By Haggerty Museum of Art
The Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Mary L. Nohl Fund FELLOWSHIPS FOR INDIVIDUAL ARTISTS 2020
The Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Mary L. Nohl Fund Fellowships for Individual Artists program annually awards unrestricted funds to emerging and established Milwaukee artists to support the creation of new work, or the completion of work in progress. This virtual exhibition includes new work by the 2020 Fellows. The Haggerty Museum of Art has partnered with the program since 2016.
Nirmal Raja (2021) by Vaughan LarsenHaggerty Museum of Art
My work examines global movement, the cultural and material legacies of colonialism, and the lingering traces of memory by making visible the underlying interconnectedness of all beings. Having lived in several places before calling Milwaukee home, I experience the local through a global lens. Loss and wonder are consistent experiences for an immigrant: we experience place as transient and objects as mutable in their meaning. In the studio, I process all that goes on around me by experimenting with materials and ideas. I am drawn to objects and images that have dual cultural and personal significance. Photographs, found objects, maps, clothing and fabric, personal video recordings—all become raw materials. Through my practice, I acknowledge these materials as receptacles of memory and transform them into artwork that resonates across cultures, framing them within a landscape shaped by the mundane and the political.
About the Artist
Nirmal Raja is an interdisciplinary artist who lived in India, South Korea, and Hong Kong before immigrating to the United States thirty years ago. She holds a BA in English Literature from St. Francis College in Hyderabad, India; a BFA from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, and an MFA from the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee. Raja’s work has been exhibited widely in the Midwest, nationally, and internationally. She often collaborates with other artists and strongly believes in investing energy in her immediate community while also considering the global. She is a mentor for the Milwaukee Artists Resource Network’s mentorship program.
Untitled (detail) (2020) by Nirmal RajaHaggerty Museum of Art
In any aesthetic attempt at describing the Indian immigrant experience, there is the added onus of essentialist perceptions of culture and gender, made reductive and non-threateningly palatable to an unfamiliar audience. Nirmal Raja’s methods eschew such easy forms. She chooses instead to situate her work within the Milwaukee community, in a way that smudges the linearity of exodus narratives into the multiplicity of nomadism and ceaseless rewriting of place.
Reimagining the scaffolding that buttresses sense of place, specifically her place in community, Raja rebuilds fraught ideas of citizenship through empathy and a precise, direct sensitivity. Running through pieces like Wrapping Air in Cloth are entwined threads of dislocation and the burden of cultural “authenticity.” Beyond describing the sharp pain of dislocation, Raja understands how materiality and tactility act as powerful mnemonic devices. Speaking as they do of the peculiar numbness that also accompanies migration, Raja’s work with Hanji (included here) probes the dependence on shiftless memory to evoke ghostly shades of semi-forgotten tastes, words, and textures. By countering the fetishization of “Asianness” through her fragmented yet archival photographic series Latitude, she expands the scope of the narrative towards a more universal experience of restless, inconstant memory. Relying on the specificity of key recollections as reconstructive mechanisms, her method is immediately familiar, mirroring our own subjectivities.
There is confrontation, too, in her work, a provocation that coexists with an aesthetic ethereality, a provocation that nomadism is resistance. Recognising that such negotiations often involve the state and its institutions of power, claims of ownership and entitlement, of rootedness and belonging, she adroitly reworks text and gesture into articulate explorations of the substructures of immigrant identity. Grappling with truncated notions of cultural continuity often reinforces a sense of alienation, which Raja counters with her work on redefining her own social networks. In works like The Wall Within and Neverending Line, there is also a visible recognition of Okwui Enwezor‘s point about the political nature of all aesthetics.
Raja’s charged performances—Reaching through 5 ½ yards, 8497 miles and What is recorded |What is remembered, in particular—and text-based installations challenge the treacherous translation of lived experience into exoticized tropes of cultural authenticity and neatly distilled bon mots on ethnicity. Her articulations of the complexities of femininity and agency defy superficial Orientalisms. Given that the experience of migration is culturally destabilizing, the truths of selfhood, the shapes of family, the longevity of friendships and social connections are all fragile, and provisional. Rejecting the “sedentarist metaphysics” of nationalisms, Raja’s work invokes these conflicted territories in the nomadic, metaphysical landscapes of her practice with an unflinching, yet ultimately tender, honesty.
1Tim Cresswell, “Theorizing Place,” Thamyris/Intersecting: Place, Sex and Race 9 (2003): 21.
Unknown Geographies (detail) (2020) by Nirmal RajaHaggerty Museum of Art
Recall and Response
Nirmal Raja began work on her series Recall and Response during the spring 2020 quarantine. At the time, she didn’t exactly know what she was working toward, but she knew where she was working from. Raja’s artistic process has always been responsive to the particular conditions and circumstances in which she’s making work. She initiates projects with a sense of curiosity and an openness to where her selected materials or subject matter might take her. In this case, her years-old photo archive served as the catalyst for a new series about memory and place, particularly the bits of sensory or somatic information that get lost when we recall the past. For those familiar with Raja’s practice, this method of formal recontextualization is not new – she explored similar ideas in the series Latitude – but Recall and Response necessarily incorporates elements from the specific cultural moment that was the “pandemic quarantine.” As she scrolled through her old photos she experienced a sort of memory fragmentation that inspired her to abstract pieces of these memory-images, effecting a kind of temporal bridging. Raja’s source imagery made its way into large-scale drawings that were rendered through repetitive mark making in sumi ink and homemade gouache. They appear in chronological order in the virtual gallery that follows. For the artist, this mindful drawing provided a visual equivalent for what it felt like to attempt to process a surfeit of information (24-hour COVID news cycles) without any certainty about what it all meant. Her process was repetitive, iterative, and guided by a bodily and contemplative awareness that linked Raja’s inner world with the external world. These works record the history of the experience of their making, an experience prompted by a far-off history captured—and subsequently forgotten—by the artist herself.