ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Sagarika Sundaram as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Sagarika Sundaram creates textile tapestry, sculpture and installation using raw natural fiber and dyes. The work observes and abstracts natural phenomena in the form of handmade textiles that generate power and presence. In 2022 Sundaram was awarded The Hopper Prize, a Bronx Museum AIM Fellowship and a residency at Art Omi. Sundaram’s work has been presented at the Armory Show (2022, with Nature Morte), Frieze New York (2021, with Jhaveri Contemporary) and Frestonian Gallery, London. In 2020, she received the Tishman Award for Excellence in Climate, Environmental Justice & Sustainability and the Michael Kalil Endowment for Smart Design. Sundaram graduated with an MFA in Textiles from Parsons / The New School, NY. She is a graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad and studied at MICA in Baltimore. She is Visiting Assistant Professor at Pratt and is based in New York.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Sagarika Sundaram: My way of working is one of the oldest and simplest ways of making textile, dating millenia. I’m interested in throughlines that carry across time and civilizations. In Hindi, there’s this idea of, ‘roti, kapda, makan’, food, clothing, and housing – three basic needs in life. I relate these to the fields of agriculture, textiles and architecture; building blocks of every civilization. The sculpture, installation and wall-based work I create is born from this fundamental place. I source my raw material from as close to the farm as possible. I primarily use a variety of Himalayan indigenous wool in my work, along with fiber from farms in Upstate New York. The dyes that I use to color the wool are often from natural sources such as bark and roots. My most recent installation work engulfs the viewer physically with scale. In this way I use textiles to form a bridge between agriculture and architecture.
It’s often after I confront the finished work that it seems to present a snarling, erotic vision of nature. I return to natural patterns that recur and exist both under the microscope and on a macro level as geographical features. The forms in my work tend to relate to botanical or oceanic forms like the Venus Fly Trap, or seashells. Sometimes I see a network of a veiny nervous system that could also be the aerial view of a river basin. Often the work is sliced open to reveal an inner geometry hidden inside, like a geode. I work intuitively, expressing myself in a formal language that tends to recur no matter what medium it is. I think of it like a handwriting that I am interested in uncovering and evolving. Created from an instinctive personal language, the work feels like a mirror to my most secret self.
I’m interested in the idea of ‘unseeing’. I work on the floor and build layers of wool like a reverse negative, laying the face of the composition down first, losing sight of what I have done while I progress. The very last layer becomes the backing of the canvas, completely hiding everything underneath. I might take a few photos to remember what is where but overall I hold the composition like a puzzle in my head. The dry wool is soaked in soapy water and then rolled until it fuses into a textile. When I flip it over to look at the face, this moment is always potent with tension. It is when I witness the work fully for the first time.
AE: How did your relationship with textiles develop?
SS: My mother was quite a glamorous young woman, we lived in Dubai, which came with a certain kind of exposure and freedom that her sisters back in India didn’t have. She was obsessed with saris, spending most of her salary as a school teacher and journalist on building a fairly sizable collection of silk, cotton, and linens that geographically represent different regions and weaving traditions in India. She would go through phases of collecting, at some point it was Oriya ikats, then it was Bhagalpuri silks, then Bavanjis from Andhra, but the staple was always Kanjivaram silks from down south in Tamil Nadu where my family is from, worn on religious festivals and family occasions. In this way I started learning about my home country through its textile traditions. Each sari also has a story or memory associated with it that creates a strong attachment for me, for example, the one she wore when she was pregnant with me, that I recognize in my father’s holiday photos of her. I love impressing her with my memory of these stories. I refuse to let her get rid of her saris, partly because they don’t make them the same way anymore, but also because her collection represents a specific and irreplaceable material archive.
I myself have been wearing a sari from age 15, I could tie one blindfolded. I am very familiar with the language of knotting, pleating, folding, washing, hanging and managing long pieces of cloth with precision. At this point it’s intuitive, it’s ‘in’ my hands. For textiles to arrive in my art-making practice was maybe inevitable.
My first degree was in graphic design, but by today’s standards my program in India was extremely multidisciplinary. We covered typography, but also film and animation, along with what they now call design research, service design and interaction design. When I moved to London to work in corporate design and strategy I started to seriously study textiles, outside of work hours covering weaving, dyeing, spinning, felting – anything that caught my fancy, including niche subjects like passemanterie. I set up a comprehensive syllabus for myself and sought out teachers all over the UK, some of whom wrote the definitive textbooks on their subject.
This inquiry led me into rug making, and producing hand-woven pieces as editioned works. I felt limited in the way I was communicating with the weavers I worked with in India, and did an MFA in Textiles to go deeper into understanding materiality and construction. I chose this program because the director studied at the same college I went to in India, which has an excellent textiles program. I wanted to study with someone who had a strong understanding of the Asian and global context. It was at my MFA that I started producing textile-based artworks, moving from wall-based work to sculpture, installation, performance, photography and video.
AE: Since 2016 you’ve been working with textiles. How have you approached learning, incorporating and experimenting with new textile techniques within your practice?
SS: I admire rigor and finesse, and take my time to study various aspects of textiles, out of respect for the history and level of skill at which they are practiced. I hesitate to claim a technique as part of my artistic identity until I feel a certain command over what I am doing. Technique translates into a language and it comes down to asking good questions in that language. If I’m at the point where my questions show up in the work consistently and in a way that leads to more questions, that is when I feel ready to say yes, I am a dyer, or weaver, or painter or film-maker–it applies across media.
I tend to pick new techniques up quickly. It’s like learning a new song from a friend. I jump into topics with energy to pull them apart from different perspectives. Using this approach last year I trained to become advanced at knitting and crochet in order to teach a university class on the subject, so I could demo 40+ techniques over a semester in order for students to produce sculptural work in 3D. I took private lessons with my own tutor for up to four hours a day, twice or thrice a week alongside reading books, watching videos, researching history to anticipate the kinds of projects and questions my students might come up with. At the end, even if I didn’t know something, I knew how to start breaking down the solution to it.
I value repetition, which is how I developed my skill in natural dyes when I was a studio assistant for Claudy Jongstra in the Netherlands. I consistently worked with indigo, madder, marigold etc. over months until I developed my own approach. At Pratt, where I teach color and dyeing we practice extracting a full range of color from a single source, subscribing to the idea of doing more with less.
I search for learning opportunities like a magpie. It doesn’t matter whether it is a class at Central St. Martins or a demo on someone’s kitchen table. I combine practical education with field research in India, visiting weavers across the country and developing projects along the way. As I progress I reflect and then iterate where I feel something is lacking, to evolve the relationship and output.
AE: You participated in a residency at Art Omi over this past summer. What was this experience like and what is something you hope to retain from your time there?
SS: I created my most recent work, Passage Along the Edge of the Earth at Omi, so it is a very important place for me and my work. The piece is a large hanging tent-like structure shaped like a large open book, that the viewer can walk through. People always want to touch the work when it’s on a wall. By moving into a spatial realm, I wanted to invite viewers to be touched by the work, by walking through it. Large slits cut open door-shaped forms on the two sides of the tent. The viewer has a choice, to either walk through the slit or, to continue walking in a circle through one door to another, and then maybe again in the other direction.
Traditionally, felted textile was and is still used across Central Asia for domestic architecture by pastoral nomadic communities to create and insulate dome-shaped dwellings. I’m drawing from this history and building on felt’s material strength to think about the relationship between architecture and the human body, specifically in the context of sacred architecture across cultures which often invites circumambulation around a focal point. I’m interested in the internal transformation that can come from this kind of movement. This is the first work I’ve made that is physically activated by the viewer. It represents an opening of a new line of inquiry in my practice related to space, motion and materiality.
At Art Omi, I had a big studio, really a shed, that for the first time allowed me to combine all aspects of my process, which I typically have to separate into indoors and outdoors processes. I had the space to lay the wool, dye it and roll it into felt all under one protected roof. The work was so large my cohort mates joined to help roll the felt. I don’t quite have all the words yet to describe it but I know this is significant. The fact that it takes a community to make the work. Everyone who helped make it is now connected to the work forever, and I to them. These connections will travel with the work wherever it goes. I hope to retain the sense of community, and generosity that I experienced at Art Omi, and the inner peace and internal connection to myself that I experienced.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
One of my father’s favorite things to do in any part of the world is to go to a market. We’ll try different fruits and street food, talk to the vendors. He’ll point things out, calling my attention to someone folding up a newspaper elegantly, cleverly peeling a fruit with a pen-knife. or braiding a flower garland deftly. In Dubai, we used to visit Hamriya market (the 90s’ version, iykyk) and after vegetable shopping try different varieties in the date section – dried, fresh, sticky, unripe, small, large. It’s this way of moving through the market that I carry with me as I go about my work – open-eyed, curious and in dialogue, being surprised and delighted along the way.
AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2022-2023?
SS: I’m currently a resident at Silver Arts Project at 4 World Trade Center, where I have studio space on the 28th floor of an 80 story skyscraper. I can see the Statue of Liberty, World Trade Center, 9/11 Memorial and Hudson River from floor to ceiling windows, a view that I probably share with a few hedge fund managers. It is surreal to work from the top of a place that many perceive as the center of the world.
In terms of shows, last month Nature Morte gallery (New Delhi) presented my work at The Armory Show in New York. Right now I’m working on a couple of projects that came out of that. I currently have work in a three person show at Studio Artego in Queens (Oct 4 – 28). In January 2023 I will be in a group show at the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University. I am also developing work for a solo show coming up next year in New York.
SAGARIKA SUNDARAM ONLINE: