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Meet respons(able) artist Anita Agarwal

Anita stood infront of a projection that reads 'RIVER (she/he/him/it)'
  • Written byEleanor Harvey
  • Published date 05 September 2023
Anita stood infront of a projection that reads 'RIVER (she/he/him/it)'
'River', by Anita Agarwal

Anita Agarwal is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice is informed by social histories and archives. She graduated in 2019 from Fine Art Graduate Diploma, Chelsea College of Arts.

Earlier this year her work Fair Enough? was included in the Alumni of Colour Association’s exhibition Diaspora and Belonging at Mother London.

Anita talks about her use of humour in her work to help people to navigate potentially awkward conversations; and how learning about the public sphere whilst at Chelsea changed her practice.

Person lying down with goggles and headphones made from boxes covering their eyes and ears
'Work in progress', by Anita Agarwal

How would you define your creative practice?

My practice is multidisciplinary and contextual. Someone once told me that responsible means being able to respond, so I call myself a ‘respons(able)’ artist. I respond to an event, a site, or a provocation through my work. My response although intuitive is built on a solid foundation of comprehensive research, to sieve out any emotional hyperbole, false consciousness, madness or the perfunctory navel-gazing of the self-absorbed.

I work across performance, moving image, sound, mark-making, sculptural installations, and print. I use archives and social histories to inform storytelling within my practice.

My art interrogates and pushes the socio-political parameters experienced in day-to-day life. Having travelled and lived in diverse cultures and geographies, my work explores the intersections and positions within cultures. 

I strive to achieve a certain degree of playfulness and humour in my works, a bit of tongue-in cheek. Through humour it’s possible to cross into other spaces, allowing people to relax and ease into areas that may be difficult or awkward to navigate. 

Audre Lorde writes that, “emotions are one’s political and life resources, and that we must make use of our anger/our frustrations, letting the anger spill out into a poem or a text.” And that is the point of departure for any of my work; a poem or a text which later develops and morphs into other formats.

Themes that keep returning in my work are:

  • The Past: Indigenous knowledges around universal interspecies harmonies,
  • The Present: the making of the everyday its expectations and challenges, what it means and entails to live sustainably in a world ruled by capitalism in prevailing capitalist political and economic realities,
  • The Future: a storyteller intent in creating new collective narratives teased out from the past to see where how they intersect with the present, as a result help imagine, and create new worlds.
Three drawings in yellow, red and black
'Capitalist Realism', Anita Agarwal

Can you tell us about your experience at Chelsea and your career so far?

My experience at Chelsea was brilliantly holistic and it will always have a special place in my heart. The pace and depth of the course in the short period were fantastic. Enrolling in UAL automatically opens an amazing array of development courses across all the College campuses. UAL culture is open and inclusive, and I felt extremely at ease and welcomed from the word go.

The faculty was extremely supportive and nurturing. The practical and hands-on modality of the course helped me grow as an artist and set me up on a fast trajectory into starting a Master’s in Contemporary Art Practice at the Royal College of Art.

2 people looking at robes. The robes are hanging on a black wall
Anita Agarwal
photo of a tower block, with poem underneath
'Mind the gap', by Anita Agarwal

Has your practice changed since you graduated from Chelsea?

My practice before joining Chelsea was in the sphere of painting and sculpture. A quest for attaining new tools to plug into the ‘now’ led me from India to London.

My head tutor Katrine Hjelde’s nurturing support and guidance played a key role in defining my way forward. Katrine noticed the direction my practice was moving and suggested Public Sphere to me. I was clueless of its existence before that.

Three photos of Anita applying white cream all over her face. She's wearing a black polo neck and looking directly into the camera
'Fair Enough?', Anita Agarwal

Earlier this year you took part in the Alumni of Colour Association’s exhibition Diaspora and Belonging. Can you tell us more about the work you showed. 

I exhibited Fair enough? a mixed media installation accompanied by an art performance.

Fair enough? is a multi-layered piece that engages with the themes of the politics of the body (race, gender and patriarchy) and pedagogy in a country (colony), like India in a post-colonial era.

My work often explores the intersections and positions within cultures that are mirrored in nuanced texts/everyday phrases. Reasons for their existence and origins fascinate me, often becoming the starting point of my work. Juxtaposition within cultures create interesting contrasts and patterns of intrigue and humour, as is evident in this work.

Through this work I playfully question the genesis and the meaning behind the phrase ‘fair enough,’ commonly used in England. That this phrase equates 'good enough' in the Western world, and me belonging from a country where a majority covet a fair skin tone, became the point of departure for this work.

Other than challenge this quantification of ‘fair’- how much fair(er) one needs to be, to be ‘fair enough,’ in both these worlds. I also want to highlight the persisting and lasting impacts these cultural controls have. Such as the loss of identity and the shame associated with it, that are still actively harmful to society and its milieu in a post-colonial era.

Fair Enough? on display at the AoCA's exhibition
Diaspora and Belonging, 2023 Alumni of Colour Association exhibition, Mother London

What does Diaspora and Belonging mean to you?

I’m a self-confessed nomad, having lived and traversed across lands and cultures. I have lived experiences of being one (a diaspore). I couldn’t agree more with Homi Bhabha that “…identity is never an a priori, nor a finished product; it is only ever the problematic process of access to an image of totality.”

Group of people sat around a table, drawing
Workshop for Anita's residency at Perivale Library
Anita leading a workshop at Perivale Library
Participatory workshops at Perivale Library, lead by Anita Agarwal

What are you working on now?

This summer I finished a 3-month residency at Perivale Library, Ealing; it is a community-managed library. Perivale Wood and the River Brent influenced the essence of my proposal.

The overarching theme was stories, from the public or personal realm. How and which and why some inspire and make us. The awareness and responsibility of constantly creating them in our day-to-day ways of doing and being.

My interactive proposal invited the local community to come together and engage with a series of 6 workshops, to create a collective piece of art. The workshops included eco-printing and tie-and-dye, using homemade dies.

Together we produced a physical artwork called Under the Canopy of Our Stories, which is now on show in the library.

Explore Anita's work and connect on Instagram.

Longing and belonging cannot be separated. 
Longing for belonging.
Long to belong
Long to...
to be felt, 
be considered,
spoken to,
in reciprocal acknowledgment.
My body encounters, eclipsed by the long shadow of the in-between-ness. 
The othered, my body
coming in direct conflict with the self? 
With each encounter
I reinvent.

By Anita Agarwal

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