ANTI/body # 8, 2018. Mixed media on wood panel (found plaster object fragments, fabric flowers, beads, paper, prints, textiles, spray paint, gesso). 50 x 30 x 8 inches.
Transdisciplinary artist MAYA MACKRANDILAL employs collaboration, performance, social media, object-making and writing to imagine "a future after the end of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism." Her sculptures and collages challenge the East/West binary, merging classical Greek references with the Hindu pantheon. Her performance persona is a contemporary incarnation of the Goddess Lakshmi, who seeks to restore a "culture of abundance, radical justice, and balance" to our world. Maya earned her BA in Studio Art at University of Virginia and her MFA in Sculpture at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2019, she presented a collaborative multi-media performance titled Schizophrene at Threewalls in Chicago, and her work was discussed in depth in Nalini Mohabir's scholarly essay “Kala Pani: Aesthetic Deathscapes and the Flow of Water after Indenture,” published in the peer-reviewed journal Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas, 5. Maya has a creative essay in the forthcoming “Liminal Spaces: Migration and Women of the Guyanese Diaspora,” (2020) and has just completed an artist residency at Secret Land (Altadena, CA). Her work is on view through November 2020 in the exhibition What is Feminist Art? at the Smithsonian Archives for American Art in Washington, DC. Maya lives and works in Los Angeles.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Let’s start with the sculptures and sculptural paintings from ANTI/body. Tell us about how the materials, images and found objects you choose work to collapse binaries in these works.
Maya Mackrandilal: I started this series while working on my essay, The Aesthetics of Empire: Neoclassical Art and White Supremacy. I wanted to create pieces that visually represented the interconnected global histories and futures that white supremacist mythologies attempt to erase. I selected objects, textiles, and images that reference both “Western” and “Eastern” art history, combining them together into hybrid beings that push back against the mythology of a pure, white art history untouched by the Other. In the sculptural works, I painted over and broke apart (white) plaster neoclassical sculptures and inserted flowers, extra limbs, beads, and colorful textiles which reference practices and traditions from the global South, in particular the abundance of South Asian sculptural forms and global folk-art practices. The “binaries” are probably most easily visible in the sculptural paintings that incorporate collage – I take images of classical sculptures and insert South Asian iconography, surrounding them with folk-art embellishments. For instance, in ANTI/body #4, I combine an image taken from a metope on the Parthenon depicting a centaur astride a fallen Lapith and insert a depiction of Kali in the centaur’s upper body. The centaur can be seen as a metaphor for an outsider (barbarian) who upsets the rational order of Greek culture (coded as “white” by European art historians during the 18th century) – here Kali (who in my artistic iconography is a stand-in for an uncolonized Black queer femme body) takes up the role of the barbarian, locating the tensions in our present culture when the “natural order” of white supremacy is upset by the creative resistance of people of color.
ANTI/body #4, 2017. Mixed media on artboard (found objects, prints, spray paint, Flashe paint, acrylic paint, gesso)
OPP: What year did you write the essay The Aesthetics of Empire: Neoclassical Art and White Supremacy and what prompted it?
MM: I initially wrote The Aesthetics of Empire in 2017 in response to protests that had arisen around the country calling for the removal of white supremacist statues like the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville. As a graduate of the University of Virginia, I was well aware of the Lee statue, as well as the wide array of neoclassical statues and architecture that permeate the university and the surrounding city. I was also aware of the legacy of white supremacy and the ongoing racial terrorism (often framed by those in power as “isolated incidents”) that Black UVA students, faculty, and Charlottesville residents face. I wanted to use the opportunity to extend our gaze from the obviously white supremacist histories of confederate statues to look at the ways the dominant culture uses neoclassicism to inscribe white supremacist thinking on our collective subconscious. In the essay I focused on how white Americans from the Founding Fathers to the Daughters of the Confederacy relied on neoclassicism as a dog-whistle of European cultural superiority over people of color and a justification for violence.
ANTI/body #9 (Kalifia as Libertas), 2018. Mixed media (found objects, spray paint, Flashe paint, wire, pvc pipe, steel flange, epoxy clay, wood). 26 x 14 x 12 inches
OPP: Confederate monuments are now coming down—both pulled down by protestors and officially removed by local governments—in multiple locations. Can you reflect on your essay now in light of recent events?
MM: Looking back, I wish I had discussed more in-depth the ways that contemporary alt right and neo-nazi groups continue to use classical iconography in this way. Watching the recent toppling and removal of some of these statues (as well as their defense by the police and the deployment of federal paramilitary forces to ostensibly protect them), further supports the immense power these symbols have in our culture. I recently watched a talk with the artist Badly Licked Bear who shared that from an indigenous perspective, objects are subjects and that an act of violence against an icon of the oppressor is a sacred ritual act, an act with material significance. The part of me that is hopeful can look at these events as a spiritual cleansing of our collective, a way for us to reimagine what it means to be a community beyond the domineering gaze of the white male patriarch. What monuments can we build when we are not ensnared by the classical form and the racist/sexist ideologies that it perpetuates? How can these anti-monuments broaden and deepen our cultural memory and contribute to the psychic healing of historically oppressed groups? How could we reimagine architecture to facilitate non-hierarchical societal relationships and mutual aid? To me, the removal of these statues is the initial act in a longer project of building a society that is centered on justice, abundance, and care, and I do believe that truly radical artistic forms can support and inspire this work.
@globalmatriarch Instagram Feed, 2017. Digital Composite.
OPP: Can you talk about how you use social media and hashtags as an art medium, not just a way to gain visibility? I’m thinking of #NEWGLOBALMATRIARCHY.
MM: I remember writing #NEWGLOBALMATRIARCHY in my sketchbook about five years ago. I was thinking about the possibilities of hashtags as ways to collaboratively build a concept. A hashtag can’t be owned or controlled, which makes it a point of great peril and potential (I’m thinking of men’s rights activists taking over feminist hashtags or K-pop fans taking over anti-black hashtags). I was reading about matriarchy as a political and social system, particularly in indigenous cultures, and I wondered, how could we imagine this world — a world built on non-hierarchical consensus, abundance, and respect for the land and all beings—into being within our emerging global culture? Social media seemed like a place to attempt such an intervention. It offers a built-in archive (you can search #newglobalmatriarchy on Instagram and see all the artists and projects connected with it) and a way for the idea to grow and change as people interact with it over time. I also created online accounts for my performance persona, the Goddess Lakshmi (@globalmatriarch on Instagram and Twitter, Global Matriarch on Facebook) that allows for a virtual performance of some of these ideas through tweets and memes as well as sharing images from events. I had been focusing on the in-person Poetry and Performance Circles in LA, but with our new post-COVID lives, I’m going to be developing these accounts further, including starting a NEWGLOBALMATRIARCHY YouTube channel for the Goddess that will feature videos and livestreams from a liminal space called “The Womb Chamber” as well as future collaborative virtual projects.
#NewGlobalMatriarchy, 2016. Performance Still
OPP: Tell us about the ancient goddess Lakshmi and how you make her contemporary in your performances and photographs.
MM: Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and abundance, is an incredibly popular goddess in the Hindu pantheon. In traditional depictions, she stands on a lotus flanked by elephants, gold pouring out of her hands – the idea is that praying to her will bring money and abundance to one’s life. Within Hinduism, the divine force (which permeates all things) is divided into three aspects, the creator, maintainer, and destroyer. Each of the three aspects has a masculine and feminine form. Vishnu and Lakshmi are the masculine and feminine forms of the “maintainer” aspect of the divine, and in times of great need, these two divine beings become incarnated on Earth through avatars (Krishna and Rhada, Rama and Sita, among many others) in order to restore balance.
When I was young, I participated in a religious ceremony where I was one of two girls selected to “stand in” for the goddess and participants made offerings to us as we sat quietly, like living statues. One of the rules was that the girls selected had to be prepubescent, meaning we had not yet had our periods. This is a product of a sexist patriarchal belief in many Hindu traditions that periods are “unclean.” When I was an adult, I started to think: perhaps a deeper reason is that if you worship a grown woman as a goddess, a woman who might have opinions, she might take the opportunity to share some of her thoughts, she might not be as docile as a child, she might start to demand power. Perhaps in times before patriarchy, it was a grown woman, a wise woman, who was worshipped as a goddess in these rituals. Looking around the world, I decided that the need was very dire for the Goddess to come to Earth to restore balance in the face of environmental destruction, thousands of years of patriarchal violence, structural racism, class oppression, and violence against queer people.
Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth, 2015. Pigment print on bamboo paper with Flashe paint and collage. 66 x 44 inches. With performances by Jacob Young and RLB
OPP: Where did Lakshmi first manifest in our world?
MM: Because she is the goddess of abundance, and her divine form would be both a reflection and a critique of the dominant culture, Lakshmi initially incarnated as a Kardashian-inspired woman making it rain as she stood atop a white man wearing a confederate flag speedo, with another white man dressed as a capitalist pig beside her on a leash. Her iconography has been updated from conventional depictions, but she maintains some of the traditional mudras (hand gestures). The performances are an extension of this initial photographic incarnation, where the Goddess entered the world – some of her excursions include: visiting the 2017 Women’s March in LA, reading poetry through a megaphone on Hollywood Boulevard, and organizing Poetry and Performance Circles at Los Angeles Valley College. Everywhere she goes, she spreads the doctrine of radical abundance and the liberation of Black, queer women, the abolition of prisons and borders, the destruction of capitalism, decolonization, and the celebration of all genders and sexualities.
OPP: You often collaborate on performance, video and social media work. How do your solo work and your collaborations inform one another? Do you prefer one way of working over the other?
MM: At its heart, my work is about imagining and materializing a better world, a world in which all women and queer people are free. This work can be deeply personal, and it is from this place that my solo work arises. But I also know that one person cannot materialize a different future, only a collective can do that. For me, collaboration is about building a network of artists who are invested in this future. This “network” isn’t about professional development (though we certainly support one another in that way), but about building coalitions between women and queer people of color, even if those coalitions are only temporary. Some of the collaborations are for a single event, where I disclose a liberated space and invite others to join me in activating that space. Other collaborations, like my work with Stephanie Graham and Scarlett Kim, are more long-term. These are creative friendships in which we explore common ideas and themes over the course of years. I enjoy this collaborative work because it allows us to very explicitly push back against the idea that an artist is an isolated genius cut off from the world. As my friend and writing collaborator Eunsong Kim recently said: the mythology of the lone creative artist and capitalism go hand in hand because it perpetuates the narrative that we don’t need structural support, communities, and education in order to be creative. Collaboration pushes back against this capitalist mythology that we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, it fully incorporates the ways that art is made in community. Even when I am alone in a studio or in my living room making art, I am supported by my family, my friends, my teachers, my ancestors, and the global community of creative people, whether they identify as artists or not.
Lunar Mandala, 2020. Welded steel ring coated in shellac and red pigment, cast bronze calabash, palm frond fragment, textiles, fabric flowers, dried plant material, foam, beads, textile embellishments, ceramic objects, acrylic paint, spray paint, Flashe paint, glue. 3 x 105 x 105 inches.
OPP: You recently completed a residency at Secret Land in Los Angeles. Was the residency affected by Covid19?
MM: COVID-19 had a pretty big impact on this residency. I was fortunate that the studio space was single-occupancy, so I was able to social-distance and spend time working there safely. The largest negative impact was that accessing supplies became quite limited. I could not stop by the hardware store to pick something up or visit my favorite stores in the Fabric District in downtown LA. I also couldn’t invite anyone over for a studio visit. On the other hand, I had the benefit of having nothing else to do other than work remotely for my day job and then go to the studio in my free time. This made it even more like a “real” residency, where you are able to get away from your life and seclude yourself somewhere to pour everything you have into your work. Also, because of financial limitations, I have not had a studio space in ten years – I’ve been making work in my living room, my partner says it is like living with Basquiat when I’m deep into a project, so even with the negative effects of COVID, this was an incredibly transformative time for my practice. I was able to reconnect with materials I had stored in corners of my apartment since my undergraduate years and work more intuitively since I didn’t have to meticulously plan out a project ahead of time.
Demerara Mandora, 2020. Steel (rusted and sealed with acrylic spray), jute rice sack, carved and painted calabash (gourd), chicken wire, wood, foam, spray paint, acrylic paint, Flashe paint, textiles, beads, flowers, steel screws, glue. 54 x 39 x 9 inches.
OPP: What did you make while you were there?
MM: The piece I am most excited about that came out of the residency was Demerara Mandorla. It is an assemblage work that contains references to my family history, Demerara is the name of the region in Guyana where my mother is from. The rice farm where my mother was born and raised is referenced through the rusted steel, chicken wire, decorated calabash, jute rice sack, and the teal color of the wood fragments that form the rays emanating out. The mandorla shape is a form that I used to work with quite often when I first started making art as a symbol of divine feminine power, but it is also a symbol of the union of opposites, which points to a kind of liminality or transitory state. The textiles and embellishments represent for me my multi-racial heritage and the complex histories this identity encompasses as well as the aggressive abundance of the ANTI/body series. The piece feels like a circling back, a culmination, but also a form that builds and expands, something that energizes me to keep creating.
To see more of Maya's work, please mayamackrandilal.com.