Vadhu: The Embroidered Bride
Vadhu: The Embroidered Bride
A New York-based artist from Chandigarh, India, Malik often addresses women’s rights and gendered violence through her lens-based interdisciplinary practice. The works in Vadhu: The Embroidered Bride use wedding portraits as a departure point for exploring the nuanced relationship between time, gender, and memory. On view from October 13 to November 10, 2021, the exhibition is composed of embroidered photographic portraits created in collaboration with women in India and drawn from the artist’s ongoing project, Nā́rī.
“Vadhu: The Embroidered Bride is the culmination of my experience as a Baxter St resident,” says Malik. “This opportunity gave me the privilege of time, space, and guidance to continue and sustain my artistic practice with the community I hold dear. During the pandemic, I had to rethink the way I interpret a portrait. Instead of being able to travel to India to capture their faces, we met virtually looking at photo albums, mostly wedding photographs and this started a conversation about how they saw themselves in the photographs of the past and how that narrative has changed since. I believe that embroidery is a language passed down through generations of women to break the oppressor. As they embroidered their wedding portraits of the past, recalling that moment in time, the language of embroidery began to tell their stories and allowed them to reclaim the memory of the photograph.”
In Sanskrit, nā́rī refers to a woman, wife, female, or an object regarded as feminine, but can also mean “sacrifice.” Born out of Malik’s interest in small communities in India where women use fabric and embroidery as a way to gain financial freedom, the Nā́rī series features photographs embroidered by the women depicted in them. At the beginning of the series, the artist traveled to three places known for their distinct styles of embroidery: Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh (chikankari embroidery on mulmul or voile); Jaipur, Rajasthan (gota-patti or zardozi embroidery on khadi); and Chamkaur Sahib, Punjab (phulkari silk thread embroidery on khaddar or cotton fabric). Malik visited women confined to their homes by husbands, fathers, or their own concerns about their safety in the public sphere and interviewed them about harsh social and economic realities, including domestic and sexual violence. She photographed them in their homes, using the domestic settings as both “safe spaces” in which to share stories and intimate backdrops for the portraits. Malik then printed the photographs on traditional regional textiles and invited each woman to embroider them using their local, familial, and personal techniques; the artist provided no specific instructions or guidelines, instead giving her collaborators creative freedom and control over their images.
When the COVID-19 pandemic left Malik unable to travel to India, the artist continued working with her collaborators virtually, staying in close contact through WhatsApp and phone calls. In May 2021, as the pandemic was raging in India, Malik expanded her individual communications into a virtual community via a WhatsApp group, where women could share their stories and help one another cope with the political violence, nationalist agendas, institutional discrimination, and overwhelming grief of their ever-changing lives. This community inspired the work included in Vadhu: The Embroidered Bride.
While they live in different regions of India, Malik’s collaborators came together around shared experiences: the cultural heritage and storytelling embedded in embroidery, the expectations and realities of marriage, the quest for financial independence. In their backyards, on WhatsApp, and via international mail, the collaborators shared personal photographs—including marriage portraits and images of younger versions of themselves—with Malik and each other. The photographs document both celebratory times and unhappy memories; often, they mark a moment when their subject’s life changed. As in the prior works in the series, Malik printed the images on fabric and returned them to the women to embellish.
By embroidering portraits of the past, Malik’s collaborators recall, recollect, remember, and reclaim their narrative; the language of embroidery reshapes the memory of the photograph. At the same time, the project pushes the boundaries between what has historically been considered handicraft or fine art and re-contextualizes women’s work in India. Spandita Malik is grateful for the collaboration and friendship of the twenty-two participants in this project, whose embroidered portraits are on view in this exhibition.
Spandita Malik is a New York-based artist from India. Her work is concerned with the current global socio-political state of affairs with an emphasis on women’s rights and gendered violence. Malik specializes in process-based work in photography, recently exploring photographic surface embroideries and collaborations with women in India.
Malik received her MFA in Photography from Parsons School of Design, where she was awarded the Photography Programmatic Scholarship and the Graduate Travel Grant Award. Her work has been featured internationally in China, France, India, Italy, New York, and New Zealand.
Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York operates as a 501(c)3 arts organization and is located at 126 Baxter St, and 128 Baxter St. Its programming and exhibitions are supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council, the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature, The Jerome Foundation, The Tierney Family Foundation, Steven Amedee Fine Custom Framing, Fujifilm of North America, The Puffin Foundation Ltd., Yarden Winery, and Awagami Factory. Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York is W.A.G.E. certified.