IN CONVERSATION: MEENA HASAN & CHRISTIN GRAHAM
On the occasion of her debut solo exhibition with the gallery, Meena Hasan sat down with Christin Graham to discuss her new body work she created for Mangiferin Chintz. Featuring a selection of over fifteen new paintings, Hasan shares her creative process, ideas behind the work, and personal connections to the subject matter of this incredible new series of paintings.
Christin Graham: Hi Meena! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me. I feel incredibly lucky for not only getting to talk to you about your work in this setting, and your exhibition Mangiferin Chintz- but also that you were kind enough to let me into your studio and talk with you while you worked!
I know each piece is chalk full of stunning mark making, but also woven together with meaning and extensive research. I would love to start off our conversation expanding upon that meaning.
But first, since we’re all searching for the best way to establish new routines and reintegrate ourselves back into social settings, workflow, etc. can you share a little bit about how you structure your day, when you find yourself most productive, and if you eat breakfast?
Meena Hasan: Hi Christin! Thank you so much for being here and talking to me about the work! Let’s see...I’m a morning person and I usually wake up fresh and ready to go. Sometimes I’m even a bit too fresh, like jumping out of the bed 3 minutes before my alarm goes off kind of fresh. My parents say that’s how I was when I was born, I came out quickly, screaming with a full head of hair, ready to go! My internal clock has been waking me up just before sunrise these days. The city is so quiet in those first hours of daylight, like Eugéne Atget photographs of the streets of Paris, full of potential energy, in the midst of transformation. It’s a time to reflect on the previous day while looking forward to the present one. I am productive in those hours with the most clarity of mind. I wish I was the kind of person who ate a solid breakfast, but it’s usually yogurt or a pastry, something with sugar and/or maple syrup. I love a big lunch, a stew or a curry, no matter the season, an afternoon rest and more work or social engagements in the evening.
CG: Atget’s photographs are the perfect comparison, I love that.
The title of your exhibition that just opened, Mangiferin Chintz, nods to the central pieces in the show. Can you explain the reasoning behind that title and where it came from?
MH: Yes! Mangiferin Chintz is a term I invented by juxtaposing two found words. It’s critically reminiscent of a ‘genus, species’ taxonomic classification and I often play at trying to subvert this European Enlightenment-era method of taxonomy. I point to its manipulative authority and false presumptions to open up our ideas of truth and authenticity. I enjoy messing with the absurdity of categorization and naming to look between the given at what can’t be said.
In the show, there are 11 paintings of a mango tree that lives in my family home in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I’m very close to this tree; it’s also home to a large family of intensely territorial crows who I have to be very polite to. I’ve spent countless hours with this tree while on my family’s rooftop, especially when jet-lagged in the early morning, waiting for others to wake. With a little research into mango trees, I was so excited to find the beautiful word “Mangiferin”, the scientific name of the natural bioactive compound found in mango leaves and bark. It has therapeutic and healing qualities as an antioxidant, antibacterial, antimicrobial, antidiabetic, antiallergic and anticancer. Making these paintings, especially during Covid, was a healing experience, a way to connect to Dhaka while in lockdown in NYC and to meditate on natural systems and forms of time and growth, to engage with concepts of fear, loss, distance and memory.
FOR THIS SHOW, I WANTED TO OFFER SOMETHING BOTH PHYSICALLY IMMERSIVE, AND ALSO EXPANSIVELY OPEN LIKE THE WAY I FEEL VISITING LALBAGH... I WANTED TO MAKE A SPACE THAT FELT LIKE IT PROVIDED OXYGEN, HELPING YOUR BLOOD VESSELS MOVE AND BREATHE.
The second part of the title, “Chintz” refers to the textile featured in my piece, The Empress (from Drouais' Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame, 1764). Chintz is a highly sophisticated textile process originating in pre-colonial Hyderabad India in the 16th c. It involves Indian cotton that is hand printed, mordant and resist-dyed into patterned florals. There’s no way to be sure what this textile is in Drouais’ painting that I’m sourcing from, but to me (and other scholars), it’s a fine example of Chintz, especially because Madame Pompadour was known for being a fan of the fabric and was influential in Louis XV’s court, a fashion and art lover.
North Americans might associate the word Chintz with the colloquial adjective “chintzy”, meaning something cheap and of poor quality. I grew up with Chintz fabric, and in recent years I’ve been researching the textile’s history, which is actually rather dramatic. When colonial Europeans first saw floral Chintz in India in the 18th century, they fell in love and began exporting it to Europe. It became so popular that European local wool and silk industries suffered huge losses and in response, governments forbade the import of Chintz and went so far as to systematically steal and destroy South Asia's textile industry to eliminate the competition. Colonial forces eradicated entire textile villages not only burning them to the ground, but also erasing their historic existence by excluding them from future maps. But the demand for Chintz in Europe persisted and Europe industrialized its production, stealing designs and producing it in the West. During this time, India went from having something like 23% of the world economy to having like 2%.
This industrialization led to the production of cheap floral cottons in America that to this day over-populate thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army. I think this is why we have the word “chintzy” here and I’m fascinated by this dramatic shift in meaning and status. I’ve noticed in the last few years that these kinds of floral patterns are popular again and have seen many chintz dresses at things like weddings recently. It regularly circles in and out of fashion and feels to me like a perpetual infinite cycle. I think about how American culture can sometimes erase a reality or a history through its strategies of distancing difficult narratives and our desire for perpetual newness. Chintz reveals one way that historic systems of power have impacted and now reverberate through our daily lives, manipulating our language and tastes. It’s a powerful narrative that brings together issues of colonialism, power and domination as well as beauty, nature, craft and tradition. I’m grateful to my work and my practice for teaching me this history.
I don’t think it’s necessary to know all of this to appreciate the work though, but I like leaving clues and cultivating a sense of mystery and discovery to offer many levels of understanding beyond just the empirical. Ultimately though, the way the works feels experientially through the act of looking and being in the space with them I hope communicates this same complex history on a physical level, one you can feel in your body. The modernist in me very much values this experience, that’s what determines the unconventional materials and supports and also when a work is done.
CG: Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been thinking about and who you’ve been looking to for inspiration recently in preparation for Mangiferin Chintz?
MH: I am lucky because right before lockdown I took a trip to Dhaka for a few weeks. Vital to my process is making work in order to collapse physical and emotional distance and because of the timing of that trip it became the inspiration and focus of this show. While in Dhaka, I visited Lalbagh Fort, a 17th century Mughal complex nestled inside the densely populated neighborhood of Old Dhaka. It’s incomplete and was unoccupied for long periods of time, and in general Dhaka is littered with Mughal, Buddhist and Hindu ruins whose histories and stability are at risk of being lost. There are many mythologies about Lalbagh, including a tragic story of the early death of the Mughal princess Bibi Pari whose tomb is located on the grounds. Because its history and usage isn’t well documented I think maybe it has accumulated this kind of energy as a structure for the imagination, open to visitors’ personal myths and desires. Lalbagh is enclosed by walls and the modern buildings encroach and peer over them; it’s a large complex with green fields and gardens and three structures caked in a beautiful pink red oxidized plaster – the green of the grass and the pink of the buildings are electric in their harmonious contrast, so it’s not only expansive because of its contrast to city buildings, but also in the complementary color experience it offers.
For this show, I wanted to offer something both physically immersive, and also expansively open like the way I feel visiting Lalbagh, which by the way literally translates to RedGarden. I wanted to make a space that felt like it provided oxygen, helping your blood vessels move and breathe. I wanted to see if I could use color and mark making to create a portal to a place with nonlinear rules, where the past and present could collapse into an idea for the future. The pink/green color dynamic is one I’ve seen repeated in many romantic, escapist images as diverse as Fragonard’s The Swing and Vice President Kamala Harris’s controversial debut Vogue photoshoot where she’s in her Converse sneakers standing on top of luxurious pink and green silks.
I also think about Jack Whitten’s paintings and his Portals, that feed from ideas in quantum mechanics to complicate what a wall means, transcending issues of distance and time. And I think about a short story called Sultana’s Dream, a 1905 sci fi story (maybe the first sci-fi story) written by the Bengali feminist and social reformer Rokeya Sultana. It’s about a feminist utopia, aided by technology powered by nature and free from patriarchal values and stereotypes. I’m interested in how these two thinkers play with given structures to develop their own unique visions that can both connect to and transcend our lived realities.
Meena Hasan, Mangiferin Chintz. September 10 - October 16, 2021. LAUNCH F18, New York.
CG: Presently, Global Climate Change is something we're all constantly thinking about. In the realm you’ve entered with the natural forms of plants, construction of fabrics, and other elements of the biological world merged with fabrication, are there parts of your work you see opening the door to this topic, or is this something you’ve been thinking about when working on these pieces?
MH: Yes, but I’m following the work much more than telling it what to do and am certainly not a scientist or an economist nor do I claim ideas of sustainability. As you said, Climate Change is undeniable and we are all experiencing it and thinking about it constantly, thankfully, at long last. I work in a way that tries to see, metabolize and heal contemporary anxieties and concerns. I see that as an artist’s superpower, the ultimate potential for painting, so I think our global concern for the Earth has helped me turn towards studying the natural sciences as well as the industrialization of global textiles, to open up and complicate my approach to image and object making and pattern and decoration. The fact that you’re asking me this question means the work is speaking to those ideas and I’m happy for that expanded viewership. My language though is mainly visual and at the end of the day all of the ideas and efforts are centered around painting and what the medium can do to embody and visualize beauty in relation to nature.
We have always had the impulse to represent the natural world and it’s fascinating to observe the way plant life has informed our ideas of beauty and knowledge. It’s inherent in design, a parallel world to our own that models exquisite forms to build ours off of. Plantlife has been the subject of many painters like Georgia O’Keefe, Van Gogh, Joan Mitchell, Mondrian among many others; there is much to learn there about structure, growth, mortality and movement. We exist on the periphery of nature, as much as nature is our periphery and we are one and the same, even in a great big concrete city like New York. I think about and represent invisible peripheries of influence in my work. Last year in lockdown, I started spending more time with plants, to observe different sorts of bodies and consciousnesses, to expand ideas of our place in history and time.Thinking about exponential scale, the human construction of time, the push of earth’s gravity and the incredible resilience of biological growth were all ways to get past my confinements in lockdown.
CG: The piece titled The Empress (from Drouais’ Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame, 1764) is a beautiful work, which you’ve hung in the gallery space. It’s layered, beyond what the eye can see, with patterns on the Madame’s dress, soft billowing fabric around her legs and exposed on both sides. Can you walk me through the process of how this was created?
MH: Yes, thanks so much for giving me the chance to since I’ve been working on this piece for the past year and it evolved through many phases and I hope it evolves as you look at it too. Each step of its evolution is actually visible, so it is within what the eye can see, but maybe beyond what you think your eye can see. I like thinking of my pieces as making you feel in awe of your own eyes and their abilities. I pay attention to every inch of my surfaces, and there’s a lot there that gives back if you can spend the time.
I’ve been alluding to ideas of evolution and growth throughout this interview, and I do think of these pieces as growing in their process. They have a starting point, an origin, a catalyst that develops and physicalizes through an incremental processional approach of layers of mark making and techniques. I admire and feel an affinity with Julie Mehretu’s work, her recent Whitney show was fantastic. Mehretu layers marks and images meaningfully and symbolically to ultimately provide an immersive experience.
Meena Hasan. Mango Tree, New Bailey Road 11. 2020. Acrylic and Flashe on jute paper, 27 3/8 x 21 5/8 x 1 7/8 in (69.5 x 54.9 x 4.8 cm).
I usually start with a pen and ink drawing that renders elements from a chosen source, in this case Francois Hubert Drouais’ portrait of Madame de Pompadour at her tambour embroidery frame where she is wearing a billowing Chintz gown. Since I approach these 18th and 19th century European portrait paintings with the desire of giving agency to the textile, as a living organism, rather than the person pictured, I like spending time rendering the patterns. I allude to the labor involved in the original craft work, of course with nowhere near the same level of perfection or acumen as the craftsmen in India had at the time. My method instead is very direct, scratching ink into the paper surface. My permanent ingrained black line speaks to European taxonomy, and looks like an etching. I like playing with that slippage between the imperfect hand that can’t help but be expressive and psychically relational versus a mechanical accuracy that strives to communicate a scientific objective truth. These lines also feel like tattoo-ink into the top layers of skin, so it starts in a bodily Kafka-esque acknowledgement of the pressures of these systems of thought.
My process can be absurd in its contradictions, I make myself laugh in the studio often, and move through dualities with playfulness. After many hours of scratching ink into this magnificent Japanese Kozo paper with hard tipped pens, I soothe the surface by coating and healing it with clear acrylic mediums, like collagen heals our skin. These marks are largely invisible since the acrylic is clear. Then the surface goes through dye baths of watery pigments and spray sessions of stained values. This process is related to the historically charged textile tradition of Batik which I studied in Florence, Italy. But in my paintings I am borrowing ideas from the technique, considering it symbolically as part of my visual language to create a direct and painterly approach. I am involved with spontaneity and automatism and spend time soaking and moving color, watching the form appear over days.
In this piece the top left corner is the initial dye bath, a fluorescent pink, illuminating the paper from the inside. I kept finding myself cutting down the top edge, cutting off her head really, and collaging those pieces onto the bottom right corner, like a staircase into her dress. Eventually a trace of my hand ended up there too, like a Jasper Johns move to remind me and us that I’m here too and this is all a construction, a signature of sorts. This moving around and shuffling of the composition built a circularity into the structure of the paper itself. By moving her head to her feet I shifted expectations of anatomy and placement, addressing orientations of energy instead. This circularity is reflected in her hands which come together in an infinity sign, symbolically alluding to the perpetual presence of this craft. These moments were not planned, but arrived at through the process of seeking and disrupting balance and resolution. I could keep going and going with this but maybe I’ll leave it at that!
CG: The first exhibition you did at LAUNCH F18 was Other Echoes Inhabit the Garden, with photographer Tommy Kha. Since that show in 2019, have you felt yourself shift in the way you approach your painting process or has it stayed the same?
MH: I loved that show with Tommy who is such a brilliant artist. It was so meaningful and a huge step forward for me to be able to see our works together. That show was very personal and engaged ideas of matriarchy and inheritance. I think this show on the other hand expands beyond those initial ideas, although they are still there, and touches on larger systems of economy, culture and taste. One illuminating aspect of Other Echoes was discovering this recurring shape of a C or a cupping kind of curve throughout our compositions, this shape that could hold and nurture and caress. Since recognizing that, I have been more sensitive to the overall shapes in my compositions, and over Covid spent a lot of time unpacking the spiral as an infinite line and shape simultaneously, with and without an interior and exterior, a method of organizing space that can hold the viewer and create a perpetual cycle of engagement that is porous to life’s changes. I think all the pieces in this show are investigating these ideas of a spiral as a foundation to build, grow and move from.
CG: What is one question or experience you hope the viewers of Mangiferin Chintz have?
MH: Okay, obviously I’m a rambler, interested in many things and made up of a myriad of parts, so a singular question or experience is definitely not the goal or even possible! But, I hope I’m offering an experience of beauty that is uncanny, both inside and outside of our bodies, that both offers an escape while reinforcing our physical presence, maybe like looking at the ocean. Like Etel Adnaan says, “to look at the sea is to become what one is”. I hope the viewer’s eyeballs feel massaged. I would also be happy if we became more sensitive to the plants and trees we might have grown up with or are currently around, as well as asking more questions about the patterns that we might surround ourselves with. And also it would be cool if “chintzy” could regain some of its status and not be a negative word synonymous with kitsch, but that is wishful thinking and will take time and other reinforcements. Perhaps just a growing curiosity in the language we use to challenge our preconceived tastes and biases and to know that history is all around us, and that those of us who are disconnected from our history, who were never taught our own histories, can look to our surroundings to discover it too.
To view more of Meena's work please visit launchf18.com or contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org