Padma Rajendran – On Cultural Tenderness

Padma Rajendran, Along the way, 2019, Dye on silk with stitching, dimensions varied, photo courtesy of the artist

Malaysian born and New York based artist Padma Rajendran works in diverse media yet currently views paper and fabric as her primary materials. She highlights the portable nature of paper and fabric, along with their significance as “keepers of culture, comfort, and call upon the function of the decorative”. Padma Rajendran shares here some insight on her work, what brought her there and where she is heading from here.

AS: You were born in Malaysia, got your BFA at Haverford College in PA and then graduated with an MFA in printmaking from Rhode Island School of Design. What drew you to art throughout this journey?

Padma Rajendran: I came to art through textiles. I realize that now. Moving from place to place, we prioritized and were able to bring textiles rather than other, bulkier objects. When I was younger in the US, I tried not to be an outsider despite looking and sounding different. Within my family, it was stressed for me to understand things by observing, and that especially made sense to do in the different worlds around me. I quickly realized what sets people apart and how people assimilate through sounds, appearances, and cultural markers. I now still think within this framework, but also depend on what unifies people across cultures and that many ideas individuals have are the same.

I originally anticipated studying anthropology because I always enjoyed learning about other cultures and being the observer. I did not feel I was adept at thinking in the way it was presented. I have a BA in Fine Arts from Bryn Mawr College, and the major was at Haverford. My undergraduate professor was painter, Ying Li, who encouraged me to focus on the active studio aspect of art and not appearances. This became more important throughout the years in and out of school when I didn’t think I belonged in an artist role and didn’t initially see examples of myself or my way of thinking. I doubted what I was doing, and why I should be including myself considering the pursuit was in opposition to the immigrant dream of survival (safety and success) my parents had for me. Ying was the first Asian woman I encountered living a role counter to a traditional expectation or cultural norm. I had to advocate for even doing art to every person except her. The six years between undergrad and grad school, I realized how much I depended on making things and the pleasurable challenges of problem solving in finding Place in my work.

AS: You work with diverse materials, ranging from dyed fabrics to ceramics, paper to beads. Material seems to be central in your work. Can you elaborate on your approach to material, where you get them, your choices, and typical process?

Padma Rajendran: The material choices have to do with what is accessible and transportable. I still think about how the work can physically move from place to place. I consider what kind of objects and surfaces can be communicated to an audience outside of Fine Art, which tends to be white, Western educated and socially accepted into the places where Fine Art tends to reside.

We all have a relationship with paper and fabric. I view those as my primary materials. My work relies on the portable nature of these materials, and that they are keepers of culture, comfort, and call upon the function of the decorative.

Lately, I’ve been using handmade papers more. I still have a good amount from when I made paper in graduate school and some I’ve reserved from New York Central. I buy my fabric from stores in NYC like Butterfly and Fabrics & Fabrics in Midtown, as well as, from Dharma Trading. If I travel somewhere it’s often hard for me to resist, and I end up buying fabric printed or in some raw state to use in some future work.

Padma Rajendran, About to Enter, 2018,acrylic, felt, polyester, silk, stitching on fabric, 41 x 57 inches, photo courtesy of artist, photo credit: Don Stahl

AS: In your Sari series, from 2014, drawing with ink and watercolor on paper is your medium of choice. What prompted this series and what can you tell me about the imagery?

Padma Rajendran: The Sari Series are screen printed monotypes that were inspired by the performative nature of Sari pallus (the decorated sari end that cascades loosely down the body). The importance of this end drape is also made apparent when shopping for saris, and that this is a coded area that often has symbols of prosperity and fertility in its borders. The sari itself in addition to the pallu can emphasize a region’s heritage by woven design, varieties of silk, or color combination. That was the first time I used a textile structure to guide my content and the works became a vehicle to the action of remembering home experiences in Chennai, India and evaluating questions of what symbolizes Place and Home country in past and present.

AS: A year later, in Proverbs, you seem to be breaking out of the paper boundaries. What drove you there and what would you like to share about this body of work?

Padma Rajendran: I became increasingly interested in folk art objects and came to recognize more things functioned in that realm so I, too, wanted to communicate within that world of objects. The jump of simply indicating textile function and to making textile function was an important and somewhat slow step. The work was the start of thinking about the function of the decorative and the illogical, intricate, clunky and rich world of folk art. I related the work to my previous prints of shrines and South Asian architecture and moved the work past the sacred threshold into the interior. The interior space is domestic and the function of the wish (which is on the same plane of the decorative) became important.

Many of the works are guided by the goals and wishes in immigrant life and motivated by the dualistic nature of South Asian proverbs. I began acknowledging contradictions in these wishes and the realities of life for many people.

Padma Rajendran, Original Shell, 2016, Dye and resist on silk, 52″ x 54″, photo courtesy of artist, photo credit: Don Stahl

AS: In Offerings you seem to further expand your surfaces, working with clay, ceramics and fabric. How did this series evolve and how does it relate to Proverbs?

Padma Rajendran: I previously worked with clay as a drawing surface, and I still relate the surface of bisqueware to that of paper. The clay pieces help me think about the function of shape and any idea I generally draw out in clay, and I realize a few years later how the work could function in fabric. The imagery functions in the same way, but my continued goal is to diversify the materials and process.

AS: In Interior Life you focus on fabric work. The surface appears flatter, resembling prints. But you seem to bring it into an installation context. Do you see this as an evolution of your 2-d work?

Padma Rajendran: Yes, I am interested in how these ideas inhabit space and not exclusively function in the periphery. I am considering how placing the work within a space structures my concerns about the forms of survival, its losses and celebrations.

Padma Rajendran, American Dream Jeans Too, 2018, 78″ x 48″, Resist, dye, polyester, and stitching on fabric, photo courtesy of artist, photo credit: Don Stahl

AS: In Thresholds (2018-19) you show hanging fabrics, another installation work. It includes also a pair of pants. What are you exploring in this body of work and how does it relate to / build on your previous installation?

Padma Rajendran: I am interested in talking about the body specifically – its movement, aspirations, limitations, and what it needs to survive. I explore how comfort is created, and why that is important. How the feelings of comfort and belonging support cultural tenderness and acceptance to reduce the likelihood that specificities will be lost.

Padma Rajendran, Full Cup, Dye, 2018, pochoir, trim, and stitching on various fabrics, 150 x 55 inches, photo courtesy of artist, photo credit: Don Stahl

Padma Rajendran, Lemon Life, 2018, acrylic, paper, felt, polyester, silk, stitching on fabric, 28 x 48 inches, photo courtesy of artist, photo credit: Don Stahl

Padma Rajendran: I plan to make more within the American Dream Jean series on fabric or perhaps even paper and varying my structures in clay, paper, print, and fabric.

AS: Our interview was conducted a while before the Corona pandemic. Life has changed since. How are you coping these days and what are your thoughts about the road ahead?

Padma Rajendran: I have gone through a few different stages of reaction. I am doing a lot better than a week or two ago. I am in upstate NY which is home and a comfortable place to quarantine. I have a live work space so that is convenient. However, I haven’t been making much till the past few days. I have felt overwhelmed, sad, angry, so many levels of worry, and anxious for the past few weeks/ since February. At this moment, my husband is still working in NYC and helping his remaining employees at his restaurant business, and currently both my parents have underlying conditions making them vulnerable. The latter has been the biggest emotional stress because of its severity.

I have a few part time jobs and primarily teach so there has been a lot more work on my plate. I am very lucky to have employment and still be getting paid, but I have lost some freelance opportunities and the future of that remains unclear. I have been working every day of the week. Everything feels quite urgent, especially when each day I have to absorb the day’s changing information and newest policies. That has been quite hard, and teaching students now is simply very different. I am grateful and impressed how quickly people in my world have come together to adapt to the situation and support each other, especially artist communities. I have been admiring my friend, Laleh Khorramian’s project, Masks for People, that is making and distributing masks for hospitals, nursing homes, and any who need masks for protection in their day to day. Regarding teaching, it is increasingly important to bring students together to discuss experiences, ideas, and give more opportunities to make things albeit strained circumstances. That routine of seeing my students’ faces has been a sweetness.

I have been coping with making sure I’m doing some pleasurable repetitive things and preparing by cooking a lot and freezing food. I have been reading more, sleeping more, and staying healthy. I’ve been making very simple, goofy necklaces with the many beads collected in my studio. I have also expanded my usual letter writing routine and been writing to more friends. The mail is my preferred way of communicating, and now I find that point of connection to something physical from and to another person feels even more important. The connection despite distance and time is something we can literally hold on to. I have always been interested in the culture of gifts and the nature of offerings. I see this as another vehicle for it, and one that is bringing me comfort and hope.

Concerning the road ahead, I know that we will have to be generous and work in unexpected ways to solve the devastating obstacles we encounter and the severe disparities that will develop even further. I do worry about what it will look like 3 or 6 months from now, but I am very concerned about the week to week and the people in my life remaining healthy.

photo courtesy of artist, photo credit: Don Stahl

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: