Recently, South Asia Center graduate assistant Karishma Manglani interviewed Sangram Majumdar, who joined the University of Washington in 2021 as an Assistant Professor of Painting and Drawing. Prior to this, Professor Majumdar taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art for eighteen years. Read on to learn more about Professor Majumdar’s artistic influences growing up in Kolkata, current explorations in art, and his podcast in the making.
KM: What drew you to your study of art?
SM: Like many kids, I started drawing as a kid. Growing up in Kolkata, I remember going to Durga Pujos with my uncles and my dad and drawing all the gods and goddesses. I also used to cut out images of cricketers and soccer players from the Sunday edition of The Statesman that my grandfather used to get and draw them. Mainly, I never stopped. Along the way my work and my interests changed, and I found a home in the discipline of painting. I began as a painter primarily interested in exploring the quotidian nature my immediate environment through direct observation. Over time I became more interested in the actual nature of observation and found myself more invested in the act of making and looking over the depicted image.
KM: How has your background and identity influenced your art?
SM: As a first-generation Indian immigrant, I am simultaneously fascinated and apprehensive about the missing links to my past. It has fundamentally shaped how I think and act through painting. Growing up partially in India and in the shadow of its Colonial past, I was mainly exposed to Western painting traditions. Moving to the US amplified this body of knowledge. So while my paintings primarily come out of Western painting methodologies, I purposefully push against this history. My paintings resist naming, whether along genres or the tired figurative/abstract breakdowns. In terms of imagery and content, the disappearing body, ideas around staging, and a sustained engagement with the material nature of the actual object of a painting have been key elements in my work that seem to get louder over time. I am especially interested in the question of how the politics of visibility/invisibility of a body square off against the pictorial presence/absence of a figure.
KM: What brought you to the University of Washington?
SM: Prior to coming to UW I taught for eighteen years at Maryland Institute College of Art, a place where I grew immensely as an artist and teacher due to the incredible students and faculty that I was around constantly. I took the position at UW because I wanted to be in a research university and all that it entails – including working and learning from a larger community of makers and thinkers that stretch beyond the terrain of art. I am also thrilled that I get to work with students here that have a wide body of knowledge and interests which I am eager to encourage and support. Finally, I am excited that UW and Seattle’s broader community has a strong East and South Asian community which I want to engage with in a deeper and more meaningful way.
KM: How has your life and research changed with the pandemic?
SM: During the pandemic I began spending more time finding ways to connect with artists by conducting artist interviews for blogs and exhibitions. Mainly I began writing more frequently and I am eager to keep that going. This also led to a parallel project that I am working on right now funded by the Mellon Faculty Fellow in Art which I received at the start of this academic year. Through interviews and discussions with artists, educators, historians, and chemist/manufacturers I am gathering data that explores the relationship between color and materiality in relationship to painting that will ultimately be compiled in a podcast. In the studio, I also slowed down, which initially felt like a step backward. However in retrospect this has allowed me to be more thoughtful and considerate about how I think and make.
KM: What can your students look forward to learning from you in your courses? What do historically students feel shocked to learn?
This academic year (21-22) I taught a range of beginning, intermediate and advanced painting and drawing courses while working closely with Painting and Drawing graduate students. Regardless of what I teach, my approach often has to do with encouraging ‘serious play’, creating a space where students feel free to try new things and make mistakes, explore ways to bring their own particular histories and interests to the forefront even if they feel they don’t have the tools to do it, introducing them to contemporary artists and historical counterparts that don’t fit the historically sanctioned Western art hierarchies, and most importantly, thinking critically about their work through research and practice. I am not sure about being ‘shocked’, but I try to introduce students to artists from a broader perspective, showing their work over a period of time and their various influences and their contemporaries to get to the idea that ideas take time to develop and that it doesn’t all happen in an instant or in a solitude of one’s brain. The more influences, the better.
KM: What excites you most about the upcoming year?
SM: Next year during fall quarter I am teaching two courses that couldn’t be more different. I am teaching a combined graduate seminar (590) that include all the graduate students in art and an introductory course on drawing (190) that is not just for those planning to go into art. It should be interesting!
KM: Do you draw on South Asian influences in your art? How has this changed in your work over time?
SM: I do draw on South Asian influences, but what they are vary. I would say a large part of my aesthetic is spatially and temporary connected to growing up and living in two major metropolitan cities (Kolkata and New York City). I feel at home in a dense, layered, and often contradictory space. I think a lot about the old next to the new, the sense of collage of modern life that incorporates older histories into it. In my studio lately I have been looking and learning about specific types of Indian painting traditions including Madhubani and Kalighat Painting. I have been thinking about the notion of heritage as auspicious ghosts. I have also been thinking about the idea of repetition, less through the lens of flattening ideas and meanings, and more as a way to reincarnate new possibilities. I have two groups of paintings in progress right now that play on this idea. In one, taking a cue from Ragamala paintings, I am exploring cyclical time through weather patterns and related imagery. In another body of work I am working with a schematic figure of a standing/walking/running figure as a given from painting to painting, but with decidedly different directions. I think in general I am trying to use painting to create a space where not knowing is welcome.
Learn more about Prof. Majumdar’s art at www.sangrammajumdar.com