‘Priya Suresh Kambli: I am an American / I am an Indian’

Installation view of “Priya Suresh Kambli: I am an American / I am an Indian” in the McCaffree Gallery at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. (photo by E.G. Schempf)

The artist explores her dual identity in an exhibit at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

Sweet substances and tart phrases make up the exhibition “I am an American / I am an Indian,” featuring artworks by Priya Suresh Kambli. The exhibition at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art speaks to the fragility of identity and cultural norms through 10 works consisting of granulated sugar. The textual pieces present unapologetic statements about Kambli’s experiences and opinions about her identity as both American and Indian.

Priya Suresh Kambli (photo by Edwin Montoya)

Kambli has lived in the United States for decades as an American citizen, currently working as a professor of art at Truman State University. However, her Indian identity has a profound impact on how she navigates the world. As she recalls, “I was asked to install this work because elections were coming up. My work is not necessarily political, but my identity is political because I have a migrant identity.”

By using sugar to declare such statements as “I AM AN INDIAN” and “I AM AN IMMIGRANT” and “I AM NOT FOREIGN,” Kambli comments on the difficulties she has faced as a brown woman. The inspiration behind the phrases in her exhibition comes from the memory of when she was asked to turn in her Indian passport so she could get an American one. They stamped her Indian passport with the word “cancelled,” indicating an official and archival shift in her identity.

The installation also explores the power of materiality, using sugar as the primary medium. Fashioned into bold statements on a series of white-slab pedestals that protrude from the wall, the loose sugar exclaims positive declarations and their negative opposites. Materially, Kambli asks the sugar to perform in a way that is not innate to the substance. Kambli discusses a dichotomy of sweetness and tartness, positing that “The sugar glistens and it’s beautifully shiny in certain ways. Here I’m asking it to act in a way that the viewer sees as kind of tart because of the things that the text says. It’s an interesting combination.”

After traveling to or from India on a long journey, it is customary to consume a sweet treat upon arrival at the destination to ease the bitterness of leaving one place and arriving in another. Kambli remembers flights from India to the United States typically leaving around 2 or 3 a.m., making the traveling process even more jarring and hectic. Putting something sweet into the traveler’s mouth can always feel like a “mad rush,” as Kambli describes it, searching the home or through luggage for something sweet.

Kambli’s material choices also come from the idea of domesticity, and she indicates “I like humble materials and materials that are grounded in the everyday.” She also delights in thinking about memory through taste, because according to Kambli, taste is removed from the typical memory senses of sight and touch. Tasting and having something in one’s mouth conjure different types of memories.

Installation views of “I AM AN AMERICAN” and “I AM NOT YOUR AMERICAN” in the exhibit, “Priya Suresh Kambli: I am an American / I am an Indian” at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. (photos by E.G. Schempf)

Another fascinating aspect about the sugar material is that it holds itself together for the duration of the exhibition, although shaking or bumping it would cause the sugar to completely lose its memory of the original meaning. Thus, in this installation, the message becomes more precarious and ephemeral, perhaps even more than the materials themselves.

Kambli’s work also resonates with several text-based, art-historical precedents in the modern and postmodern eras. In 1942 American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange captured a large sign which stated “I am an American” in a window of a store in Oakland, California, on Dec. 8, the day after the Pearl Harbor tragedy. According to the Library of Congress, the store had been closed due to orders for all persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from some West Coast cities and regions.

Four decades later, American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger made a series of photo and text collages that strongly resonated with people all over the world. Her most famous, “Your Body is a Battleground,” addressed media and politics in a statement about anti-abortion laws. Kruger’s use of positive and negative exposure resonates with Kambli’s work because “I am an American / I am an Indian” uses both positive and negative iterations to make its point. For instance, one pedestal states “I AM A WOMAN” and another declares “I AM NOT YOUR WOMAN.” Similarly, “I AM OF COLOR” positions itself next to “I AM NOT OF YOUR COLOR.”

“Priya Kambli’s installation ‘I am an American / I am an Indian’ touches upon topics of belonging and otherness through a series of strong yet ephemeral exclamations,” JoAnne Northrup, executive director and chief curator of the Nerman Museum, observed. “This artwork speaks to and honors the experiences of my friends and neighbors in Kansas City who were born in another country and maintain familial connections there, yet still consider this country their home.”

“Priya Suresh Kambli: I am an American / I am an Indian,” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., through March 12. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. For more information 913.469.3000 or www.nermanmuseum.org.

Ashley Lindeman

Ashley Lindeman is an art historian, educator, and arts writer. She recently earned her Ph.D. from Florida State University, and she works full time as Assistant Professor of Humanities at Johnson County Community College.

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