With a pair of black snakes drawn on herself, Ashmina Ranjit seems to embody the art she is enveloped in. Intimately intertwined, these serpents, she’s heard to say, depict the required marriage between knowledge and wisdom. Such profound insights form the core of her craft. Ranjit identifies as an artivist—the alloy of an artist and an activist. Through her paintings, sculptures, lithographs, performative acts including auditory and visual wonders, and other innumerable forms of media she expresses her disdain for social injustice, especially on socio-political fronts.
Born and educated in Kathmandu, Ranjit reveals that her inquisitive nature pushed her to create her own niche. When enrolled in her BFA programme in Nepal, she was advised by her serious lecturers to leave gender politics out of the canvas. Artists were to stay aloof and delve into the beauty of the world. Perplexed, she insisted on how her identity was socially a uterine one, and how this identity longs to express its experiences.
She refused to partake in the (then) politically apathetic Nepali art scene, which produced pieces to serve as tranquillising pills for the elites. Scholarships and fellowships encouraged her to learn more in Australia and America, and helped give impetus to the ideas she harboured. She breathed life into the socio-political issues that plagued Nepal through the medium of her redefined art—whether it be on a constitutional level, or the hurdles that stop women from properly enjoying the newly formed democratic society.
Using her art to oppose inertia and mobilise social change, Ranjit rarely shies away from speaking about the unspoken. From sanitary napkins to locks of hair, she boldly illustrates the issues that need to be addressed and worked upon. When asked if she could recount the number of artworks she’s produced, she laughs saying, “It’s not possible”, as she remembers working tirelessly for the last 30 years.
Often called an “interdisciplinary artist” with a “synergetic” approach, Ranjit transcends mediums and mixes it all up. Having started with drawing, painting and sculpting, she used these mediums in the majority of her work. However, these two-dimensional ways of expression were, what she called, “limiting”. Following the artistic intuition ingrained into her work ethic, she kept exploring and expanding her horizons. It resulted in the creation of moving installations and powerful performances besides the traditional mediums. However, she clearly states, “If you ask me now, my medium is no medium. I use anything and everything. I create these situations which are not tangible but are experiential. So, the sky is the limit!“
Ranjit traces the awakening that encouraged her to add feminist undercurrents back to when she was a child. She recalls, “When I was about 6, I had a nanny who used to look after me and my brother. As a kid, I really enjoyed looking at the clouds through the window. But the nanny used to say, ‘Hey! Being a girl, you should not look at the clouds…you’ll want to fly. And for women, it’s not possible.’”
Nonetheless, she kept wanting to fly over the clouds, aspiring to become a pilot. Her second epiphany would be when she enrolled in art school to learn that art could be the medium of her flight. This innate desire to soar in the skies had nothing to do with the physicality of the flight – rather it was the need to be herself. To feel free. And to express what she truly wanted to.
In terms of the bigger picture, Ranjit remarks that, “In the Nepali context, society has progressed in a certain manner. Still, we hear a list of dos and don’ts for women. Back then, I argued against this through art. It could be the medium where I liberate myself and others as well.“
The conservative atmosphere of art schools in Nepal idealised beautiful imitations but vilified creativity. Unhappy with these dictates, Ranjit longed to find value beyond recreation and imitation of mere beautiful objects and scenery. She adds, “While it has its own value, for me – it wasn’t enough.” Determined to express her very own lived experiences rather than importing something, she started with her experiences of being a woman. And she has kept going.
The recurring motif of her work is female sexuality. All the pieces/performances that centralise this theme, openly speak against the brahminavada prevalent in society. Ranjit emphasises on the expression of a women’s sexuality, as it constitutes a woman’s identity, cultural role and being. She says, “Sexuality forms your identity – which is freely being who you are. How we carry ourselves within this body matters, and how we express it too.“
In an attempt to control a woman’s sexuality, society ends up controlling every aspect of her being. Ranjit points out that the brahminical patriarchy imagines its control to extend, even before life begins – through foeticide. And once born with a vagina, a woman is controlled and manipulated in every possible way. She often gets trapped in the name of culture, love, society or family. Hence, a proud acceptance of the body we’re (usually) bound to live in, is what Ranjit’s work aims at. She’s encouraging women to take back their power.
Ranjit explains her recurrent usage of red as a dabbling of polarities that she subconsciously picked up. She muses,”Red could be seen as blood. That which gives life but is shamed about. It could be seen as the colour of love but also that of extreme hate. The intense passions, the flustered face – red can express a variety of things.“
While the source of her inspiration is her culture, she hopes her art is accessible to the entire womankind. When trapped within the Hindu brahminical patriarchy, she chose to express her vulnerability. However, she confesses to have learnt that patriarchy exists all around the globe – through caste, class, and colour. Keeping this in mind, she tries her best balance the global-local ratio, simply insisting on freedom and change.
As the founder of LASANAA, an alternative art space, and NexUs Culture Nepal, the physical space that manifests this concept, Ranjit combines her aesthetic abilities with her political consciousness, to learn from everyone, and collectively create stories that intervene, influence and improve the Nepali society and beyond.
Featured Image Source: The Kathmandu Post