Maya Varadaraj in her studio. Photo by Nicole Stoddard.

We caught up with Maya to see how she's staying creative during quarantine and talk about the inspiration behind her use of circular shapes in her recent works.

Maya Varadaraj is an NYC-based interdisciplinary artist whose work reflects on a myriad of socio-cultural issues, but particularly those pertaining to the treatment of women in her native country of India. Much of Varadaraj’s work is influenced by the traditional domestic roles women are expected to uphold, as well as creating narratives for the experiences of a collective whole. The artist creates work through varied use of collage and assemblage to examine, research, and reframe the conditions of a material society by using the very materials which define them. Varadaraj’s work has been exhibited internationally at the Vitra Design Museum, The Rossana Orlandi, and The Center For Emerging Visual Artists, among others.

Sigma Chi, Collage, 2020

Emily Owens: As a multidisciplinary artist, your work ranges from installations, paintings, and video diaries to collage, assemblage, and even pulverizing and reshaping glass bangles in a microwave. What led you to the use of collage and assemblage?

Maya Varadaraj: My first collages were made as a part of my installation you were referring to titled Khandayati. The process I used to produce this installation included a lot of hacking, modifying, and reassembling household appliances, so when I expanded the project to include 2D images, collages seemed most appropriate.

Where do you find your source material? Are there specific publications you source from or places in Manhattan/Jersey City that you prefer to acquire materials from?

My source materials are calendar illustrations and advertisements from 1920—40s India. Unfortunately, I haven’t found an archive for the original images or even high-resolution images of them online. I work with what I can find and I like how re-printing them adds to the process of working with them.

I’ve got quite interested in the history of these images and that has influenced the way I work with them. I’d love to find a way to get involved in archiving and documenting them more thoroughly.

What does the use of pre-existing imagery or objects mean for your process?

Sometimes it feels like objects and images are fixed in time and meaning. So I see it as an opportunity to retell a narrative with new perspectives and experiences, not just mine, but collective perspectives and experiences.

Recently I’ve felt more of a responsibility to understand the history and context of the images that I’m working with and I think that’s definitely benefited my reworking of them.

Khandayati, Installation, 2017. Photo by Jonathan Allen.

How was your relationship with collage informed?

It came from looking for a connection to hacking, modifying, and reassembling. Initially, I wanted to create propaganda posters that incorporated the glass shards that were a by-product of Khandayati.

All propaganda posters from India are collaged and I grew up with them, so it only made sense that I use collage.

On your website, your biography mentions your use of “material culture as a material in itself.” Can you tell us a little bit more about that idea?

Sure! Material culture comes with its own set of qualities like history, tradition, materiality, and function that dictates the process. The glass bangles for example; have gender, religious, marital, and societal significance and I had to parse through all of those qualities to figure out how I was going to destroy them and what they were going to turn into.

Collage deals with this a lot. Collage artists essentially work with material culture, so the implications of placing one image next to another can carry more weight.

Let’s talk about circles. They are a constant theme in your recent work. However, each is fragmented or altered by the imagery of women performing domestic tasks. In some, the domestic objects expand from the composition or interrupt it, creating their own patterns outside of the fixed shape. A lot of different ideas came up for me, but let’s first focus on the “simple” shape itself. Why circles?

I’m working on a project that looks at statistics of crimes against women in India. I’m taking the statistics and presenting them through visuals connected to Eastern Religions to critique the origin of the violence. Concentric circles are prominent in Eastern Religions, especially mandalas, and they are meditative and calming so it creates this weird juxtaposition of information and visuals.

I wanted to bring the same quality to my collage work because as I mentioned before, I felt more of a responsibility to understand the history of these women. As always with my work, I nose-dived into research and found that there were distinct types of women in posters in pre-independent India and they were caught at the two ends of the nationalist uprising.

In this light, it made more sense to elevate the women and respect their contributions to the future of Indian women rather than focus on the patriarchal gaze set on them. So I used the same concentric circles alluding to the mandalas to elevate the women and give them due credit.

And what prompted you to interrupt their completeness?

It alludes to escaping reality while having one foot in it for convenience because I think the women are operating at a higher level of consciousness. Kind of a cocky way to be like “ok I’m here, but I’m also there and far far beyond.”

Finally It All Started To Make Sense, Collage, 2020

Kenneth Noland and many other popular white western males of the Abstract Expressionist movement used the familiar shape in their work. In Noland’s Target series of the 1950s, we observed this perfect, complete shape which famous art critic Clement Greenberg claimed satisfied an “eyes to brain” effect on the viewer. Immediately demanding, immediately satisfying, and able to conduct pure emotion through its simplicity. I’d like to know if this disruption of the form of the circle has anything to do with your work as a feminist statement. It’s obvious that you are using the imagery of Indian women and their domestic tasks to interrupt the form. Are they, in their own way, disrupting the historically white, historically male art world and its ideas of “Perfection?”

No, I think they have bigger, more worthwhile things to disrupt. Heh heh. The disruption of the circle refers to my statistical drawings; the little interruptions like the floating objects, the cut out triangles all go back to the statistical drawings.

I’m excited to expand on this as more as the current collages deliberately don’t carry any statistics, they are just visually similar to the drawings.

Going back to the circles I think that using the circles connects to that philosophy of just existing without any violence and labels. Like Sayed Haider Raza and the Bindu paintings—pulling from Eastern philosophies.

In a completely different direction: artists such a Wassily Kandinsky used geometric abstraction and notably, colorful circles as a sort of spiritual practice. This led to more “transcendental” works in abstraction. Is there any aspect to these collages, their shapes, or their color schemes that are tied to spiritualism for you, either personally or in reference to your native Indian culture? I guess the idea of the mandala came up for me, which is often circular and a little aesthetically chaotic.

Yes absolutely, part of using the circles and spiritual visuals is to connect to the positive aspects of my own culture. Especially in a time when history can devastatingly repeat itself.

The floor is Maya's usual workspace which she shares with her curious cat, Benedict Arnold Paddington III.
Paddington sunbathing on a work in progress.

It’d be an understatement to say that we’re living in some strange, strange times. How has this massive disruption in our lives, due to the novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19, affected your art practice? I know you were commuting to Jersey City from Manhattan, where your studio is. That commute via subway and the PATH, I am sure, has been disrupted.

I actually gave up my studio in Jersey City in October of last year. I’ve been working from my apartment since, so I’m kind of used to it.

My shows and stuff for the year have been canceled or postponed, so I’m working with my network to see how things can be promoted or even just presented virtually. It’s exciting because you get to learn new things that can be used as a platform going forward. Meaning, perhaps, that artists don’t have to depend on physical spaces to show their work legitimately?

I’m also working more productively and with clearer intentions—which is very new for me, and perhaps this is because there’s no pressure to do anything other than work. It has also made me prioritize my community much more—I got connected with Mario (Zoots) and we’re collaborating. It’s nice to slow down and understand what is really important.

There is never a good time to be an artist...is there? Well anyway, I do feel energized because I feel like artists are responsible for responding to difficult times because we understand things differently and we can perhaps bring some comfort, energy, or some outlet for others.

Have you noticed any particular themes arising in your work that is perhaps different, or directly influenced by this international crisis?

I think collective consciousness for sure, I’ve definitely referred to it in my other projects but I’m excited to explore it more.

I’ve spoken to quite a few artists across a multitude of disciplines who have mentioned their motivation towards art-making being stifled during this time. Have you personally felt capable of keeping up “the momentum” for art-making or not so much?

Yes and no.

Yes, because there’s not much to do other than work and that really helps me focus and work without any interruptions.

No, because I want to do more for people. With this pandemic, you can’t volunteer where they need it most for legitimate reasons, and so you really have to figure out how to contribute your time, skills, and resources.

This actually motivates me to produce work sometimes because maybe someone is deriving some joy from it. Working also gives me ideas on how to share things, for example recently I led a drawing session with some friends and it was fun and relaxing.

To Discuss Worldly Problems, Collage, 2020

We’ve noticed you’ve been quite busy on Instagram! Aside from creating art-trivia games for your friends and followers, you’ve been exhibiting diaristic video works. It’s been fascinating to watch as you edit yourself, stumble over text and pour yourself out vulnerably to your audience. While the diaristic component is certainly relatable and deeply self-questioning, there is also an element of play in them.

I have a complicated relationship with Instagram, in that, I used to hate it and I only got an account because of a school assignment. Now, I kind of like it because I realize all my friends are there and I don’t have to give people a whole, long, dragging explanation to my work, I can just show them my page and be like here #done.

But in COVID times…

Instagram is actually helping me find ways to contribute to people. I started the trivia as a way for people to learn about art and living artists that they can potentially collect and support. Not all of them but some. It’s also fun and I try to make it humorous and I send them postcards if they win a certain number of answers, so it's a fun way to connect.

Writing is something I’ve always wanted to do, and again it sort of came from knowing that 100 other people are probably in the same predicament.

Does this element of play also appear in the work you typically produce?

Yes for sure, all of my work has elements of dark, existential humor…I think?

What does this element of play mean to your work, or how does it inform you?

It allows me to be authentic and light, I find that I work most efficiently when I work from humor and lightness. The times when I am serious and heavy-handed, I either don’t make work or I make work that I don’t feel comfortable with.

Maya, we can not thank you enough for your time! We sincerely hope that you, your family, and cat-creatures are doing well in New York City and that you stay healthy and continue creating such rad work. Thank you!

Thank you so much for the fun and thoughtful questions! Stay safe!