Manju Shandler in Domestic Brutes at Pelham Art Center

In Dialogue with Manju Shandler

Manju Shandler working on Persistent Mothers in her studio in Brooklyn, NY 2020. Photo Stephen Estrin.

Manju Shandler creates symbolic art that speaks to current events. Building upon established storylines from myth, religion, and history, her mixed media artworks create richly layered narratives that reflect on our dense and complicated times. Shandler believes people are natural storytellers that make sense of the world through by mining both personal experience and collective memories that have been passed down. Her work dips into this well. Training as a theatre designer helps her to envision installations and her background as a puppet builder informs how she approaches building objects. Identifying as a mother seeps into everything she does.

AS: How do you see your work in context of Domestic Brutes feminist perspective?

MS: The past four years have been a period of introspection about the role of women in our society. The entrenched sexism exposed by this past election has been met with powerful resistance. Movements like The Women’s March, #Me-Too, Resistance Art, and the scores of women running for office are examples of how we are rising up to meet injustice. Women won the right to vote almost 100 years ago. Now, more than ever, it is time for us to use our democratic imperative.

Empowered by this energy of persistent rebellion, I began creating a series of figurative sculptures modelled after my own likeness. Rather than substituting a generalized female form to make sweeping proclamations about women and motherhood, I wanted to cease this moment and make truly personal art. Starting with this abstraction of my body that is puppet, doll, or trophy, I am grappling with my role in society as a woman and a mother in a direct and tender way.

Hubbard, 2019, mixed media. Photos curtesy the artist.

AS: Tell me about the work in this show – its genesis and process.

MS: The installation Persistent Mothers is informed by my training as a puppet builder. I wanted to reinterpret this traditional artform in my own visual language.

The figures are made of a slush-moldable papier mache that resembles porcelain, and “glazed” using oil-based polyurethane which seeps into the porous material for additional strength. These cast pieces are then assembled with a steel armature. There is something symbolic about creating “porcelain dolls” that are actually made of far tougher stuff.

The installation features multiple figures clothed only in their hair, scars, and tattoos. They exhibit the ferial quality of those victorious after battle and the peace of individuals ready to hand the baton to the next generation. Each of these figures, an abstracted likeness of myself, has a unique stance and physicality. They are rendered in half scale to my own body – while I am 60 inches tall, they are 30.

Detail Persistent Mothers, 2020, mixed media. Photo curtesy of the artist.

AS: How does the work in this show relate to your other work?

MS: This series of work is both a continuation and a departure from what I have been doing before. It feels like a culminating event to create work that speaks to theatre, puppets, autobiography, current events, feminism, and motherhood. It is not my first instinct to turn the lens inward and share something from a personal perspective. In the past my instinct has been to “report” on the world at large taking a more distanced view. Using myself as the protagonist for this work is both strange and empowering.

Missing Peace, 2019, mixed media. Photo curtesy the artist.

AS: How do you hope viewers connect with your work in this show?

MS: In our society it has become subversive to be both a culture maker and a mother over 40. Often there is an expectation that mothers must sacrifice our intelligence and ambition once we give birth, that somehow bearing children marginalizes our voices and abilities. Persistent Mothers features female figures as a rebellion against the idea that a mother’s voice must be sacrificed by our gender role.

“The Mother” character in myth and religion has been established as series of archetypes that embody society’s expectations of Mothers. As Carl Jung said, these archetypes form “treasure in the realm of shadowy thoughts” in our collective unconscious. Inspiration for these pieces comes from research into universal stories including the hero’s journey and personal introspection — from Madonna to whore, Kali to Bafana, Gaia to Lilith, mothers are both sacred and terrifying. There is power in representation and I hope to empower other mothers to see ourselves as the powerful bad asses we are.

House Mum, 2020, mixed media. Photo curtesy the artist.

Domestic Brutes at the Pelham Art Center – Opening receptions: September 12th (in gallery with applicable rules); September 17th (virtual).

Artists: Tirtzah Bassel, Aisha Tandiwe Bell, Ashley Norwood Cooper, Maria de Los Angeles, Nancy Elsamanoudi, Fay Ku, Sharon Madanes, Lacey McKinney, Joiri Minaya, Rose Nestler, Simonette Quamina, Diana Schmertz, Alisa Sikelianos-Carter, Manju Shandler, Melissa Stern; Curated by Christina Massey and Etty Yaniv

Thanks to Audrey Putman for helping with the interview.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: