Jan. 2012 - Anjali Bhargava is a New York-based Indian artist working in photography and video to comment on ideologies of beauty, self-acceptance and empowerment. I saw her series 'Breath' at Latitude 28, and was struck by its boldness, its raw red, its obvious statement and its provocativeness. I spoke to her on Skype; she had just woken up on a Sunday. With just simple eye-liner, she was natural and lucid about her concerns. She was conscious of not being type-cast in a single category of artists or photographers or art photographers or fashion photographers. This boundary-lessness soon permeated our own conversation as we reminisced on life in New York and being Indian there...
Bhargava will be showing her series UnSuitable Girls at Aljira, center for contemporary art in Newark, in the show Me Love You Long Time, curated by Edwin Ramoran, from February 16th through April 14th.
Anjali Bhargava, Am I Beautiful Yet-Fixed; Courtesy Anjali Bhargava
Himali Singh Soin: So how did you begin?
Anjali Bhargava: I always loved art as a kid, but at some point I realized that I wasn’t able to capture things the way I wanted to. When I was finally able to study it in high school, I knew I had found my medium. I majored in photojournalism at Syracuse University because I loved photographing people and wanted to learn how to make my images communicate the story I wanted to tell.
HSS: Why portraits?
AB: People are fascinating. I love watching people’s gestures and expressions...and capturing an image that impacts them and anyone else who sees it. The spaces we inhabit and the way interact with them fascinates me. In high school I discovered Walker Evans' work and became obsessed with portals--the space between, the finite point for entry and exit. I still gravitate to gates, stoops, doors, and windows in my shoots. My definition of a portrait is pretty broad and even empty spaces can be portraits to me.
HSS: Interesting that you say you studied photojournalism, because there are definitely influences of commercial photography in your work. You simultaneously seem to enhance and undermine this aesthetic.
AB: I think retouching is amazing and I feel like to some extent, good retouching allows us to communicate more effectively. Cleaning up dark circles and removing errant hairs is one thing, trimming hips, enlarging eyes, and elongating limbs is something else entirely. The lines are blurry but it comes back to intention for me.
Anjali Bhargava, Am I Beautiful Yet- Bared; Courtesy Anjali Bhargava
HSS: Talk about your series 'Am I beautiful yet' in this context.
AB: My series 'Am I beautiful yet' is a direct examination of my reservations about commercial photography. I photographed and shot video of myself from my bare face through my personal rituals of beautification. Even after the plucking, threading and makeup, the final result fell short. So along with my bare face, and my fully made up face is a third image which is a retouched, but still deceptively real looking version of the second. We see thousands of retouched images daily, probably more than we see real people, and often their purpose is to make us feel that we need whatever product they are selling to “fix” ourselves. I feel like one way we can change our response to this is to reinforce the intellectual understanding of the lies we are fed.
It's a very disturbing thought, that my definition of what would make me beautiful is something I can never achieve. There is a sense that how we appear before our daily rituals is not only not beautiful but not presentable. I wonder if a time is possible where we can appreciate the power and the beauty of fashion without today's level of manipulation.
I still love my eyeliner though.
HSS: What photographers have influenced you?
AB: I’m still totally inspired by the great masters…the photographers that could work across genres in their consistent style. The content was striking and so was the technique. They may have been shot for journalistic or commercial use but no one questions their place in the art world now. On a class trip to NYC in 1994 I saw an Avedon retrospective at the Whitney and a Cartier-Bresson show at ICP. I remember thinking on that day that the two of them represented everything I aspired to and it's still true seventeen years later! Cartier-Bresson said “To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye, and the heart.” I can’t say it better than that.
HSS: Which means that obviously you're creating from a technical place as well as a conceptual one?
AB: Yeah. I think the idea that technique doesn't matter is bullshit. The art world in general can be too conceptually driven...not to imply at all that technique is more important but a good concept executed badly will not have as much impact as it could. It's just about balance.
HSS: And you're accessing a topic that is universal and quite visceral.
AB: Yeah, the confrontation of beauty and how we define it is very important to me. But to overcome societal mandates takes more than an intellectual understanding. A visceral experience can be much more powerful and art can be an incredible tool for that.
Anjali Bhargava, Breathless; Courtesy Anjali Bhargava
HSS: There is something uncanny about the fragmentation of the body in your series' Ground Level and Breath. In one the feet are accentuated, in the other the face is erased, the mouth suffocated, yet sensual...
AB: In many cases I feel like the intention of dismemberment or fragmentation is to sexualize. For me it’s a way of zooming in on the story. Looking down taught me a lot about people and is, incidentally, a liberating way to people watch. Feet talk. Body language, stance, direction they're facing and distance relative to each other and others all tell stories. Feet are also our primary vehicle and are considered very powerful. Hindus touch their elders feet and we are taught that the big toe of the left foot of a satguru emits the most grace. Guru’s paddukas are placed on pujas to represent the guru’s power. And so on.
In the Breath series, the saran wrap emphasizes the import of the red lipstick. I used my own lips and I actually suffocated myself and managed to take the photo at the same time for Breathless to happen--so the shoot necessarily involved experimentation and focus.
Red lips evoke extreme opinions ranging from an ideal of beauty we see in the portrayal of Lakshmi to the more sanguinary portrayals of Kali. Today they remain an icon of beauty as well as the marking of a more brazen woman. Regardless, red lipstick is not worn by mistake or by those who would like to fade into the background. It’s worn with purpose and in combination with expression can tell countless stories.
HSS: So obviously Indian culture influences you in a subtle, almost spiritual way.
AB: Absolutely. Spiritually, for sure, but even cosmetic history in India. Kajal, the original eye-liner, was ayurvedic and good for the eyes and is also believed to provide protection from nazar. It wasn’t just about making our eyes pop. Now, so much money is spent on cosmetics that damage our skin, and then billions are made by selling us anti-aging treatments to reverse that same damage. Thankfully people are more aware and companies are making cosmetics that will at least not damage our skin if not help it. Everything in our lives informs our perception and understanding.
HSS: So what’s next?
AB: I’ve wanted to include motion and sound in my work for a long time because they allow more stories to be told in a different and in many cases, more effective way. I’m finishing up my first music video (to be released in January) which I approached more as a short film that told a story I saw in the song. I’m excited to see what will come of it and I know for sure that video will be a part of future work.
Anjali Bhargava, Portraits-Rhea; Courtesy Anjali Bhargava
HSS: Do you see your work continuing to focus on people?
AB: I photograph authors, musicians, dancers, actors and models for sure. But I love photographing all kinds of people. Every portrait is an honor. So yes, people and stories about the things we feel will always be central to my work.
HSS: How do you feel about where your work fits in the art world?
AB: It’s important to me that my work is accessible. I make photos and I share them in the hopes of communicating something. I want people who see my work to have a reaction, to feel something, regardless of their understanding of art history or the context of the work. I know that the opinions of those not versed in the art world are not valued by many people inside it and that some might look down on me for it but it doesn't change the work I produce. My work will fit where it is appreciated and hopefully in places where it will do more than preaching to the choir.
HSS: If you had to could edit out one generic line from fashion magazines, what would it be?
AB: " -- steps to a sexier/more beautiful/thinner you!"
HSS: If I were a poster girl that represented your ethic and your aesthetic, how would you dress me up, make-up et al?
AB: We are all poster girls for the women and girls in our lives...so I would ask you, as I ask most of my subjects, to wear what makes you feel good and confident regardless of what the magazines tell you.
There is nothing more beautiful and inspiring than a woman who, without reservation or arrogance, loves herself. I haven't met many who live consistently in that feeling but I do see and try to capture glimpses of it. Those moments are a powerful communication. Ultimately though, I believe that getting there comes from looking within, not from a mirror's reflection.
ArtSlant would like to thank Anjali Bhargava for her assistance in making this interview possible.
--Himali Singh Soin