Padma Rajendran was born in Klang, Malaysia. She received her MFA in Printmaking at Rhode Island School of Design. Her work has been featured in Art Maze Magazine, New American Paintings, Maake Magazine, and Chronogram Magazine. Rajendran’s work is engaged in the symbolism of “fruitfulness” within the home and how this blessing and burden has traditionally derived from the female body. Working with fibers, Rajendran conjures images and forms that are personal translations of shrine and monument.
Artist Padma Rajendran’s Textiles Explore Migration, Ritual and What It Means to Be on the Periphery
Yassana Croizat-Glazer: One of the key subjects you explore as an artist is migration and the role of women in preserving their homeland traditions. How does your choice of working with textiles relate to that?
Padma Rajendran: Migrating is physical and emotional. As we move from place to place, I consider how suitcases, boxes, and any collapsible containers have been packed with tight strategy. Most often the things left behind are heavier objects, and most items that travel with the individual are lightweight, such as folded textiles that function not just as a source of warmth that provides physical comfort but also as something emblematic of comfort. Both are necessary for survival. I think about the position many migrating and nomadic peoples are put in when they make do and improvise home dwellings. I consider how in a different location or country we are able to connect to what feels like home. Most often it is surrounding ourselves with the familiar, both visually and in ritual, and carrying not just objects but the emotion of previous homes into each new one, for better or worse.
Most textiles that I reference have a structure that parallels architecture with natural elements of the outside world. Residing in the safety of a third space, within “hiding places,” is a reality for many people living on the periphery. They are not always truly seen because they are considered to be a threat and ultimately there is a vulnerability in being visible in certain situations. For this reason, creating a sense of the outside world, nature, and structural expanses within interior spaces is a long tradition and still important within the contemporary world.
Yassana Croizat-Glazer: Food figures prominently in your imagery. Why does this subject resonate with you?
Padma Rajendran: Food is part of the world of ritual and comfort keeping. Food shared or prepared for others conjures intimacy and it is tied to emotion and language. It is connected to how I envision textile’s function as a component of our survival and provides a bounty of associations to people, cultures, and pleasure. Food traditions are another element that help migrating peoples in achieving a sense of “home.” A lot of food-related labor is traditionally carried out by women, and the efforts of that labor are much like a performance that tends to be evaluated.
The process in the studio is similar to the process in a kitchen. Perhaps it is my printmaking background that for me connects these two zones in terms of creation and improvisation. No two people would make a meal the same way despite using the same ingredients just as drawings of the same subject matter and material do not appear the same when produced by different artists. I can’t help but associate the visual elements of food to the formal elements of art, and the consumption of food shares parallels with the viewing of art. Representing specific foods or rituals that utilize fruits as part of my storytelling is a way of ensuring that that particular narrative or point of connection to an audience does not get extinguished from its cultural consciousness.
Yassana Croizat-Glazer: Textile is among the most tactile of media. How is touch a part of your creative process and storytelling?
Padma Rajendran: All human beings have a relationship with fabric. We are clothed and need fibers close to our skin. This knowledge absorbed by the body is a part of human experience; most people are able to “read” and understand textile or fiber-based work without much apprehension in comparison to a contemporary painting. In other words, because of this unique relationship that has been with us since birth, we have internalized the feel of textiles and can easily predict what fibers will feel like even without a direct touch.
We all assign worth to textile. Rubbing fabric between our thumb and middle and index fingers allows us to interpret its quality, determine its value and ultimately its meaning. I think it’s no coincidence that this gesture, without fabric in hand, is also a gesture signifying money. Another element I find curious is textile’s ability to hold the past and the future. As we need textiles to bring emblematic comfort through accumulated associations with the past, we imagine textiles that are not yet in our lives as vehicles for transformation, either of our body (thereby fashioning a future identity) or for creating our interior world.
Yassana Croizat-Glazer: The notion of threshold is central to your work, and evokes many dualities: interior/exterior, public/private, individual/community, etc. Would you please tell us more about your handling of this concept?
Padma Rajendran: Prior to the pandemic, I considered the threshold as a space to mark and interpret the rituals of how we acknowledge transitions. How we enter (or exit) a threshold, which can function as a hybrid space, reveals another version of self. How we cross multiple thresholds within abstract notions of time is a subject currently on my mind.
When considering migration, it feels crucial to investigate the threshold between spaces and individuals, especially arbitrary ones. I interpret how the dual entrance and exit corresponds to a border crossing and how it is marked with specific action. Whether moving from a domestic space to the outside world—into a workspace, or even a customs crossing, there are procedures and rituals that mark that shift and I consider how exactly we integrate ourselves into these other spaces.
Hiding places is a subject that I’m considering more while living through a pandemic. Our interior worlds are coming in closer contact with our exterior identities, particularly as we engage with others virtually. How one previously existed in a community as an individual is no longer the same, as we are now working from home with all the sounds and visuals that come along with it.
Yassana Croizat-Glazer: Body parts seem to serve an important semiotic function within your pieces. Would you please elaborate on the significance of this language?
Padma Rajendran: The hand or arm corresponds to a fragmented gesture. Often it is a hand reaching out and seeking to hold and ultimately attain the symbolic meaning of an object contained within the work. The hand rarely possesses the object unless it is offering it to another entity or another hand distinguished by a difference in skin color. The truncated body part is a place for me to represent contradiction, and to have a conversation within the work about race. Seeing brown or dark skin at the point of a threshold, a place I see others and myself occupying, is key to that conversation. This reality of what many people of color have stacked against them is finally gaining greater awareness. I bring forward the physical inclusion of this figure in a world that marks transition and question if what they’re reaching for will be an actual possibility or simply a dream. Dreams for our future, like wishes, are channels to actualize desires and goals. They are necessary to plot “success” and gain socio-economic growth, but like wishes, they bear the possibility of not coming to fruition.