Shivanjani Lal: Sometimes making work is about sitting with an idea

When she settled into her assigned seat last month, artist Shivanjani Lal knew she wouldn’t be returning to the family home in Lidcombe for at least another 12 months. She is off to India to pursue her Post Graduate Diploma and a project she has been working towards for the past three years. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Shivanjani before she left to talk about what the year ahead holds.

NW: Would you mind talking a bit about your practice and how you got to this point?

SL: I think I was always really interested in my own cultural legacy because it became really clear after the beginning of my second art history lesson that art history was pretty much from Impression to post-pop. It just became this very white European thing that I could write about, but not have any conscious connection to because most of that sits outside of who I am and how I grew up.

I grew up in Western Sydney and I grew up Hindu. So when you do not fit those criteria in Western art history you are basically fetishised, put on a pedestal or ignored. Those are your three options. When I came back from doing a six month stint in Paris, what was interesting was I spent a lot of time making bodies of work that I pretty much lost. All of this hard work and energy that I invested in had disappeared. I was seeing art but I wasn’t seeing art – there was nothing there that really interested me. I went to Beijing to catch up with a friend (who was living there at the time) who happened to be the art and culture editor for a magazine. She directed me to 798, an area of Beijing filled with galleries.  I was really impressed with what was happening in China and Hong Kong. I had a friend in Hong Kong, who was from Toronto, telling me all about what the arts was like. It was pretty much what New York was like in the 80s, really grungy and more beyond the surface. I remember seeing a particular exhibition and thinking it was the best thing I had seen in six months and I had been living in Paris. So I thought, how do we shift the focus?

NW: How did this experience shape your next steps?

SL: I spent a lot of time looking for galleries, following people up who were interesting. One of my favourite contemporary Australian artists (who is one of the reasons I make art) is a woman named Simryn Gill. She is a Malaysian, Indian Australian who represented Australia at the 55th Venice Biennale, a photographer/artist with really quiet work – I really like her practice. I realised that she also had representation in India and I thought that was interesting. That is something I can potentially do.

On the back of that I started looking for different places in India to maybe do my masters and just see what was there. I looked at this Post Graduate Diploma two years ago and wanted to do it then, but I didn’t because I had opportunities in Australia. I am really glad that I waited because now I have a really wonderful project. I felt like I needed the time to physically be in that space and I don’t know if I would have been ready two years ago. Two years ago it would have been running away whereas now it feels like a part of it is running away, but it is more about ideology and what I am trying to do [as an artist/curator].

NW: That is a skill – knowing when to say yes or no to an opportunity.

SL: An opportunity will always be there later and if it’s not, it isn’t the right opportunity or it just would not have worked out.

When I was in India a couple of weeks ago, it was me dipping my toe into what I could be talking about. The truth is that western art history/white art history is really insidious. While I was in India it was not the conversation around whatever white guy we were talking about that day, but it was the lapses into Hindi to bring it into a vernacular that was interesting. There was a moment when one of the lecturers was talking about erasure – to him it was a deeply Indian idea.

I realised I work with erasure all the time and I have never heard anybody talk about it the west. This drove home to me that this is where I need to be to reframe the way that I make work fundamentally. To have that kind of grounding and foundation sets me up in a different way.

I had a conversation with one of my favourite lecturers when I was in Melbourne a couple of days ago. We were talking about two Indian artists, one named Jitish Kallat and the other named Gigi Scaria and she was saying that you can tell in Gigi’s work that his aesthetic is all Indian, [meaning it might seep into other histories but it has a different energy to it, it’s references draw on Indian culture.] Whereas with Jitish’s work you can see that it is from Europe, which doesn’t mean his work is more important, I love his work, but you can see his reference points are from the west; even when he uses things that might shift perceptions.

NW: It sounds like an exciting year lies ahead for you. What do you hope will come of your time in India?

SL: One of the things that has emerged for me over the past 18 months, that has made it quite clear that I need to go and be elsewhere in terms of my arts practice and in terms of what I need to grow as an artist, is that I was trying to study curating in Australia and I found it really white, really male Euro-American history centric and when you are not those things it makes it really difficult to engage.

My first degree was in politics so I am much more interested in political ideologies and how these paradigms can be shifted. So studying art history and also spending a lot of time working on collaborative projects that were really difficult but also really fruitful. It created things I hadn’t thought about for a long time and it lead to a bunch of research that went nowhere. Getting paid to do research and it not go anywhere was a blessing in disguise. It was heartbreaking to pull material out of a project because I didn’t trust someone with the material, but it is actually now going into this new project that I am doing. Sometimes making a work is actually about sitting with an idea.

For the last 18 months I have been dreaming and brewing up this idea, constructing how I want to talk about it and the places I need to go to make that happen. Part of that was applying to the university of Cape Town and also this opportunity in India. I threw my hat in the ring with both, not knowing if I would get either and ended up getting both. Then I had to figure out how to make it work. Both are really interesting. The Cape Town application was asking you to be really clear about what your research area was. I came up with something I was really happy with, but since submitting it a number of applications came across that I had to write for and I took the root of what I was doing for the Cape Town project – to curate an exhibition with India diaspora artists from South Africa as well as Fiji. South Africa is the largest India diaspora population outside of India and Fiji is one of the smallest Indian diaspora populations outside of India. So the lens I was looking at was a text important to Fijian communities about removal and return. I think that is something that is really important. Again, this is about erasure and I think in the west we get really confused with erasure and loss. For me erasure is like when you erase a chalkboard and the dust is still there. It is a place to rebuild from and for me it has always been that because I find that really interesting. Through the process of the other residencies I applied for, I realised that the project I really want to make is for my grandmother.

The Quiet Sea
Image: Shivanjani Lal, The Quiet Sea. Image courtesy of the artist

NW: Can you tell me a bit more about this project?

SL: The last work that I was making for Next Wave involved my Aaji and my Naani. They have always been really interesting women, in part because I look like them and in part because in many ways they got to relive their lives at particular points. They were really interesting because they were both born on the same day, both died in the same year and they were both really young women. I never met my grandfathers. I have an idea of what they looked like but I have no idea of who they were as people, as men. I know that they changed my parents because they left when they were so young. My mum’s dad passed away when she was ten and my dad’s when he was twenty; that leaves a mark on a person and that’s just it. I don’t know who they are as men, but I do know these women. They were also covered in terrible tattoos with I feel like I need to throw that in (chuckles). So, my Naani passed away first in 2003 and my parents, because I was turning 21 that year asked if I wanted to go to India and visit her.

In Hinduism and being Indian one the gestures you have to show somebody really high esteem is to touch their feet. This is a gesture that I have always seen throughout my life and the one time that I tried to do that was the last time that I saw my grandma. I remember looking at her and I remember thinking ‘I really want to do this but I don’t know if I can.’ That was because I felt like I was Australian. The ultimate reality of that situation meant nothing. It was also about the insidiousness of privilege and white society onto my own identity because really all of the things that I was talking about were about the privileged white Australian woman and that is not who I was – that’s not how I was raised either. So that gesture ultimately would have been one of love for her, showing her how much I loved her and I do, I still do. But I could never show her that gesture because not long after she passed away, it was very sudden and I still have that jarring. The work that I am in making India is about that gesture and it is about taking a long line view that gesture was for my Aaji, but this is my ancestral mother and if i take it to my ancestral mother, then maybe I can heal that space and allow that gesture to live on. She loves me. I don’t need to do this, but I want to.

It is also about the fact that people were removed. (Considered pause) I did a lot of research about indenture. In Fiji they chose the most passive people to work the sugarcane fields so that they could not own houses but be on 100 year leases so that they could be part of a community.  There has been so many bloodless coups d’etat in Fiji, but people aren’t interested in the fact that, not a minority community a majority could be disenfranchised; were not able to do things that would be on equal footing with the rest of the community. It is not about colonised/coloniser and it is not about indigenous/non-indigenous, its not black or white because I think that would be fundamentally missing the point. The point is that it is about the energy of that, because this is about inter-generational trauma. We see this community being pushed together that should not have necessarily been pushed together that have and created new lives that need to be acknowledged and accounted for. As far as I am concerned I am from the pacific, but I am also culturally Indian and I feel that in Australia those things shift all the time, but they are also fundamental.

So the work will hopefully have manifestations in India, Fiji and Australia. The Indo-Fijian community in Australia has the largest population outside of Fiji so it is important to have it here as well. I think it is quite symbolic in that it is also reflective of a lot of things that are happening across the world. It isn’t just about my community. While I was in India a girl was talking about comparing immigration and indenture – those aren’t the same things. Those are not the same things. It is war.

NW: It sounds like you have an emotionally, physically and spiritually challenging year ahead.

SL: I don’t think it will be an easy year at all. That is part of taking the time I need there. Mostly time in the studio and I haven’t had that in a long time. It’s been nice to move around for work, but I am looking forward to having the time in a studio space. I want to give it the space, time and energy it really needs to be beautiful; beautiful in the sense that the people that this is really for will feel it. I need time to make mistakes and there will be time to visit where my great grandfather comes from. You need to balance it. I don’t want to say (exasperated voice) ‘eugh I just did a thing.’

The other part is how does this live on afterwards, what is the conversation about it?

There will be different iterations of it. It will be an object, a video work, a gestural performative work…lots of potential. I feel like I do not have enough time.

NW: You haven’t even boarded the plane yet…

SL: Yeah, well I haven’t even bought my ticket to board the plane yet…I should probably do that.


I would like to take this opportunity to thank Shivanjani for her generosity and for trusting us to share this with you. Shivanjani has agreed to us following up to talk more about her experience and how her project is progressing. This interview was conducted on Monday 9th January and a brief email exchange before publishing.
– Interviewed by Natalie Wadwell
First published on State of the Arts Media on May 5, 2017

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