Social justice, change through art is aim of upcoming
exhibit in San Ramon
By Lou Fancher
The breadth and depth of Pallavi Sharma’s artwork gives rise to curiosity.
What skilled hands sculpted deep, sinuous grooves and feathery, delicate incisions for a lino print, clinically shredded real dollar bills into confetti for a collage, forcefully pushed paint into textured canvas or gently spread makeup across the smooth, porous flesh of a human cheek?
What caused a mind to conceive of a suitcase filled with barley seeds that grew into grassy plant-hood to represent an immigrant’s treasures and burgeoning dreams? Which war atrocities stirred a soul to cut “IT” out of artificial turf and fill the grave-like openings with camouflage-painted shoes contributed by friends, family and strangers?
More personally, was it frugality, fondness or both that had the San Ramon artist create artwork using expensive wedding saris she would never wear again but couldn’t bear to part with? What compelled a woman, amazed at 20 years of joy in an arranged marriage that she initially protested, to play in a performance art installation with sacred red powder that Hindu women wear, challenging her homeland’s patriarchal culture?
Pallavi Sharma’s mixed media art piece “Carry On.” (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) Frequently working in collaboration with other artists, a designated community or the general public, Sharma’s portfolio is like a live-action adventure film set in an ever-changing landscape.
Sharma, 48, is a multidisciplinary artist born in Patna, Bihar, in eastern India. She immigrated to join her husband, Satyendra Kumar, in 1997. They are parents of two boys; one attending UC Berkeley and the other a high school sophomore. Sharma received her BFA and MFA from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, India and her Ph.D. in Art History from India’s National Museum Institute of History of Art and Conservation. She teaches at California College of the Arts, serves on the board of the Asian American Women Artists Association and founded Inner Eye Art, a nonprofit based in San Ramon.
When it comes to collaboration, she says, “There is a lot of difficulty. You cannot presume set results for your artwork. There is no layout; just going with the flow. You cannot just speak out your mind.”
To be successful, a collaborator must learn and practice the fine art of listening, even when the dialogue is rocky. “It’s my life philosophy,” said Sharma. “You are not by yourself in life: Nothing is done in isolation, even solo painting.”
Indeed, Sharma exchanges ideas and creates stories with materials as well as with people — woven fabric speaks to the fragility of class privilege or, twisted or braided around her body, a woman’s sari is simultaneously entrapment and protective armor; pages of her Ph.D. thesis folded into sailboats by strangers or life stories told on 6-inch paper clouds are the immigrant’s journey.
“When I came to America I was lonely. Trying to know this place, I had art as a process of getting to know other people,” she said.
Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sharma says people were trusting. “The best part of this country was whenever you said something, people believed it. At airports, they didn’t search my purse when I said I didn’t have anything bad in it. A purse I lost one time that was full of cash — someone returned it to me. I was so impressed.”
As a person of color post-9/11, Sharma says she feels privileged to live in the diversity of the Bay Area. For security reasons, she understands caution, but unnecessary profiling elsewhere because of tone of skin or accent leaves her feeling left out. “I feel I’m really an alien — even after becoming a naturalized citizen in 2006,” she said.
Because her childhood home was filled with art — her father is an accomplished artist and professor of art, her mother an actor “radical for a woman of her time” — participation in theatrical productions was nightly entertainment for Sharma and her two siblings. She turns to art for comfort, connection and community.
“Where I studied art is part of my grooming. It’s not specifically Indian or American. I am organic and go with the experiences and what they demand,” she said. “I try to keep it fluid.”
The current political climate, she said, impacts her deeply, and vulnerability becomes a central theme. Domestic violence, gentrification, gender bias and racial stereotyping severs communication and has led her to say, “I cannot ignore or close my eyes to human issues, to women’s issues, to any discrimination. If I am able to speak my mind, that’s the time I feel I’m at home. In my homeland, I should be able to speak freely.”
Which means that Sharma, whose work has been displayed in venues nationwide, will continue to seek small community platforms. “That’s the thing I want to create. When you start and 10 people come, you make a home. Minds can meet, left or right, I don’t care. We can talk: it’s a missing thing.”
And if people also listen, Sharma’s art in its endless variations will flourish.