Maya Varadaraj

Shree Sisters After Shenanigans Acrylic on panel 2020

Maya Varadaraj

NYC based interdisciplinary artist and designer Maya Varadaraj’s work is a reflection of her take on a wide range of socio-cultural issues as well as South-Asian diasporic experiences. The artist creates work through varied use of collage and assemblage, to examine, research, and reframe the conditions of a material society, by using the very materials which define them. For instance, her exhibit titled Khandayati — meaning ‘to break’ in Sanskrit — is a visual response to material culture that propagates violence in India. It presents a process designed to deliberately crush and reform glass bangles worn by women in India, that have long stood to symbolize weakness.  

Maya’s work has been exhibited internationally at the Vitra Design Museum, The Rossana Orlandi, and The Center For Emerging Visual Artists, among others. We connected with the artist to know more about her artistry and her practice. 

I grew up in Coimbatore. My brothers and I went to boarding school very young in Kodaikanal — I went there when I was eight. Any ‘Kodai kid’ will tell you that we grew up in a bubble. We all have the same quaint accent regardless of what we look like, and we all gravitate towards living in diverse communities. It’s where we feel most comfortable. I was always inclined towards learning and expressing myself visually. It made sense for me to pursue design because I enjoyed being creative, and I was lucky to be accepted into Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). 

I feel most at home in NYC. New York fosters many complex identities and conversations, so if you look, you can find something to relate to, which can’t be said for other cities in the U.S. I feel like I put myself in that box previously because I felt like I had to, and it felt … like I put myself in a box. That can feel very suffocating in New York because there is so much to do, experience and express. Recently, I’ve been feeling like I don’t have to do that. Everyone’s identity is not just one thing, it's a multitude of experiences and histories. I felt like I wasn’t respecting that about myself when I put myself in a box. So I’m unraveling that and I’m enjoying it. 

Maya Varadaraj L: Finally It All Started to Make Sense  ; R:It Was All Touch and Go for a While Collage 2020

L: Finally It All Started to Make Sense ; R:It Was All Touch and Go for a While Collage 2020

I would describe my design sensibility as process-oriented, critical, and clean. As far as my audience is concerned, I want them to take away whatever they want, and whatever they can from my work. A lot of my projects are research based so I’m always happy if people are able to learn something new or gain a new perspective. My work focuses on process and concept, versus medium, so I engage with different methods that make most sense for the concept. For example, when I was working on Khandayati, I was looking at domestic spaces in general, which led me to the calendar illustrations. Collaging made most sense, because I was modifying and reassembling the machines for the installation and collage in the same process. 

As I was looking for calendar illustrations, I came across painted photographs. The process of painting photographs interested me, because it’s taking a fixed moment in time and adding to it. Painted photographs document the role of women in South Asian history — in their families, as concubines, as objects of desire, et cetera. I felt the familiarity of the medium would complement new representations of the feminine well. I’m referencing mandalas for the new collages and drawings. I started drawing concentric circles earlier this year for an ongoing project using statistics and data. I want people to be introspective when they see the data — mandalas and their meditative quality made sense to me. Then we went into quarantine and introspection became the forefront of my work. I re-visited collaging with the same concept and references.

Maya Varadaraj L: Perfectly Fragmented and Unraveling ; R: Revolution of Sorts Collage 2020

L: Perfectly Fragmented and Unraveling ; R: Revolution of Sorts Collage 2020

Khandayati was responding to the continued violence against women in India by virtue of oppressive traditions and objects. Growing up, I always knew it was taboo to break bangles, but I didn’t know the extent of it and how deep it ran in our culture and political rhetoric. So it became the object that needed to be reformed. I also wanted the work to be approachable, and most women have felt subjugated at home. The idea of using kitchen appliances came when I was experimenting with different methods to crush the bangles. The wet grinder worked so well and then I just had to find other appliances to do the rest. It was an incredibly challenging and exciting project and I feel very close to it.

Death and Taxes is actually an earlier work that I’ve shelved for the time being. I love learning about different views, encounters with death and concepts of the afterlife. I was also interested in hierarchies of consciousness and death seems to be a challenge, as well as a grounding principle for consciousness. I became interested in relating the two, and came across the Benjamin Franklin statement ‘ this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’. I love how minimizing it is and so I wanted to reduce our existence down to a pair of numbers — the date of death and the taxes paid on funeral merchandise. I hit many roadblocks, because inevitably I was invading people’s privacy. I’m still trying to find ways to bring this project to the forefront, but right now it's on the back burner.

Maya Varadaraj Khandayati Mixed Media Installation 2017

Khandayati Mixed Media Installation 2017

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to appreciate the time that the pandemic has brought. I think a lot of my artist friends are feeling similarly because we can just work without having to worry about networking or socializing. I’ve really enjoyed that, and again I’ve been lucky enough to do so. Of course it hasn’t always been good, and it hasn’t just been the pandemic. There’s been so much racial violence here and confronting that in the backdrop of the pandemic has been difficult and frustrating for everyone. There is a lot of anger and exhaustion, and rightfully so. This time for me has been about introspection and learning for sure, and I am grateful for that. 

For the future, I’m working on a lot of things simultaneously. I’m working on a series of paintings that I’m really enjoying right now. I’m also looking to produce more collages. I’m working on an installation project with gallerists, who I really enjoy working with. There’s a lot of things in the works that are keeping me engaged and challenged, and I look forward to sharing them soon.

Text Samadrita Khasnabis

Maya Varadaraj Photo Credit Nicole Stoddard

Photo Credit Nicole Stoddard