Deities, Demons, and Dudes with 'Staches: Indian Avatars by Sanjay Patel
Tateuchi Thematic Gallery, 2nd Floor
Every now and then I get one of those emails that are too good to believe. The kind of email that jumps off your computer screen and into your life with a bang. I recently received such an email; it went something like this. 'Hey it's the SF Asian Art Museum. We're hosting an exhibition called Maharaja: Splendor of India in the fall. Would you be interested in activating the exterior of the building based on this exhibition?'
'Are you freaking kidding me,' I thought, 'That would be amazing!' I usually express this level of excitement by cranking my favorite song on my ipod and riding my bicycle as fast as I can. Which I did on my way to work. Once I got there I started spilling my guts about the email -- an opportunity that I didn't even know if I had yet. Did I mention that I'm an Aries, first sign of the zodiac, with the special ability to charge ahead and fall flat on my face? My colleagues responded to my news with a very sensible question: WTF does activate the exterior of the building mean? Did you hear that sound? Yeah that thud was me falling on my face as I started to ask myself yeah, what does that mean...
A week later I find myself in the surreal situation of walking the full perimeter of the SF Asian Art Museum with the head curators, directors of publicity and marketing, as well as the head of exhibition and planning. We walk out to Larkin St. and with our backs to city hall we talk about the facade and signage as well as the building's historic landmark status and how the exterior can't be physically altered. From there we walk around to Fulton St. where there is a steady stream of tourist buses parked, letting out visitors to check out city hall. The marketing director mentions that these tourist don't even realize that this is a museum or that it might be a place they would be interested in visiting. As we reach the intersection of Fulton and Hyde St. my guides mention that they're interested in the sight lines from the civic center BART station. Someone else mentions possibly projecting animation on the museum's south face from the library directly across the block. As we loop to the intersection of Hyde and McAllister there is discussion about the blank wall space on the back side of the museum as well as possibly using the sidewalk itself as a canvas.
All of this sounded exciting and amorphous. It was as if the museum was collectively saying. 'our building needs to standout from the faceless gray buildings that are its neighbors. Can you help us?' To which, I wondered on the BART ride back to work, if you want an illustration, fine, if you want a book, okay that's a ton of work but okay. Now if you're talking animation, that is a shit ton of work but still, yeah, okay. But figuring out how to make your building stand out, that just seemed way out of my league.
Luckily there was a clue to this puzzle. It came in the form of the exhibition catalogue that one of the curators was kind enough to send me. This catalogue investigates the various roles of the rajas during their sovereign rule over their kingdom, to their subjugation under the British and the eventual creation of various princely states. Under the British the rajas were shown off in Europe as exotic symbols of splendor and essentially became the jewel in the queen's crown. But the relationship was more complicated than master and servant; as the rajas were exposed to European culture it helped transform and modernize their own kingdoms back in India.
And that was all it took. After reading the catalogue I was inspired to start sketching regardless of what I was or wasn't qualified to do. Eventually I spent over three months working on this project. I went as far as creating final illustrations even before my pitch had been accepted. This was all without any further contact with the museum. After the initial meeting with the museum staff I didn't speak to them, let alone show them any sketches or discuss any of my ideas. I just went for it. Usually, this method is a total no no. I would never work this way at PIXAR or with a publisher, but for some reason I felt the museum was asking me to just do my thing. So I did, so much so that I didn't care if what I made pleased them or not. I felt the work was for me. Hell, at that point I wasn't being paid to do it. I took time off from work and even worked through my birthday. It was all consuming. Without a doubt it became a personal passion project.
However, before I went too far down the spiral of work, I set a deadline with the museum staff so I wouldn't finesse and develop the work without end. As the date approached I created an elaborate keynote presentation to go over my entire thought process. I even went as far as producing a 4 x 16 foot mock up of what would later become a full-scale mural.
After the pitch everyone in the room was floored. They loved the work and started talking about the ideas right away. I stood back, thrilled that I didn't fall on my face, and quickly whipped out my camera and took some photos. A week later the curators called me back to re-pitch my work to the museum director and the executive team. Again they said they loved it. At which point my job felt done. I just needed to wait for their final written approval. Little did I know, two more surprises lay in store.
The first surprise/heart attack came when, a few weeks later, I saw a postcard for the Maharaja exhibition in the lobby of the museum. The artwork was not anything I pitched, but instead featured the same photograph of a jeweled sarapeth form the cover of exhibition catalogue. I was stunned that the museum didn't tell me that they were going to pass on my work and had already gone ahead and printed postcards. I snatched up the postcard and showed it to the curators, who, to my great relief, assured me that this was just a temporary place holder and was distributed to just a small group.
The second surprise really got my head spinning. It was another email from the museum asking if I'd be interested in my own gallery show. Yeah, my own gallery at the San Freaking Francisco Museum of Asian Art. Are you kidding? My own show! I was stunned all over again. There wasn't a bicycle to ride at that moment or music to blast. Just quiet amazement at the opportunity. The only sound I made was the click of my mouse as I flagged the email as important.
People see my work and think it's unique. This is total bull. My work is a total knock off and the fact that people don't see it shocks me. That's the whole point of my show: To show people the connection between the most ancient artifacts and my modern interpretation. To place an exquisite stone sculpture of Vishnu from the twelfth century next to a digital illustration created at this moment. Then to step back and to let people decide what's original and what's not. What's special and what's not, what's art and what's pop culture.
My own life is full of these comparisons and contradictions. My father smears red paste on the forehead of small deities each morning. He sits cross-legged and sings along to devotional songs. I sit on a Herman Miller chair, use digital tools, and blare New Order songs, the whole while illustrating Hindu deities. He does his pujas twice a day and I try to do a little work before and after my day job every day. My father animates his faith through meditation and ritual. I use my Techincolor tools to reincarnate modern avatars. In my opinion we're both devoted and reverential, just in different ways, and for different reasons. We're also both continuing a tradition of art making and worship that stretches back thousands of years. What could be more common to the human experience?