Photographer Spandita Malik has produced at least three portraits of Parween Devi. In each instance, the latter has been a partner in the creative process, contributing her expert needlework. In a portrait in Spandita’s Vadhu: The Embroidered Bride series, Parween sits for her bridal portrait in a plastic chair in front of a cabinet which holds an older-model television. Her hands are clasped across her lap. She smiles. She is approachable.
The compressed space Parween inhabits is quite austere, with its concrete floor and pale-colored walls. She has enhanced the image, however, by adding a colorful fabric frame and embroidering an additional one using intricate, vegetal patterning. A lone, stylized flower dangles from an imaginary vine above her left shoulder as though the room may suddenly flourish – an enclosed, impenetrable garden rather than this cramped, gray chamber. A frieze of embroidered orange flowers at the bottom of the picture forms a delicate barrier between us and herself. The garment she wears is a tour de force of handicraft. In her minimalist surroundings, she shimmers.
In Spandita’s Nā́rī series, which she began in 2019 while she was in graduate school at Parsons School of Design, the frame and the room have expanded around Parween. The artist explained in an interview with Lens Culture, “‘Nā́rī’ is a word that I’ve used all my life. There are multiple definitions that appear in Hindi: woman, wife, female, an object that is regarded as feminine, but it also means sacrifice.”
In the Nā́rī portrait, Parween is no longer a bride; she is a wife. Three embroidered, stylized female figures with clothing in colors matching her own garments share the room with her. Their presence feels like a declaration: “this is women’s territory.” Doorways, framed art, and photographic portraits extend the interior space, yet they do not offer much respite from confinement as each portal merely leads to another room within the home. The elaborately embroidered frame emphasizes constraint if not captivity.
There is nothing particularly disquieting about the Vadhu and Nā́rī portraits. On the surface, they seem to celebrate traditional, regional needlework styles and techniques of Northern India: Zardozi in Jaipur, Chikankari in Lucknow, and Phulkari in Punjab. Spandita used a photographic heat transfer emulsion process to print the portraits on khadi, a cotton fabric hand woven or spun using a wheel called a “charka.” Produced in homes in Indian villages rather than factories, khadi has revolutionary connotations: Mahatma Gandhi promoted the cloth as a symbol of self-sufficiency, ”swadeshi,” in the struggle for independence of the Indian subcontinent. The production of khadi constituted a quiet form of resistance to the mill owners and to British colonial rule overall.
Thus, from the matrix or titular “mesh” of her most recent project, Spandita Malik: Jāḷī—Meshes of Resistance, Spandita and her collaborators, including Parween, have built upon the concept of quiet resistance performed within the confines of domestic interiors. Another key concept, the word “jāḷī,” also Sanskrit in origin, refers to a style of openwork seen in Indo-Islamic architecture, embroidery, metalwork, calligraphy, and other art forms. With the jāḷī aesthetic, repeated ornamental patterns, regularity, and order are emphasized. In architecture, perforated and latticed stone admit light and air to interior spaces while keeping out intense sun or rain.
In its nascence, Nā́rī was an exploration of gender inequality, “a project,” explains Spandita, “talking about women’s rights and the lack of them in India.”
With embroidery, the jāḷī style echoes the net- or mesh-like appearance of the openwork. For Spandita, jāḷī came to represent (among other things) community – a net of fine, rich threads connecting a sisterhood of women joined by art, sacrifice, and suffering. In its nascence, Nā́rī was an exploration of gender inequality, “a project,” explains Spandita, “talking about women’s rights and the lack of them in India.” The concept of safe spaces emerged as a predominant one, particularly after she began making the acquaintance of survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. Thanks to the support and services provided by nonprofit organizations, women survivors were able to connect with one another, albeit in some instances only from their homes.
Embroidery offered them a means of gaining greater financial independence and also provided them with a crucial outlet for creativity and self expression.
“In India,” Spandita points out, “you don’t have the basic freedom to feel safe.” Turning to the subjects of rape culture and domestic violence, she began interviewing and photographing the women in her portrait series, including for her most recent project, Jāḷī, in their homes. As she learned more about them, she found that many of the women had begun learning to embroider in styles particular to the regions where they lived; embroidery offered them a means of gaining greater financial independence and also provided them with a crucial outlet for creativity and self expression.
Some of the women Spandita photographed were not only survivors of domestic or sexual abuse, but they were still residing with their abusers. Parween, whose story isn’t clear – possibly for her protection – appears in a small, framed photograph on the wall with her husband in the Jāḷī series that is currently on display at the Kemper Museum in Kansas City (MO). There are three representations of her in this image over which she has embroidered flowers and stars in glossy saffron and crimson. Her reflection in the mirror and her face in the framed portrait with her husband are unobstructed. In contrast, the face of the Parween who sits facing the mirror of her vanity, is obscured decoratively. Pathos encroaches on this seemingly pleasant interior scene like countless others featuring women in intimate, domestic settings: the sinister, complicated locks on the door and windows emphasize her captivity, suggesting imminent danger.
The other works in the Jāḷī series are equally at once unsettling and extraordinarily beautiful. In Jyoti, the sitter has used embroidery and beadwork to adorn her body and her surroundings. A mirror provides another view: both selves are connected by fine gold thread. The garments worn by the outward-facing self have been embroidered intricately.
In Meena II, Meena has concealed her photographic portrait under a layer of silk thread. Her simplified features include a slight, pleasant smile. With Radha Rani IV, Radha’s bedroom has become a splendid enclosed garden in which her lone companion is a red, stuffed teddy bear. She sits on her bed, looking out at us from beneath a water-stained ceiling – a telltale sign of damage yet repaired.
We feel we’re on the brink of witnessing something potentially magical.
Shabeena in Shabeena Begham is not portrayed in her bedroom but, rather, in a rustic kitchen where she has converted ordinary culinary implements into gilded tools. No longer trapped in her home, she is instead a priestess in a temple; we feel we’re on the brink of witnessing something potentially magical.
Only Arifa in Arifa Bano has escaped the confines of her home – at least to the rooftop. A landscape stretches out behind her, but so does an orange, floral fabric backdrop that confines her to this extension of her house below. The embroidered gold tiles beneath her feet throw perspective off completely: she floats like a Byzantine figure in this ethereal, liminal space yet there seems to be no possibility of escape.
The artworks in the Jāḷī exhibition are displayed in a small, quiet corner gallery in the Kemper Museum. One passes through a large, light-filled atrium before entering the gallery in which Spandita’s video is projected; her cheerful voice provides context. The works, which are accompanied by labels providing basic information (title, date, media), have not been framed beyond the embroidered ones. The information we glean about the subjects of each portrait comes almost wholly from looking.
Relinquishing control of the portraits, turning them over to their subjects and accepting whatever embellishments and modifications they made as crucial expressions of self-determination, was key to the success of these collaborations.
None of the pieces rests flush against the wall, suggesting both impermanence and incompleteness: they are works in progress. Indeed, as Spandita points out, relinquishing control of the portraits, turning them over to their subjects and accepting whatever embellishments and modifications they made as crucial expressions of self-determination, was essential to the success of these collaborations.
In addition to confronting the crisis of domestic and sexual abuse in India, with projects like Vadhu, Nā́rī, Jāḷī, Spandita is also challenging what she refers to as “the colonial lens.” “I have a problem with documentary work done in India for the last few decades,” she states in an interview with The Hindu. “It usually shows a western perspective — high-profile photographers would come and do grandeur projects with rich contrasts and beautiful images of poverty.” In large part, at least for now, her focus is on stepping back–of quite literally allowing her work to provide the background for something more complex and personal to each woman.
While one doesn’t leave the exhibition with the sense that these works represent improved conditions for the women, much less vehicles toward increased liberty or agency, they do feel like documents of a process. What makes them different from the countless, orientalizing images of women in quiet, interior settings? At the least, the women themselves have been given license to create new narratives of beauty rather than pain.
Spandita Malik: Jāḷī—Meshes of Resistance, curated by Krista Alba, assistant curator, is on exhibit at the Kemper Museum in Kansas City (MO), until February 25, 2024.
© Debra Thimmesch (10/25/2023) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Visit Spandita Malik’s website to learn more about the artist.
Read more about the exhibit from the Kemper Museum.
Learn more about Nā́rī from Lens Culture.
Read an article from The Hindu about Spandita’s work.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Photos by Debra Thimmesch for FF2 Media featuring Spandita Malik’s work displayed at the Kemper Museum. Approved for legitimate use by others as long as a link to this page is provided in user’s credits.
Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in Art History and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink and reframe the study and pedagogy of Art History. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal. Her BA in art history is from Wichita State University; master’s and doctoral work in art history: the University of Kansas.