Alka Dass takes barely remembered photographs from old family albums and breathes new life into them, turning them into works of art. In doing so she creates a sense of nostalgia for our past as South African Indians; making us remember things like picnics with extended family; road trips with aunts and cousins; and the feeling of posing stiffly for photographs at weddings. She scrutinises the past through the lens of our current ideas about race, gender, identity and cultural heritage. As a multidisciplinary artist, she draws, paints, sculpts and does embroidery; constantly exploring new subject matter and media. Dass defines her style as contemporary saying, “I try to speak from now while also observing the past through textiles and objects. And I tend to use a lot of practises that were considered to be female handicrafts” (Dass).
(Above image, Alka Dass, Little Blossoms, digital print, 14 x 14cm. 2020)
Dass was born (1992) in Durban. When she was in high school, she was told by her family that studying art was not an option. Undeterred, she enrolled to study Fine Art at Durban University of Technology (DUT). Initially she was saddened by how unaccepting her family was of her choice but she says, “thankfully a lot has changed and they are now willing to accept that it is a large part of my identity and what is woven into (the) majority of my life” (Dass, interview). She graduated from DUT in 2016, and has since worked as an artist and curator at several art galleries.
In 2017, she won the Young Female Residency award. The next year she exhibited her work at the Contemporary African art Fair in New York. Between 2018 and 2019 she had three art residencies in France. Dass has participated at several group exhibitions and has had three solo exhibitions to date. She currently lives and works in Durban.
Central to Dass’s practice are her views on the role of women especially as they relate to her identity as a South African Indian. She draws on South African Indian culture, and Hindu rituals to explore these aspects of her identity. Using objects that are found in most Indian homes, such as doilies, baking pans, bindis and old photographs, Dass investigates the ‘psychological and cultural spaces that women of colour traditionally occupy’. She returns often to her archive of family photos, which she incorporates into her art.
Dass feels “that the images we take throughout our lives mark significant chapters in our stories. A photograph is an object of great sentimental value. The fact that we need to encapsulate a moment/emotion/event in a static image to hold onto it a little longer through the tides of time is what I find intriguing. With Indian South African history we (are) hardly told the histories of our ancestors in school and how they came to this land. It wasn’t until I was much older (that) I questioned this and realised I wasn’t alone in asking.. when I looked at the images there was a sense of love and coming home that I felt I needed to share. I think that urgency made me want to use my family archives a lot more with my recent series” (interview).
In the artwork, I’m not Exotic, I’m Exhausted, Dass has printed a sepia tinted photograph of 3 Indian women in traditional clothes on an embroidered tray-cloth. The title refers to a phrase that is often coined to describe the emotional and psychological exhaustion that most women of colour feel.
These feelings come “from being othered, marginalized and judged differently because of existing as a Person of Color within a country’s white-christian norm” (Yosef 2018). Indian women, wearing colourful traditional dress, have often been viewed as exotic. The reality of the lived experience of Indian women, especially in the recent past is much more mundane. The embroidered tray cloth invokes the unending domestic tasks that women have to endure even when they work outside the home. Dass’s use of ancestral photos remind us of the generations of women who worked tirelessly and at great personal cost so that their families would be fed, educated and safe.
The sculpture, What would my ancestors think Now II, is of the Hindu god Shiva, seen under a protective glass dome. Dass has recreated the image faithfully, including the lion on which he sits and the snake around his neck, but the sculpture is transformed by an organic, plantlike growth.
The reverence with which religious objects are treated; led Dass to wonder how her ancestors would view her depiction of the deity. Her idea was to make an idol that is known to be an ‘Almighty He’ into one that is gender neutral – ‘”that is why (it) is covered in morphological grass, which hides the body and doesn’t give too much away” (Dass-interview). She created this piece for a solo exhibition, a time when she was “untangling a lot of identity issues”. Ancient Hindu art and texts have often portrayed God as genderless; Shiva is sometimes referred to as Ardhanarishvara who is both male and female. The influence of westernisation and patriarchy may have influenced the idea of a Supreme male God.* This sculpture is perhaps, a reminder of the ancient version of God as genderless.
The sculpture (right & above) Being women too Loudly, is part of the Intuition of Water series, a commissioned work for the J P Morgan collection. It comprises the upper torso and feet of a woman, with a space in-between. The sculpture looks like it has been submerged in the sea, such that coral, seaweed and other marine life have grown over it.
The title Being Women too Loudly– reminds us that women especially in patriarchal societies are often meant to be quiet, well behaved and firmly in the background. The need for women to be heard, to take up space and to stand up for their rights and beliefs is crucial lest we become submerged.
Dass’s earlier work, Hysteria 4, echoes this societal expectation of South African Indian women’s roles. This familiar image of four women from an earlier generation in conservative dress and with the word ‘ladylike’ stitched across it sums up those expectations. It has not just been men but also women who have imposed on their daughters and grand-daughters, the need to always be modest and obedient to their fathers and husbands. Dass describes her work as a ‘visual-psychological interpretation of women of colour’ in which she examines how culture and tradition affect identity.
Dass believes that as a ‘woman of colour’ it is very difficult to navigate the art world in South Africa. She says it can be extremely challenging;
“to find where you fit in when there isn’t exactly a space for you to feel placed comfortably. Representation is shallow being an Indian/South African woman artist. So I rely on my work doing most of the heavy lifting, which is not everyone’s taste. But in terms of general acceptance I do feel if I can make it softer for someone else on this planet I’ve done something I could be proud of. It never fails to thrill me when I have people tell me they feel seen after looking at some of my work. Or that something reminds them of home. I don’t think anything can warm the cockles of my heart more (Dass-interview).
Alka Dass is a young artist whose struggle to find her identity and place in the artworld, has led to a broader untangling of the issues which many South Africans of colour, especially women, experience. By incorporating cultural, domestic and archival material into her work, Dass is reclaiming our history as a minority group in this country. This is an important initiative since the story of Indian indenture in this country has largely been ignored by text books and struggle narratives. In Talking Back, bell hooks, says that when you find your voice and tell your own stories is when you begin to heal and experience true liberation.
* This is a complex topic that requires further research and discussion and so is not within the scope of this article. The opinion stated above is merely an observation of my own.
Email interview with Alka Dass- October 2020.
Yosef M. I’m not Exotic -I’m Exhausted. Humanity in Action. 2018 Berlin Fellowship.