If this were any other year, Tulika Ladsariya, a visual artist living in Chicago, would have taken part in three art shows this summer. Her paintings – which explore belonging, loss, and the idea of home for an immigrant – would have made several sales with clients around the world. She also would have continued taking art workshops for young children.
But this year, things were different. With the coronavirus pandemic forcing museums, theatres, concerts, festivals and Ladsariya’s studio shut, and as many as 30 million Americans currently receiving unemployment benefits, artists in the US are struggling to make ends meet.
The survey ‘Americans for the Arts’ estimates that the pandemic has cost the industry $9.1 billion, with 96% of art organisations across the US cancelling events. “Every facet of my earning and profession has been impacted since the pandemic,” Ladsariya said.
Her shows ended up getting cancelled, but the more direct financial impact was that people cancelled sales. Her own teaching job was also ruled out because of the challenges of virtual art instruction.
Art in itself, when commodified, is not viewed as a necessity at this time, the chartered accountant originally from Mumbai said. Thankfully, the art world has come together to support each other. The South Asian Arts Resilience Fund, a grant supporting diaspora artists, helped give Ladsariya a platform to start a project and create a make-shift studio in her living room.
Ladsariya’s four-year-old daughter Reyna began sketching during the pandemic, with figures of creatures in masks, doctors, and closed playgrounds, and painting realities in which she knew how to fly – because “up in the air, there is no Covid.” Ladsariya’s mother, based in Mumbai, is an avid crocheter, and so she began thinking of ways to meld together the creative ways in which the three of them were processing this new reality.
The result was M’Other—a mixed media project supported by the resilience fund, combining Reyna’s sketches, her mother’s crochet, and her own painting.
“During the pandemic, we are coping with our ennui, anxiety and frustration through making art. My project brings this work together to remind us that no matter where we are physically, our sentiments and frustrations are real…Our love, albeit virtual, is real,” she said in her project note.
Ladsariya used acrylic transfers and paints to merge her daughter’s sketches. “My own frustrations with closed studios and full-time childcare intertwined with hers,” she said. Her mother mailed them a package with her crochet, but in the riots and protests that ensued, the package was lost.
“While the Black Lives Matter movement was going on in Chicago, there were lootings happening from delivery trucks, so her works got stolen. That act of loss added another layer to these works – I repurposed her older crochet, and she sent new pieces which found their way into these works,” Ladsariya said.
Four of the pieces are now part of a virtual show called “Home” at a gallery curated by Jennifer Weigel in Chicago.
Run by the India Center Foundation, a non-profit based in Brooklyn, New York, the fund supports arts workers impacted by Covid-19 by distributing grants of at least $1000 to US-based arts workers of South Asian descent in performing arts, film, visual arts, and literature.
“When the pandemic hit, we realized that the opportunity to exhibit was taken away from artists,” said Priya Desai, who runs the grant. “That’s what gives creatives a chance to make a living. It’s how they’re seen.”
Desai added: “But an individual artist is not always in control; they’re at the mercy of exhibitors and producers, programmers and venues. These people who are the gatekeepers are very unsure of the future, which is hurting artists.”
Another issue was the lack of government help.
“The path to government assistance during Covid-19 – salary protections, unemployment benefits – how to actually access them didn’t seem very systematised. Artists were saying, ‘I’ve applied for it but it’s been months, I still haven’t received it.’”
The ICF had promised their sponsorship to programs slated for the September season, but knowing that wasn’t going to happen, they decided to pivot.
Instead of paying them to exhibit their work, Desai and her team paid for them to make it. “Our uber mission is that South Asian voices in America are amplified and become a part of the mainstream creative conversation here,” she said. “We’re at least two million strong in the US, and we don’t want the pandemic to in any way quiet that voice just because they can’t leave their homes.”
The fund has had three rounds of grants, and raised a total of $60,000 so far for arts workers across the board of South Asian descent.
Another artist supported by the fund is Bhumi Patel, a contemporary dancer and choreographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her studio, ‘pateldanceworks’, has undertaken a project known as ‘Divisions the Empire has Sown’ over the last six weeks.
Through movement exploration and embodied practice, Patel is “reimagining [South Asian] lineages and histories from the perspective of marginalised voices that are frequently left out of historical retellings.” The performance gives voice to historically underrepresented and forgotten stories of South Asians. “It is compelling to me as a person born and raised in diaspora, as is the case for many of my collaborators. We don’t belong where we are, nor where we come from,” she said.
The impetus was to understand the world Patel’s parents grew up in. In the years following India’s 1947 partition, her grandparents and father were born and raised in Gujarat, while her mother grew up in Mumbai. “In their really early teens, they emigrated to the US. Because I was raised here, there’s no reference point to understand what they went through.”
There is very limited non-North American history in public education, she said. “I took a class on world history…And to never have seen myself in history was another piece of the puzzle, it was wanting to know where I fit in.”
One part of the performance is direct storytelling, she said, where dancers read aloud stories from the partition. Another piece is that Patel tries to recreate sounds that might have been heard during the time. An archive in the Bay Area called the ‘1947 Partition Archive’ has around 1500 stories that have been recorded, she said. “Some are video and audio, while some are just audio. They’ve also mapped out individual journeys taken by each archived story. Our composer did research on pathways of migration during partition and created historical sound around it.”
In the performance, then, she explores the archived stories and its subsequent questions: What does it sound like to make chai, to be on a train? What happens to the physical body when you migrate? What happens to your body when you walk for weeks to move someplace else? How do you recreate not the physical form, but that feeling?
Owing to the fund, she said, she was able to pay her own dancers who were out of work, and hold three virtual rehearsals with the dancers. She hopes that her work will reach beyond the Bay Area and spark conversations about “the ways in which our bodies continue to be colonised by oppressive powers.”
We’ll get through this pandemic, Patel is convinced. “There will be another side where we are doing the thing that we love in the way we love it again.”