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A Conversation with Artist Manuja Waldia on Food and Communion

By Tasnim Ahmed.

Manuja Waldia is an artist whose works explore the multitudes of the South Asian diaspora, with an acute awareness of holding space for women of color. Waldia's illustrations and paintings depict intimate bonds between women of color, often in the midst of preparing and exchanging food. In these vibrant scenes, women commune over chai and cake, reading and sharing notes and fresh fruit in a feminist utopia, far from the male gaze. Her work is not only a celebration of women of color, but is also a reminder of how nourishment and care – of the self and of others – is the essence of community and sisterhood.

Waldia's illustrations have also graced the covers of Penguin's "The Pelican Shakespeare Series", and she was commissioned to create a Google doodle of the iconic singer Begum Akhtar on her 103rd birthday for the search engine.

1) Much of your work involves women in communion with one another? How has the concept of sisterhood impacted what you do?
Growing up in India, where the male gaze is so strong, I think it’s natural for women to find themselves in deep friendships with one another, from which that sense of sisterhood evolves.

 2) How do you envision sisterhood to be?
It’s a space where every individual gets to be their highest most-free self, building each other up so we all feel free, loved, creative and safe.

3) Have you experienced any impediments in this field as a woman of color?
Sometimes I wish art directors were pairing artists with the content better, but in my experience it’s a nurturing community, intent on being more inclusive. Art directors want to cast the right fit for the project, but sometimes they don’t understand the nuances themselves. I suspect most times this is subconsciously done. It would help if there were more people of color at the upper tiers of the industry, who are aware of the nuances of the communities they represent.

 4) Food is one of the central themes of your art - the preparation of it, gathering around it. What drew you to this?
Food is significant to the human existence. Every culture celebrates both good and bad times with food. Chai and cake have always made bad days a bit more tolerable for me, a constant in an otherwise evolving life. Some of my fondest memories growing up are of simple yet delicious home cooked lunches, my young parents cooking mutton curry and fried fish, chatting away in our tiny kitchen. 


5) Women of color are also ever-present in your work. Was this intentional or organic?
I grew up around women of color, so maybe it’s intentional. Representation is so important. I want to be mindful of how growing up I was relieved to see other women of color like Sarita Choudhury representing us. I want to express my existence as a woman of color through my work.

6) What does a blank canvas mean to you?
It could be a challenge to get past the limitlessness of a blank canvas. I am learning to not be too precious about starting something.

7) Where do you seek inspiration from?
Movies, I haven’t seen a single movie which didn’t offer something to inspire me. Even the bad ones are great. I love photographs by Martin Parr; Raghubir Singh’s photos show Indian men very elegantly which is interesting as the culture can be so machismo; Bill Owens’ Suburbia series is beautiful. I love reading Luncheon, Riposte, Self Service and Puss Puss magazines.

8) What makes you feel at home and what do you long for?
Rainy day chai parties, cinema, home-cut fruit! I long for authentic street food!

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