On the Houston visual-arts circuit, an emerging artist is often noticed by the area’s tastemakers and framed as “someone to watch.” A year ago, few had heard of Preetika Rajgariah, but today she is nearly unavoidable among Houston art lovers. In the last nine months, she has mounted well-received solo shows at Art League Houston and Lawndale Art Center. A performance-based installation was seen at Austin’s revered feminist space Women & Their Work. There was also the food-based performance “Two Dykes and a Knife” at the hyper-hip Jonathan Hopson Gallery in Montrose as part of their Stonewall 50 observances. That piece, conceptualized and performed with her life partner, artist Lovie Olivia, interwove her queerness with her Indian and Texan identities to fuel her art.
As an Indian woman raised in Houston, Rajgariah’s journey to being a full-time artist is best (or at least politely) described as “circuitous,” and in constant danger of being abandoned in favor of a safer traditional life. Always an overachiever, she flirted with becoming a doctor and even took on the role of the dutiful Indian wife by marrying a man. All of which makes the hard-won identity that now informs her work feel both well-earned and more meaningful.
In 2010, after finally deciding that she wanted a life making art, Rajgariah attended a residency hosted by the School of Visual Arts New York City. Despite having not yet become the artist she wanted to be, the event opened her eyes to the life possibilities before her, including seeing ways to discuss her life experiences unapologetically. Being both queer and Indian is always a complicated negotiation between traditions.
Houston learned a great many lessons about gay life in India during Fotofest 2018, when the great Indian photographers Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh—who are also lovers—mounted a wildly enlightening collaborative show of photographs at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The exhibition documented India’s third gender, known as “hegira”—an ancient concept predating by centuries our contemporary ideas about transgender people. These hegira beings are spiritually revered, yet in modern times are always in legal limbo. During that 2018 show, curator Patricia Restrepo was receiving daily updates on cases moving through the Indian court system that was granting, and then revoking, protected status and basic civil rights to India’s gay citizens. Attitudes about sexuality in Indian culture are split between intense eroticism (manifested in the Kama Sutra, tantric practices, and Lingam worship) and the Puritan attitudes that traditional families teach their daughters regarding sexual expression.
Rajgariah playfully called her 2019 show at the Lawndale Art Center “I Ain’t Sari,” referencing Beyoncé’s iconic “I ain’t sorry” chorus from her Lemonade album. Rajgariah had previously made a series of human-scaled sculptures called “Aunties” built out of used saris gifted to her from the women in her extended family, both in the U.S. and India.
Coming out as queer inspired Rajgariah to transform what had been semi-phallic shapes (think of the traditional Indian penis-worship stones known as lingams) into classically feminine erotic shapes. Flowery forms reminiscent of vulvas flowed seductively throughout the balcony space. The connection between the artist (as a female member of her clan who is now queer-identified) and a partner was made explicit in an audio recording of the artist discussing her belated queer identity with her mother. The discussion is never heated, but it reveals a disconnect between the way Rajgariah’s mother sees her daughter’s identity and what the art world sees as Rajgariah’s life project today.
In fact, as she began graduate studies in a predominantly white school, Rajgariah felt pressured to represent her Indian identity and make overtly identity-based work. She actively resisted that pressure and took a multi-year detour in 2015 that resulted in a series of traditional paintings that could be mistaken for lyrical abstractions. This series, called the Migration Paintings, uses masses of marks indicating humans in motion to evoke the global realities of political refugees, the climate crisis, and the economic migrations that are set against all the other mounting crises of 2020.
Rajgariah is not afraid of using humor in her work, even when dealing with uncomfortable issues—such as in her self-portrait photograph Dot Not Feather (2016). The title refers to the clever visual shorthand for distinguishing between South-Asian Indians and Native-American Indians. It can be understood as inoffensive or racist, depending on context and who is speaking. The photograph depicts the traditional Bindi adornment of a colored mark on the face, repeated until Rajgariah’s face appears to be a sea of red dots. Similarly in the video work How About Now, the traditional powdering of the part in a woman’s hair with rich-red Sindoor powder to identify a married woman is overdone until she is almost drowning in the powder.
Indian hair and its rituals also become the focus of Rajgariah’s project for Art League Houston. Making another statement about attitudes toward feminine beauty, she asks the question “What is my worth when shorn of my hair?”
As a “femme” identified woman, her shaved head might be seen as an unusual choice, but it was shaved in service of this project that looks at the commodity that Indian hair becomes in the making of beauty adornments. Tonsuring (the ritual cutting of hair in Hindu temples) becomes very profitable when the hair is sold and turned into top-quality wigs and hair extensions. As framed by the artist in a series of hair-filled resin bricks and plastic specimen bags, she reminds us of the fickle nature of hair flipping—from highly sensuous when on a lover’s head to gag-inducing when found frozen in an ice-cube tray.
This absurdist technique was perhaps most effectively used in Rajgariah’s Austin show entitled Wild, Wild Country in which she comments on the way that the cultural origin of yoga practice in India is frequently rendered invisible in the U.S. (although she notes ironically the proliferation of American-style yoga studios in India—the selling back to India of its own invention). As someone who did yoga at 5 a.m. in a town square with an uncle in India, Rajgariah noticed that the Indian yoga ads she received in India almost never featured Indian faces.
In the performance piece, Rajgariah is literally buried alive in yoga mats (a European invention from the ’90s) while three large video screens highlight her own yoga skills. The mats were arranged to form a swastika, a traditional auspicious symbol in Hinduism before it was appropriated and perverted by the Nazis. The artist was somewhat shocked by the small percentage of visitors that knew nothing of the swastika’s origins or meaning in Indian culture.
The yoga mat continues to be used in the artist’s new work—hanging on the wall as grounds for paintings of her yoga sessions during her frequent trips back to India. While these paintings are just beginning, like many artists she is using the pandemic shutdown as a chance to regroup and rethink her art. After showing so much during the 2019–2020 art season, the timing could not be better for Rajgariah, letting her develop her new work in private while supporting her partner’s art practice. (Olivia had a number of shows planned that are temporarily on hold.) During our Facetime studio visit, the hints about where her art is going were thrilling to behold, and I am sure that her post-pandemic shows will thrill us all.
So what is my worth without my hair?
Keep up with Preetika Rajgariah at prajgariah.com.
This article appears in the May 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.