Sahana Ramakrishnan: Making Myth

I met Sahana Ramakrishnan in 2017 during her solo show at Field Projects and instantly felt an affinity toward her and her work.  From the onset she conveyed a strong sense of commitment to her practice as an artist but there was also a bit of humor and subversion visible in her paintings and her wry wit.  Her work is deeply rooted in drawing and she’s not afraid to bring in whatever materials are necessary to realize her work.  Colorful beads and gemstones, hair, rope, blood and a variety of fabrics and trim can be found throughout her works on paper.  

Sahana just started a series of mixed media scroll drawings that investigate, among other things, our relationship to animals and the natural world.  She carefully hand-stitches her paintings on to beautifully handwoven silks from India and fits each end with wood dowels. All of her work is treated with a high quality of craftsmanship and attention to detail. I sat down with her recently to talk about the narratives that appear in her work, her studio process and what’s coming next. 

I see you’re starting to work with a scroll format in your work, is that a departure from what you were doing or part of an ongoing practice? 

It’s new. It came about after I finished making a piece called “Her body moves through nebulous time (Only the Gods Know the Trick)”. I had installed it for my solo at Field Projects - it was a large piece, all on paper, and I hung it from rods like a tapestry. The ventilation in the room made the painting wave very gently at the bottom and it felt so organic and natural to me that I wanted to experiment with the format more. With my treatment of the paper like fabric with stitching, collaging, and what I like to think of as skin grafts - cutting out sections and stitching in sections from other works or the same work - it seemed to be a logical step to have the pieces sit somewhere between drawing and tapestry or scrolls. 

I am thinking about animals and our relationship to them, as well as their relationship to other animals. This is the first one and I want to make more. My previous work has more “skin grafts” and things getting cut out and stitched in and that’s something I want to bring to this new body of work.  I use a lot of ferric chloride in my work to treat the paper.  It makes the paper feel like leather. It’s the tone of deer skin or leather, and it changes the paper so it’s smooth and feels like skin. Like drawing on skin. When I’m cutting and stitching I feel like I’m doing surgery or making skin grafts. 

There is a great tactility to your work.  The richness of the paper contrasted with beads, hair, jewels and other objects that add a bit of whimsy. Even in the way you construct a painting - adding paper and images when and where you want. It grows out from a center. Can you talk about that? Will that be part of the new work as well? 

Yes, it’s very freeing. That’s one of the reasons I like paper as opposed to canvas, where the parameters are defined for you at the start. Paper allows for a more organic experience so that the idea can grow itself. If I start with making a drawing and the drawing feels like it can be continued, I’ll just slap on another paper and stitch them together and continue. It allows a back and forth between me and what’s in front of me. The scrolls feel a little different in that I have more of a predetermined size and the malleability plays out in what can be taken away and what can be added by slicing and stitching, but when it comes down to it, it’s a very similar mentality - The surface of the drawing is as malleable and plastic as a skin. It has scars from when things didn’t go right and that adds to it. I hate planning out my images beforehand. 

Vasilisa, 2017

I love that you allow that to happen, it really demonstrated the type of relationship you have to your work.  Have you ever painted on regular stretched canvas? 

Yeah, but I thought those works felt static. It was harder for me to add different materials and to stitch things together. Eventually, I would destroy a lot of my paintings, and put them in to drawings or works on paper. In fact, the same piece I mentioned earlier, (Her Body Moves Through Nebulous Time (Only the Gods Know the Trick)) has a painting within the painting. I made this small painting of a horse on burlap stretched over canvas, but it was boring as hell on its own. I cut it out and put it into this larger work, so now it’s this phallic hobbyhorse type thing and it works perfectly.

That’s the work from your show A Night In The Woods, which also had some sculpture elements to it.  Do you work in sculpture too?  

Yeah the trees! They were also on little rollers so they could be moved around the gallery.  That imagery is also used in the same painting. It was a way to reference the archetype of the young, innocent girl travelling through the woods to carry out a task who, in the process, undergoes a transformation into maturity. A forest of movable trees is designed to confuse someone. It’s my way of alluding to your environment being a setup designed to test you; a way to bring up the question of control, destiny or “God”. My favorite example of this young girl archetype is Vasilisa. It’s Russian. In the story of Vasilisa, this young girl is sent out by her (awful) stepmother to go into the forest and find Baba Yaga, whom they expected would kill her. Vasilisa goes into the woods.  She has with her a small doll in her pocket that was given to her by her mother as she died. It represents a transition of the intuition and wisdom of the mother to the daughter, as it slowly blossoms into your own. She finds Baba Yaga and the old witch gives Vasilisa a series of challenges and if she completes them she will be allowed to live. The girl consults her doll and by some weird and very convenient magic is able to complete all of Baba Yaga’s challenges. Baba Yaga gives the girl a small skull and sends the girl back home, without telling her what the skull is for.  When the stepmother sees Vasilisa coming back home she is absolutely shocked that this young girl is still alive.  She sees the skull in her hand and grabs it from the Vasilisa and as soon as she touches it she instantly bursts into flames. 

That story - the journey of the naive girl going into the woods and having this experience that causes her to learn something about herself - is what I wanted this work to speak to. The trees on wheels are the props that make up the staged set. It’s confusing and terrifying and designed so that she gets lost, and this is the drama that plays out, and how she finds herself more deeply. It’s a contemplation on the idea of destiny and control. 

Her Body Moves Through Nebulous Time (Only the Gods Know the Trick), 2017

Is this “coming-of-age” tale a recurring theme in your work? 

The exhibition “A Night in the woods” was all about that idea. And the idea of going into deep space and finding yourself.  Now I’m less interested in coming of age and more interested in the many different ways that we relate to animals, and our interconnectedness with them and how this has been expressed throughout myth and art historically. Another significant interest of mine is in those moments in mythology where logic breaks down and magic happens. I feel These points are significant because they revert and reduce us to a state of childlike wonder - talk about beauty! They relax and open up our minds to possibility, creativity, and interpretation. I’m curious about what that means spiritually, and whether this is something that influences my process or the subject matter is something I’m mapping out now. Muay thai and fighting have also grown to be huge influences on my work.

Do you use your work to sort out things happening in your life? Like were you focused on this theme in these works because you yourself were going through a similar experience? Not necessarily coming of age, but finding yourself, so to speak. Do you find stories or myths that relate to experiences you’re having in the world? 

Yeah, I think that is true. I think that I have definitely used myth as a tool to process things happening in my life. In 2017 I had just gotten heavily into Muay Thai, and I felt that I was sort of finding my own confidence and self through the sport - it’s so similar to drawing and art in that it’s a beautiful mesh of technique, mastery and self-expression. The works from last year and earlier were me trying to express the process of searching for myself through this new medium (by medium I mean Muay Thai). I felt lost all over again, (I was getting beaten up a lot) and painting gave me the ability to step back and observe this process from a distance. Myth is there for us when we need it. To inspire us to process our lives and our relationships with our environment and others with distance and a refined wisdom. I also just want to give a shoutout here to the book “Women Who Run With Wolves”, by Clarissa Pinkola Estees, because it really helped me process certain stories from a feminist, and very compassionate viewpoint. 

Now I do look a lot at myths and archetypes, but they are chopped and skewed. I’m more interested in developing my own painting language and vocabulary of symbols that sits somewhere in some shifting place between different cultures, geographies and histories. That’s how I feel, and I think that’s how my generation feels too. We’re from everywhere at once: born one country, grown up in another and transformed into an adult in yet another. Fusion and hybridity are very important to me, both in the formal aspects of how the surface and object of the drawings function, in the image/content/subject matter, and in the narratives. 

It’s Probably Too Hot [detail] 2018

When we talk about using your art to process things you’re experiencing in the world, I know a lot of artists had a difficult time after the election.  We were trying to make sense of what it meant to be a woman or person of color or an immigrant, living in the U.S. and what it meant that a person like #notmypresident could get as much support as he did.  I personally felt a huge sense of disappointment in my country and even a sense of rejection. Did that affect your work at all? 

I enjoy your refusal to use his name. What I got from that was that there was such a divide within the country that a big part of the population felt ignored by the system that was in place that they chose to use “He Who Shall Not Be Named” to lash out. That’s a massive generalization, but what struck me was the lack of empathy and the villainization of entire groups of people to the point of absurdity. It’s curious to me because I’ve grown up in a generation and country where different cultures are seamlessly interwoven within each individual. It was absolutely a privilege to grow up like this. It was initially strange for me coming America and seeing many people who never left it. South East Asia is so interconnected with Asia, Europe, USA, Australia. It’s hard because the US feels so geographically far from everybody else (except of course South America and Canada).

I don’t know if my reaction to the election came up in my art, but I started teaching art in 2017 and my teachings were definitely guided by what I felt was needed culturally. Kids can be extremely empathetic, and I think it’s important to educate them about expression, cultures, values and customs that are different from their own at a young age. It’s important to make sure the next generation is educated well, and that we do our best given the time and resources we have. 

Untitled, 2018

Using myth as a personal tool to process something. What does that look like? 

I would describe this as when you’re feeling lots of conflicting feelings that can’t be described with words or language, images often can articulate those feelings.  This is why I love painting and was drawn to it as a child and teenager. I sucked at expressing what I felt and thought and related to the world in words. In an art-object, things that are polar opposite - or not even on the same plane in terms of verbal logical thought - can co-exist and have relationships that you could only otherwise feel with your “gut-mind”. Drawings can speak to something that’s complicated or dissonant or abject, and articulate that experience in a way that is beautiful and opens up the heart and mind.  

I read about myth and how it’s interpreted in order to have the language and framework of those stories - often in the forms of narrative tropes, symbols and archetypes. These symbols and archetypes are understood (sometimes differently) across cultures - they appear in stories and artwork throughout history and they are little cues into the narratives that viewers can latch onto. I throw them into the sahana-blender and serve them up in mutated and hybrid forms in order to express more accurately whatever it is I want to express. This could include the way I feel internally, the way I perceive the stories of other people. I am inspired also by my relationships with the men in my life, there’s an obvious power dynamic, and yet vulnerability, and love and all these things tied in to it. 

Does your need or desire to stitch disparate parts together come out of a feeling of separation or displacement?  

Yes, but it’s different from feeling separate. It’s as though feeling like an alien. How did I end up here?  Feeling that the place you’re in is bizarre and wonderful and that you’re so irrevocably connected to it to the extent of you being hollow and transparent, and yet you are distant and from somewhere else. Its double-think and I’m still trying to understand. Buddhism helps.  It’s not that you can’t access it or experience this world and your experiences, or love them, it’s just a sense that you’re from another place. It’s detachment, but not in a negative sense. 

Even what we perceive to be ownership of our own body, is illusory. Women experience this all the time. We straddle the line between being objects and subjects. Everybody’s body does this but women are often forced to be more painfully aware of it. Bodies are as much objects as they are occupied with life. Let me rephrase that. Our bodies are more bacteria than they are human. Is that ownership? Or is this body an opportunity through which we can experience the world? A responsibility and a shared experience?

Do you feel like your work is illustrating these ideas and questions? Or is it more abstract? 

No, I don’t think that I would be able to do that. Not consciously. These are just things I think about, which usually has ways of seeping in, but I think it might be hilarious for me to approach these ideas head-on because they are so abstract and have been approached in psychedelic art and whatnot. It could make for some real kitschy, funny work though - who knows? My images come to me more intuitively and are often collaged. I’ll draw a bunch - especially studies - of disparate things I am curious or thinking about, and some of them ask to be elaborated on and these guys sometimes get to be more realized images, coming together with other studies and drawings I’ve made to form a larger or more specific narrative. 

And now you’re thinking of animals and their relationship to humans? 

When I was little all I would draw was animals and Spongebob. And I’m an only child so that was my idea of a good time - drawing animals and Spongebob. My mum kept everything, so she has a bunch of Spongebob and animal drawings in her house. I would draw pictures from books of animal and dinosaur stories that I had. I was always drawing giraffes, and dinosaurs and big cats. I remember this one drawing I was trying to make of a jaguar climbing down a tree that for the life of me I couldn’t get the foreshortening right on and I had a massive temper tantrum and ripped up the drawing and chucked my pencil around the room. I was 7 if that makes this sound any better. I loved books about animals and their stories and my parents, especially my dad, loved learning about animals and making an effort to go and see them or study them in the wild. My favorite book was one called “When Hippo was Hairy and Other Tales From Africa”, with all sorts of animal moral folk tales from different regions and tribes around Africa. 

I’ve always felt strongly that animals are extremely intelligent (no, I’m not a vegetarian but I limit the amount of meat and fish that I eat) and get frustrated with the school of thought that animals aren’t sentient beings. It pisses me off because it feels so ignorant and close-minded. And thinking about the problems we have with people identifying with people of another race, or men identifying with women. If we take it one step further to think about how we identify with and relate to animals, if we can make that leap, and have empathy for something outside ourselves, it could be great. Now we’re in the Anthropocene and there’s a need for massive action to help our planet survive and I wonder sometimes if our ability to empathize with animals is part of that process and a step towards that reconciliation. I’m not trying to fix anything, but I think an important question to ask is what are the ways we currently and historically relate to animals? What are the ways we will relate to animals in the future? It’s funny because the way I phrase these questions now its sounds like there’s a duality/opposition between human and animal, but that’s not the way I feel. That’s why for me painting is the place in which this question can be expressed more accurately in all its various mutations and incarnations. I’m working on it. The drawings are the result of my process of trying to understand this - they are what gets shared with the world. There is no finished answer, only searching. 

For more information on Sahana’s work please visit her website.