Monuments to belonging: In conversation with Padma Rajendran

What are the rituals that orientate us, locate us, and make us feel like we belong? What constitutes our perception of home? These are the questions that New York based artist Padma Rajendran explores in her art. Growing up between countries and cultures, Padma uses her art to express her personal narrative and experience of global nomadism but also find home. For her, the notion of home is located within the symbolism of the interior and domestic space, which is one of prosperity and fruitfulness closely associated with the female form. Working with textiles and printmaking techniques, traditionally belonging to the realm of the domestic and folk art, Padma subverts the oppressive burden of female domesticity through the transformative power of storytelling. The disparate objects in her colorful compositions weave complex trans-cultural and geographical narratives that speak to the rituals enshrined in belonging. At once innately personal, her work similarly touches on the universal and invites the viewer in to their rich interior world.

Padma Rajendran was born in Klang, Malaysia and lives and works in Catskill, New York. She received her BA from Bryn Mawr College and her MFA in Printmaking at Rhode Island School of Design. She is currently on a year-long residency at Lower East Side Printshop in New York and spends much of her time teaching printmaking. We spoke with Padma to find out more about her techniques, ideas and interest in the weather.

AMM: Hi Padma! I read that you lived in many different countries growing up. Do you think these transient years have influenced you as an artist?

PR: Yes, it shaped how I saw myself, and how I interacted with other people. I still think of myself as an observer and many times an outsider. I am fascinated with other cultures, people, rituals and traditions in addition to my own. A lot of objects I am interested in or attracted to are elemental to various actions. They function as a part of ritual, ceremony, wishes, and preserve elements of culture in their existence.

AMM: What is your earliest art-related memory?

PR: I saw Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in a book around age 4. I liked the painting a lot, and I can’t remember if it’s because I loved sunflowers or if the painting forced me to love sunflowers. That relationship of what is triggered within a person upon seeing an artist’s work is interesting. That it can be so thoroughly believable and can engulf what you presume to know. My art making as a child was somewhat limited compared to other artists I know, but in my mind it was a fixed idea that drawing was a vehicle to expand upon or create another reality.

AMM: In what ways does your art reflect your own psychological and cultural experiences?

PR: My work is definitely personal but presents the narratives as universal themes. People across the world are very similar. Most of us are working towards similar goals for ourselves and our lives. We all want to achieve Belonging even if we consider it differently as we move through our days within our personal worlds. I present images and objects that invite my viewer into the work and the opportunity to remember these dreams and events. The fabric work expresses these transcultural traditions, present and future, and the diminishing fertility of Place.

Lemon Life, acrylic, paper, felt, polyester, silk, stitching on fabric, 42 x 36 inches

AMM: You seem to bring together in your work references from across histories and cultures. Are you creating your own mythology? Please tell us more about the symbols and motifs in your work.

PR: I haven’t considered that, but I do like that way of thinking about it! I am offering the symbolism of prosperity, specifically “fruitfulness” and fecundity within the interior and the domestic. Home is a tended space, where the decorative beckons prosperity to flourish. In my mind, the symbolism of “fruitfulness” within the home is both blessing and burden and has traditionally derived from the female body.

The fabric work conjures forms that are personal translations of shrine and monument to unseen or unacknowledged interior experience. Engaging with these shapes and structures of global civilizations places greater emphasis on the production of fruitfulness.

The hands that are often seen carry the gesture of receiving, a reach for the unattainable, or present an offering. In addition to using specific fruits and plant life, I repeat the vessel, flowing water, and domestic objects, such as spoons and knives. Connecting ceremonies of preparing food and kitchen practices to these narratives is recurring. In telling nomadic narratives, I merge my own hand with the ideas behind Central and South Asian decorative textile structures and patterns. This provides structure, containment, reference to a trade heritage, and a symbolic language to further this quest.

AMM: What is your process of working?

PR: I work with fabrics of different hierarchies and experiment with the clash and combination of patterning and structure. The composition and content indicate duality that centers around multi-facetted definitions of Other and universal heritage. Encoding cloth with these adornments, inks, symbols, and scenes is a way to honor these stories, traditions, and strains. My process starts with investigation of mark making and event. The translation of this imagery exists as drawing with soft materials and then piecing together as a traditional drawing or collage would come together.

AMM: What ideas or themes are you currently exploring in your work?

PR: I acknowledge varying and similar global approaches to decorative objects, especially of folk art and storytelling through textile. Using resists, dye, and assembling appliqué fabrics I create banner, floor drawings, and installation that embodies a perpetual, global nomadism. Because of this perpetual movement I am also interested in literal and emblematic softness and places of rest.

I am fascinated by folk art objects. They function beyond the decorative, communicate identity and transcend place. Souvenirs or honored heirlooms have an ability to travel beyond their existing geography to their origins and take the viewer along. My work addresses these observations, as well as, contradictory understandings of home and homeland. It is important to communicate to the past and future and connect these influences to present and place.

AMM: What is dye painting? What appeals to you about this medium?

PR: Working with resist and dye is another translation of drawing and painting. The subtracted areas glow with the contrast and interaction with color. The process relies on reclaiming portions of older areas by the taking away of the most recent addition. There is still a lot of layering happening that is connected to printmaking or a traditional drawing/painting process. I start drawing on fabric with a water based resist and once dried I draw and paint on top with different color dyes. I paint selectively with a synthetic dye on different areas. After the dye is set, I remove the resist. I am altering the fiber. Through the process the material becomes something else by whatever is now within or next to it.

Full Cup, dye, cotton, machine sewing, polyester, pochoir, and trim on fabric, 15 x 4 feet

AMM: Do you have any rules or rituals that you work by?

PR: I have a ritual of recording the weather in written and drawn form. It functions as a log of time and place. It lets me draw when I have no desire or real time to draw. The past five years, I have been keeping this “log book”. It is frequent but not daily. A lot of my memories of place and time are locked within weather events. When I record weather observations, I also draw a small drawing. Acknowledging the weather this way allows me to hold on to time – its passing and later its physical accumulation which is personally satisfying. For larger works, I start with a lot of drawings. Ideas develop in my head before being carried out. Frequent drawing and logging the weather help my practice stay consistent.

AMM: Please tell us about the different printing techniques you use in your work and why.

PR: In my work I utilize monotype, screen printing, relief, and pochoir. Each provides a different appearance or effect. I tend to use printmaking in my works that have more appliqué. My approach utilizing printmaking is similar to collaging different marks together. It functions like drawing. The hard edge of a stencil is an early way of making image and pattern. I am still very interested in this surface appearance. Printmaking presents alternatives. The labor and planning are definitely considered. Restrictions and random occurrences are part of the process, and it allows for more opportunity for the work to develop in unpredictable ways. Working with monotype, screen printing, relief, and pochoir, each provides a different treatment on the surface of the material that is unique to the selected fabric, paper, ink, and entire image.

AMM: Besides your art, what are some of your other interests?

PR: I teach printmaking and drawing, so I spend a lot of time with students, preparing to teach, or expanding an inclusive teaching practice. I try and cook a lot. This ritual and taste is a vehicle to preserving specific food cultures. I spend a lot of time writing letters, engaging in art experiences beyond my own, being outdoors, reading and research, and having fruitful conversations.

AMM: What keeps you awake night?

PR: Well, truthfully I am a very deep sleeper, but I do stay awake with my own worries. I am fortunate to live a good life, but my own pursuits are far from neat and tidy. I stay awake when the realities of being an artist – mostly the financial stress, effects of misrepresentation, and some goals feel overwhelmingly out of reach. We recognize that is part of it. I do think we are starting to talk about these realities and struggles a little more in the US. There are, of course, very pleasurable moments of dreaming of the next thing – new projects, unformed ideas, or potential studio work for the next day.

AMM: Do you have any exciting projects coming up? What’s next for you?

PR: I am very excited about this summer and making new work. I am teaching a textile printing class at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado, continuing my year-long residency at Lower East Side Printshop in New York, exhibiting new work at Grrrl Zine Fair in Southend-on-Sea, participating in the Acre residency in Southwest Wisconsin, and organizing a summer show with artists, Mckenzie Raley and Stef Halmos at Foreland in Catskill, New York.

Find out more about the artist: www.cargocollective.com/padmarajendran

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

About to Enter, acrylic, felt, polyester, silk, stitching on fabric, 48 x 36 inches