Updated: Jan 19
The Kalaakriti series aims to highlight the stories of different artists with South Asian backgrounds. In today’s installation, check out Neha’s story about her work as a Fiber Artist!
Neha is a South Asian-American fiber artist, focusing mainly on embroidery. Her work is centered around the multicultural experience, social justice, or whatever is on her mind that day. In her words, “I try not to take myself too seriously!”
How were you introduced to your work?
I learned embroidery from my mom when I was very young, but lost touch with it as I got older.
At what point in your life did you feel that following this passion was what you wanted to do?
When I was at college (university) I found myself having a lot more free time than I did when I was in high school. Instead of sitting around and watching TV, which is what I was doing all the time, I randomly picked up an embroidery kit just for fun. I found that none of the pre-made patterns spoke to me, or felt worth investing so much time in. I began designing my own patterns, and naturally they had a South Asian twist. At the encouragement of my friends, I started my Instagram page, and to my surprise my work started becoming more and more popular!
What would you like the world to know about your work and the realm that you're working in?
Embroidery is an extremely time consuming art - a hoop that's as small as 4 inches can take me over 16 hours. Artists appreciate when you honor the gifts they give you, and don't demand work for free!
What are some stereotypes that you have seen, heard, or experienced about your art form or about choosing to pursue work in this field?
Embroidery has historically been a very "feminine" activity. Because of this, the talent and work that it takes has been discounted or downgraded to simply a "craft" instead of art that is worthy of being celebrated.
Your work with stitching is very unique in that it highlights so many nuances of the South Asian experience. As a part of the South Asian diaspora, you’ve created a beautiful niche where so many people feel represented by the pieces you make. What was your motivation for focusing on this kind of content for your work?
Honestly, I didn’t have a specific motivation. The primary reason I create the art that I do is for myself. Because my life experiences are very centered around the South Asian-American journey and social justice a lot of my work is also centered around these as well.
Where do you pull your ideas from?
My social justice and activism pieces speak to me the most. As an Indian living in America, I have lived on both sides of the person of color experience. The racism, sexism, and discrimination my community has faced is what fuels my passion for activism through art. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have also made it a point to focus on the privilege I am afforded as a light-skinned, North Indian, Hindi-speaking Hindu. Understanding intersectional identities is important, and I think many people ignore how both oppression and privilege plays into your life experience. My series #SouthAsianSunday took off when I started stitching countries that are not normally represented in the South Asian diaspora. “South Asian” culture is very North Indian-centric in the United States, and I wanted to break that narrative. One of my more recent #SouthAsianSunday posts was a statement to “end caste supremacy” and to amplify Dalit voices. I lost dozens of followers but that was the point of the piece. According to the BBC, 90% of Indian immigrants to the United States are upper caste, and this means we are blind to the discrimination that our lower caste friends face both back home, and in the United States. I live in the Silicon Valley where the tech industry is dominated by Indians, and unfortunately both systemic and interpersonal discrimination against lower caste employees is rampant. Caste is not a legally protected class, so oftentimes there is very little someone can do. NPR reported that two-thirds of US Dalit employees faced discrimination in the workplace — and it is shocking to see that there is little to no activism surrounding this issue by the Indian and South Asian community. There is definitely a South Asian “craftivism” movement, but it is mostly in the digital art space, and very often does not reference caste at all, despite most of us benefitting from caste privilege.
Understanding intersectional identities is important, and I think many people ignore how both oppression and privilege plays into your life experience. My series #SouthAsianSunday took off when I started stitching countries that are not normally represented in the South Asian diaspora. “South Asian” culture is very North Indian-centric in the United States, and I wanted to break that narrative.
What are your opinions on maintaining a traditional art form vs modernization?
The style of embroidery I do is extremely modernized. Especially European-style embroidery, has in the past, been very floral, delicate, and decorative. I, including many other embroidery artists, have strayed away from this style and moved into bolder colors, stronger messages, and unapologetic attitudes towards what we create. Since the actual technique is still "traditional" in some sense, I feel we are not losing the roots of the art, but at the same time creating pieces that truly resonate with us today.
While the realm of “South Asian experience” is extremely large, if there was a void that you could fill with your work (stitching or otherwise), what would it be? Why?
The void I try to fill is intersectional representation (see prior response also). The “South Asian experience” is often very North Indian/Hindu/upper-caste centric, and I am trying to ensure the work I create is as intersectional and inclusive as possible.
What changes would you like to see when it comes to how your art form/work is perceived in the mainstream media? What would you like to see representation-wise?
Embroidery often comes up in historical or period-based films. There is a scene in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat where Nagmati is very regally working on a hoop and commands her servants to bring her more thread as an excuse not to support Padmavati. The scene is one of tension between the two queens, and a depiction of feminine strength in two different ways, which I thought was wonderful. On the flipside, the 2020 Netflix film Enola Holmes had Enola refusing to learn embroidery as a sign of rebellion against traditionally feminine practices. What I didn't like about that was it implied that doing embroidery made Enola less of a "feminist" and the only way she was considered a strong character was by declaring she was "not like other girls".
Many people choose not to publicize their opinions on the various social issues happening around them and in the world, mostly to prevent any disagreements, but to also feel protected about their opinion. You’ve chosen to be outspoken about your opinions, which is absolutely commendable! What was the driving force that led you to be as outspoken as you are?
I have always naturally been a very outspoken and admittedly, angry, person. I realized that biting my tongue when it comes to social issues is not a solution for anyone. I have the lived experience as a woman-identifying person of color, and especially in Indian society, being outspoken or talking back is not something that is often appreciated. However, I have the privilege of having access to some of the best education in the world, the Internet, and the freedom to speak my mind without any legal backlash (barring social backlash). If I do not leverage my privilege to support those who do not have it, then what does that say about me? To answer the question more specifically — what drove me to be as outspoken as I am was simply the ability to be able to.
I realized that biting my tongue when it comes to social issues is not a solution for anyone. I have the lived experience as a woman-identifying person of color, and especially in Indian society, being outspoken or talking back is not something that is often appreciated. However, I have the privilege of having access to some of the best education in the world, the Internet, and the freedom to speak my mind without any legal backlash (barring social backlash). If I do not leverage my privilege to support those who do not have it, then what does that say about me?
How do you handle people who disagree with your opinions on Social Media and/or in person?
The “opinions” that I hold and share on social media are all centered around social justice, basic human rights, and representation. Unfortunately, none of these are “opinions,” rather, should be universally accepted truths. This is why I have no room for dissent and any haters are simply ignored.
Was it a challenging decision to choose to incorporate your interest in social justice into your content, given the possible repercussions that may come with it? Or was it an easy decision to make?
It was not a decision at all, really. My work being about myself and my experience ushered social justice as a theme quite naturally. I love backlash — it means you’re doing something to disrupt the narrative.
Who are some people that you think are worth knowing about in your field?
Anuradha Bhaumick: @hooplaback.girl