Interview - Nirmal Raja

"Lyrical Lines" Engraved palm leaves, intaglio and collograph print- 14” X 32”

Our next exhibition is The Tongue of the Hand, new work by Nirmal Raja. Raja answered some questions on the work she'll be showing. 


Can you start out by telling us a little about yourself and your artistic background?

I grew up moving every few years across India and then briefly to S. Korea and Hong Kong. I migrated to this country in 1991 after marrying my husband Sharath. I have a Bachelors degree in English Literature from India. I continued my education and obtained a BFA at the Milwaukee institute of Art and Design, and a MFA in painting at UWM. My friends and family, the exceptional faculty at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts where I continue to teach and an amazing support system at Redline Milwaukee (where I am a mentor resident), have all had a hand in my growth as an artist. Due to migration and travel, my life has been a collage of experiences. As a result, my artwork is a collage as well- of experiences ruminated, digested and translated. Nurturing a poetic sensibility towards life helps me reconcile diverse memories of a fragmented past with the here and now; this attitude permeates my work.


In this exhibition, you are exploring the different aspects of language such as “script as form” and “legibility and illegibility.” Can you talk a little about the evolution of these concerns in your work?

I am fascinated by the opacity of an illegible script. I have lived and travelled in many places and absorbed what it feels like to be confronted with a script I cannot read. It becomes line and pattern (form) and one cannot help but see rather than read. It is wonderful to focus on abstract notions of geometry, mark making, rhythm and how these things can communicate in their own way especially when written by hand. The expressive quality of line is universal and communicates something subliminal and guttural nevertheless.

I am also interested in the duality of these scripts as they parallel the duality of two cultures and perspectives. The same script decoded by a native speaker is perfectly understandable to her or him but totally illegible to someone who does not know the language. English plays a hegemonic role in written and verbal communication- probably remnants of a colonial past. We are increasingly becoming a monolingual society with very little tolerance of diversity of language. In the work “The Practice of Letters”, I place the viewer in a position where she or he experiences what it feels like to be confronted with script they cannot decode. Too often, non-English speaking people are put in this position. I chose to incorporate a ritual from childhood, which involves writing letters on a bed of rice. In this artwork, the viewer is invited to participate in this ritual by tracing the animated letters on a bed of rice which is a very sensual and tactile experience.

I am often saddened by the loss of my own native tongue due to attending all English speaking schools and migration. At the same time, I want to transcend the limitations of language through my artwork. In this show I focus on the possibilities of using line as a mode of expression, the substrate as manuscript and printmaking as mimesis and mirror.

"Community" Engraved palm leaves, intaglio and collograph print- 14” X 32”You employ both traditional and new media practices in your work such as drawing and video. How does the blending of these types of practices help you to express the concepts you are interested in?

I try to keep my practice as open as possible to different media choices. My approach to making art has always given preference to the idea over materials. Although trained as a painter, I love to learn new techniques and modes of making. I have found that drawing animation particularly is suitable for what I want to express. I like the way it hovers between materiality and immateriality and allows temporality and participation. Combined with installation strategies, art becomes an immersive experience.

The Scribed series is very much about materiality and process. I started each of these works with an intentional mark and allowed for free “writing” Some are about gesture and line, some resemble asemic writing (a wordless and non specific form of writing) and some become pattern. My intent is to remove coding and semantics and create a space where the viewers can fill it with meaning. I chose to use an ancient book form – palm leaf scroll as a substrate and then connect that with the Western tradition of printmaking and its role in the proliferation of knowledge. The scroll and the print mirrored, speak for cultural and formal duality within the work.

How does the work in The Tongue of the Hand differ from your previous work? How is it the same? Specifically, how did your consideration of our 12 X 12 space influence your work?

Text and line have always had a presence in my work usually to enhance an over all concept. I consider the work included in this show as beginnings of an ongoing exploration. There are several other aspects of text and language that I will continue to explore in the future. The advantage of a 12 X12 space is that it gives one control over the whole space and at the same time forces you to edit your work and thoughts. I chose not to include some work that was going in a different direction due to space and concerns of clarity and I believe this makes for a stronger show.

The text that is included in this installation is an excerpt from the Ain-I Akbari, “On the Arts of Writing and Painting” (ca. 1590) by Abul Fazi. Please tell us a little about this writer and the significance of this text.

Abul Fazl was the minister and advisor to Emperor Akbar in late 1500s India. He was one of the nine “jewels” in Akbar’s court, a prolific writer, historian and translator. He supported Emperor Akbar’s liberal views on religion and learning. I found this quote by him in an exhibition catalog about manuscripts and the written word- The word is sacred, sacred is the word, The Indian Manuscript Tradition. I was struck by how fresh and relevant his ideas still are with text based contemporary art and my concerns of language, art and communication.

"Sunset Perspective" Engraved palm leaves, intaglio and collograph print- 14” X 32”Do you have any other shows coming up that you would like to talk about?

I was invited to exhibit at the Alfons Gallery in Milwaukee in August 2015. This is particularly exciting to me as I am interested in exploring the spiritual in this show. I will be showing some video installations and other work that connect ideas of mindfulness, nature and transience. In addition, I am part of a group show in San Ramon, CA titled Intersections: Asian American Narratives in February 2015; I have a two-person show at the Hinterland Gallery in Denver in the fall of 2015, and a group show at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum in Oct 2015. I am grateful and excited for all opportunities to share my work.