Maya Mackrandilal is a transdisciplinary artist and writer whose current work imagines radical futures for women of color solidarity and liberation. She holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was a recipient of a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship. After spending eight years in Chicago, she relocated to Los Angeles in 2016. Her work has been shown nationally, including the Chicago Artist’s Coalition, THE MISSION, Monique Meloche Gallery, Aljira Contemporary Art Center, and Smack Mellon. Her essays have appeared in The New Inquiry, contemptorary, and MICE Magazine, among others.
“The monster is that being who refuses to adapt to her circumstances. Her fate. Her body.”
–Bhanu Kapil, Incubation: A Space for Monsters
This project explores how dominant cultures imagine “The Other”—an imagination that is both painfully current but also deeply embedded in our histories. I’m interested in how visual culture intersects with social discourses (critical race theory, feminism, and queer theory for example) and examining the genealogies that both led to our present social dynamics as well as alternate ways of thinking about the past in order to intervene in the present.
I used Partha Mitter’s Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art as a starting point for this project. In his study of early writing by Westerners about Indian figurative sculpture and painting, he notes that European writers were in fact unable to accurately describe what they were seeing and instead fell back on Western depictions of “demons” and “monsters.” For instance, many writers described Hindu gods that had horns and hoofed feet, a well-established motif in western depictions of the demonic, but completely absent in the South Asian sculptures they were looking at. The term “monstrous” (to describe both scale and aesthetics) is used repeatedly in Western texts, and Mitter ties this language to the Western dichotomy of the rational/irrational, with the absolute otherness of Hindu art standing in as the “irrational” “degenerate” and over-abundant foil to Western rationality, racial purity, and aesthetic valuation of mimesis as art’s highest goal. He states:
But as E.H. Gombrich has taught us in another context, the ‘innocent eye’ is an illusion, for what we see is coloured by our cultural expectations. To put it slightly differently, when the West turned its cultural mirror toward the Other, what it saw reflected in it was its own Self.
For this project I entered into and inhabited this space of “Western” imagination, enacting its nightmares, but queering those nightmares, decolonizing them, entering into a dialogue with them. I enacted the fear at the root of white-cis-het-male aggression, the fear that historical and contemporary violence that marginalized people have been subjected to will one day be turned onto the bodies of the oppressors. I performed as incarnations of Hindu goddesses that are a pastiche of the past and the present, a collision of “Western” and “Non-Western” artistic traditions, visual culture, and signifiers.
Deities are always a reflection of the cultures that imagine them into existence, and the Goddesses in this series find themselves incarnated within US hegemonic culture, a culture rooted in white supremacy, capitalism, queer-antagonism, and patriarchy. A world of reality television, instagram celebrity, and hyper-sexualization. They are intimate with violence, both historical and present. They remember the castration of black men in lynching photographs and Darren Wilson calling Michael Brown a “demon” in his grand jury testimony. They remember the slave ships, the plantations, the indentured laborers, and the iPhone factory workers.
The Goddess Durga comes to us riding not her customary tiger, but the most ferocious beast on the planet, a white man. Her hand is raised in Abhaya mudra, a gesture of reassurance, blessing, and protection. It says “do not fear” for she is here to return the world to balance. Her red head scarf and rifle signify that she comes to us in one of her more recent incarnations, the “Bandit Queen” Phoolan Devi, who exacted revenge for her gang rape by (allegedly) having her group of bandits murder all the men in the village where her rape occurred. Behind her, the images of Bush administration officials who were involved in perpetrating the illegal torture of enemy combatants appear with golden rifle crosshairs over their faces. We know that Durga is here for justice, to conquer white supremacy and capitalist violence.
The Goddess Lakshmi appears in a classic pose usually reserved for Kali, her foot on the demon of white supremacy (here signified as a man wearing the confederate flag). The capitalist pig is her pet by her side, tamed, ready to serve. She fans herself with currency (the dollar replacing the gold that pours from her hand in traditional depictions). The downward gesture of her other hand is the Varada mudra, signifying the fulfillment of all wishes, a gesture of charity. Her abundance, her dominance, they are not merely for show. She signifies the radical re-distribution of wealth through the hands of women of color in a post-capitalist, post-patriarchy, post-white future.
The Goddess Saraswati incarnates as a reference to Mia Khalifa, a “pro-am” internet pornstar who briefly became (in)famous for being the first woman to perform a blowjob on camera wearing a hijab. Khalifa fulfills the desires of the orientalist empire, to control the exotic bodies of harem women, to enjoy the submissive woman of the east, untainted by Western Feminism. Saraswati, goddess of knowledge and art, queers this dynamic, poking fun at the Western trope of the odalisque. Here, white supremacy (again symbolized by the confederate flag) “gives her head” while she reads a copy of Black Marxism by Cedric J. Robinson. Saraswati knows that her sexuality is a type of power, a power that patriarchy is always trying to suppress. She knows that revolution comes through education and creative expression (signified by the pile of books and the guitar).
Finally, Kali comes to us, not as her fearsome incarnation (garlanded with skulls, wearing a skirt of severed arms, clutching a scythe in one hand and a severed head in the other) but as the Pietà. When Michelangelo was criticized for the youthful features of Mary in his iconic take on this archetype, he responded by saying: Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body? Kali is no “chaste” virgin. She is the idea at the root of “virgin” related to “virile” – to feminine sexual agency. She holds the dead body of white supremacy gently in her arms, her tongue-phallus protruding. She is the monstrous body, the queer body, asserting its eternal beauty.
The Goddesses have evolved beyond these original images. They have been conjured into the world, first, the Goddess Lakshmi in the performance Bedtime Stories of White Supremacy and #NewGlobalMatriarchy (where she was joined by her comrade, the Nigerian goddess Oya). Later, Saraswati incarnated in the performance series Letters to Whiteboys. They will continue to move through the world, unmaking and remaking it, from one cycle to another.