpable, they evoke a strong sense of touch just by looking at them. The centerpieces of “Flower-Headed Children,” her solo exhibition at Craft Contemporary, are figures sculpted from polymer clay and decked in petals and jewelry. They appear handmade, with an attention to detail that seems as pleasureful as it is painstaking. Filled with color — including walls painted blue and gold — and traditionally beautiful materials, the show revels in visual abundance. It reminds you, in case you’ve forgotten amid an endless stream of Zoom meetings, of the delights of physicality.

Abichandani, who is based in New York City, moved from Mumbai, India, to Queens when she was 14 and studied art as an undergraduate. If you’re familiar with her, it may be for her tireless efforts as an organizer and curator, rather than her vibrant work as an artist. After college, she founded the South Asian Womxn’s Creative Collective, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and from 2003 to 2006 served as the director of public events and projects at the Queens Museum. She conceived of a powerful trio of exhibitions to inaugurate the Ford Foundation Gallery in 2019 and in 2017 organized a #MeToo protest outside the Met Breuer when the museum mounted a retrospective of the Indian photographer Raghubir Singh, whom Abichandani alleged sexually assaulted her during the 1990s in India. (Singh died in 1999, and her allegations have not been brought to court.)

Curated by the South Asian writer Anuradha Vikram, “Flower-Headed Children” is Abichandani’s first museum survey, gathering 75 pieces, although most of them date to the past five years — an indication, perhaps, of a recent shift toward focusing on her own work, rather than that of others. The history, politics and culture of Abichandani’s home country form one of the conceptual cores of the show. In many of her sculptures, the artist riffs on Hindu and pre-Vedic imagery, depicting her own versions of goddesses and spiritual beings who assume statuesque poses and appear on pedestals, naked but for their headdresses and jewelry. Abichandani also makes use of important symbols like the lotus flower, which traditionally has sacred associations with Hindu gods but in recent decades has been adopted by the right-wing, ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

At the same time, her work is rooted in the diaspora. (Abichandani and Vikram both come from Hindu families that were displaced during the 1947 partition of India.) The series “Jasmine Blooms at Night” (2017 — ongoing) spotlights South Asian activists in the United States; 45 of the small, fanciful portraits fill a wall at the museum, creating the feeling of a devotional-meets-consciousness-raising space. More broadly, Abichandani’s take on classical Indian art is resolutely contemporary and inspired by members of the queer, activist and feminist communities to which she belongs. For example, “​​Raat ki rani (Queen of the Night)” (2019) features a fabulously adorned figure who dances with a crescent moon and boasts a playful mix of gender markers: long blue hair, acrylic nails, and dark leg hair; a nose ring, bindi and beard. They might be a drag queen — portraits of several hang on the facing wall — or simply a gender-nonconforming one.

“​​Raat ki rani (Queen of the Night)” demonstrates the fluidity and complexity that animate Abichandani’s best work. Her handmade goddesses appear mythical yet all too real, like the roughly two-foot-tall figure in “Trinity With Mother” (2021), who literally carries her matriarchal lineage — represented by female heads — atop her own head and in her hand. She emanates the poise and calm of a deity, but the scar on her thigh and cigarette between her fingers make you wonder what realm she’s living in.

Nearby, the woman in “End Game” (2018), which is not quite life-size but one of the largest works in the show, wrestles with a bullheaded figure that emerges from inside her. They both hold tridents, and she grips a dagger at the back of his head. It may serve as a geopolitical allegory, if you read the signs, like the lotus flowers under the woman’s feet: perhaps this is a Hindu goddess trying to quash the violent nationalism that’s been taken up in her religion’s name. As with so much of Abichandani’s work, the drama and beauty are enriched by the references (and I wish there was more wall text to explain them).

“End Game” might be my favorite piece in the show, because it captures the duality that’s at the heart of “Flower-Headed Children.” When you enter the exhibition, the main gallery dazzles you. It’s a visual celebration of — maybe even a temple for — some sort of divine feminine energy that has old, religious origins but has been given a secular, queer update. You’d be hard-pressed not to appreciate the materiality and ingenuity of it.

But there’s a second gallery off to the side that holds darker works, including videos of protest performances organized by Abichandani and evocative wall drawings made from Swarovski-studded whips. This space contains a vitrine with a small, lone figure, hand-sculpted out of polymer clay. Titled “Predator at Rest” (2017), it depicts a naked man lying in bed with a camera at his side: a representation of the photographer Singh. It is a courageous work that took my breath away — an intimate scene that looks peaceful but is actually roiling with complex power dynamics and vulnerability.

The mood in the second gallery tempers the celebratory air of the opening one. Yet the works on the two sides of the wall feel inextricably linked. Abichandani resists the patriarchal world by presenting a feminist vision of abundance. She knows that activism is about more than protest — it’s about making pleasure and joy even, or especially, when those things seem in short supply.

Jaishri Abichandani: Flower-Headed Children

Through May 8, Craft Contemporary, 5814 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles. 323-937-4230;

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