About face: Collection shows portraits of South Asian feminist activists

Group shot: Jaishri Abichandani creates dozens of portraits and sculptures of her fellow South Asian-American feminist activists to highlight the rich diversity of her underrepresented community.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

She’s made a community collage!

A new exhibit will put a face on New York’s community of South Asian-American feminist activists. Artist Jaishri Abichandani has produced more than two dozen small-scale portraits of her fellow rabble-rousers for her show “Jasmine Blooms at Night,” opening at Bric on April 24.

The show features 26 paintings and four sculptures that celebrate her community’s many different women and queer people pushing for change, who are little-known outside of activist circles, said the artist.

“They’re not going to be visible to people outside of my community. We know who they are, we know the work they’ve done, we love them and appreciate them,” said Abichandani.

The prominent display of activists will also give South Asian Brooklynites a chance to see their own modern history, she said.

“The truth is, South Asians never get to go and see paintings of people who are living, breathing, making change amongst them,” said the Clinton Hill artist.

Abichandani found her subjects from friends she has encountered or been inspired by during her decades-long career of activism, which includes being a student organizer during her college years in Queens, rallying for pro-choice causes in Washington, D.C., and founding arts group the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective in 1997.

Her Bric show highlights many Kings County subjects, including immigrant rights activists Thanu Yakupitiyage and Rage Kidvai, and the Kensington founder of the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective Shahana Hanif.

The project started a few years ago, when she created little sculptures of activists and friends she called “Angry Ladies.” The elaborate, three-dimensional portraits took a huge amount of time, so she switched to painting portraits and decorating them with jewelry and trinkets.

She has arranged the works according to the different causes her subjects fight for — right down to the shape of the pictures. Her pictures of LGBTQ activists are on triangular canvasses, referencing the pink triangle logo of the AIDS advocacy group Act Up.

The paintings themselves also hint at the topic of their subject’s activism. For instance, labor leader Bhairavi Desai is portrayed against a yellow background, referencing her work as a founding member of the city’s cab driver’s union, while the portrait of attorney Menaka Guruswamy, who recently helped repeal the laws criminalizing gay sex in India, features a small set of weighing scales.

The queer activist scene of the 1990s was an incubator for her own activism, and for many of the subjects of Abichandani’s paintings, she said.

“These organizations that were around in the ’90s were crucial to my becoming an activist. This is my way of acknowledging who we are and the work that we’ve done to shift social landscapes,” she said.

Abichandani’s is one of three exhibits in the suite “The Portrait is Political” at the Fulton Street art space, which also includes photos from Brooklynite Texas Isaiah, and a collection of portraits of more than 35 queer Kings County artists curated by Liz Collins.

“The Portrait is Political” at Bric Gallery [647 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in Fort Greene, (718) 855–7882, www.bricartsmedia.org]. Opening reception April 24 at 7 p.m. On display through May 12. Free.

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.

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