Revisiting Artist Pritika Chowdhry’s Oeuvre for the 75th Anniversary of India’s Partition
For multimedia artist Pritika Chowdhry, there is something wrong with contemporary approaches to monumentalization. A grandchild of the 1947 Partition of India, Chowdhry aims to memorialize India’s traumatic history without falling prey to the downfalls of nationalist memorials, which she describes as: “eliding the originary violence of the creation of the nation.”
When I call Chowdhry, she is sitting in front of a white bookshelf with a range of works on postcolonialism, memorialization, and partitions of India, Palestine, Ireland, Bosnia, Cyprus, and the Rohingya genocide. Meticulously organized and well-stocked, the bookshelf is a testament to her research-based art practice—the foundation of her oeuvre, the Partition Anti-Memorial project, which she began in 2007. Her deep historical and theoretical knowledge also informs her curatorial work at the South Asia Institute (SAI) in Chicago, where she showcases South Asian culture and diasporic experiences.
Chowdhry’s oeuvre, The Anti-Memorial Project, has nine components, all of which focus on elevating subjugated histories and experiences. She is currently working on the tenth component. Commemorating the 75th anniversary of Partition on August 15th, 2022, Chowdhry’s works will be exhibited in a number of group and solo shows throughout the year, including at the South Asia Institute, the Weisman Art Museum, the Evanston Art Museum, Woman Made Gallery, and Art Show International.
Drinking a cup of coffee and leaning back in her chair, Chowdhry answered my artist’s Q&A.
How would you describe your artistic process?
I start out with reading and research, figuring out an issue that compels me, and then I begin thinking about what I want to make. I usually start with drawings to get a visual sense of the project. Then, I start making sculptural objects, which morph into installations. There’s not really a schedule when I’m in project mode. When I’m creating, I work obsessively. When I’m in research mode, I’m reading a lot.
What compels you about installations?
Installations to me can be immersive in a way that lets me capture the complexity of an issue. To get my arms around these big geopolitical issues, I need to create these elaborate scenes that often incorporate narrative elements that are both symbolic and allegorical. I often add soundscapes, too, while keeping the objects in the forefront. I find installations help me better choreograph the experience of the viewer than with a one-off sculpture or 2D work. I want to fully engage the viewer and capture their attention to make them feel certain things about the geopolitical event I am trying to memorialize. It takes time and is a process.
What do you do when you feel stuck in your artistic practice?
I draw. It could be doodles. I have done my best drawings on printer paper, seriously! If I’m stuck on something conceptual, I’ll do more research. If I’m stuck on something more formal, then drawing. My research inspires and drives my studio practice.
What books have been most influential in your thinking about your own work?
Too many! “The Texture of Memory” by Ernst Young, which talks about anti-memorials in the context of the Holocuast, was the key for my understanding of anti-memorials. “Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas” by Gayatri Gopinath helped me understand my own location in the diaspora as a post-colonial feminist critiquing the nation—queer, not as a sexual orientation, but as a counterpoint to male nationalism. “The Other Side of Silence,” by Urvashi Butalia is my favorite book of all time.
How do you know when you’ve done enough research, or do you have to cut yourself off?
I have to cut myself off. It’s an obsessive thing. I use a bibliographic tool called Zotero. My Zotero bib lists have become unmanageable, because I keep finding articles and adding to them. I’m not going to put a bibliography with my installations. It’s more just for me.
How did you decide you wanted to be an artist?
In my late twenties, I came back to painting after a gap of over a decade, and I felt I just had to do this. I was talking to the undergraduate advisor, and explaining why I wanted a second undergraduate degree with a focus on art. He just listened, and at the end, he said, “it sounds like it’s a matter of life and death for you.” So he gave me admission. I just felt like there was an urgency. Almost every decade of my life, I’ve had this ebb and flow where I intensely engage with art making, and then I feel a bit disengaged, and then I come back to it even more intensely than before. I’ll be making artwork with some sort of frequency as long as I’m alive.
How has your understanding of the Partition Anti-Memorial Project changed with time?
It has evolved a lot. It started with “Queering Mother India,” the first component, then morphed into “What the Body Remembers,” then into “Silent Waters,” then into “Remembering the Crooked Line.” At that point, I thought the project was done. It took me a while to realize I was still making work about the Partition. My interest in language as a tool of violence, or communal riots, returns to Partition as a fulcrum point. As the project expanded, I’ve thought more about how to connect seemingly disparate events to both contextualize Partition within India’s history and communicate its present reverberations globally.
How do you think the Jallianwala Bagh memorial falls prey to the problems you’ve spoken about with memorialization?
The Jallianwala Bagh memorial, which commemorates a massacre carried out by British soldiers, is a state sponsored memorial. It was made in 1950 by Benjamin Polk, an American artist, on a site 30 km from the border post of Partition. There’s no mention of the Partition at all. The erasure is stunning. Two years ago, they Disneyfied the memorial. The key to the memorial was the claustrophobic narrow courtyard, which was the only entry and exit from that place — when the British were firing at people, there was no way for them to come out. But now, they changed the entryway, and there’s a beautiful mural on the wall. They’re doing light shows. They’ve made a somber place of remembrance into an attractive tourist destination. State sponsored memorials are particularly vulnerable to the traps of tourism and victim nationalist narratives.
Can you talk more about victim nationalist memorials and how you navigate that in your own work?
Victim nationalist memorials tell a story: the nation was suppressed, we overcame that adversity through violence — because how else do you overcome adversity? — and then we became an amazing new nation. That’s the narrative, not just in India, but in a lot of countries. It’s a way to elide the originary violence of the creation of the nation, to not take responsibility for it, and to rescript history in a light that serves the nation.
How do you see your work in light of recent geopolitical events?
Hearing about the war in Ukraine has struck a chord with me—the way they are using rape as a weapon, which I never thought would happen there, with the whole world watching. And there’s talk of partitioning Ukraine. It pierces my heart.
Chowdhry’s work will be displayed at SAI Chicago from August 6–December 10th, 2022.
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Writer, Cultbytes Nina Potischman is a recent graduate of Pomona College, where she studied English literature with a concentration in creative writing. Her writing focuses on the body, autoimmunity, illness, and disability, with a focus in autotheory. She runs Queerings, a jewelry business focused on LGBTQ+ culture. She will be pursuing a masters in English Literature from the University of Exeter in the fall of 2022. l igram l