By Lekha Jandhyala
TextaQueen said hi to me first. I was pleasantly surprised at the interaction because whenever I attend a lecture, talk, or panel event alone I go into a different mode, something I now realize. This mode is not talkative or social, I attend solely to listen, learn, and then leave. I was in such a mode the evening at ACCA (The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art). The artists who spoke, Steven Rhall and Yhonnie Scarce, were a part of the excellent exhibition “Sovereignty.” Many of my Melbourne and Sydney acquaintances were quick to note that it was the first time a major contemporary art institution in Melbourne was giving a large public platform to an array of art forms created by the Indigenous artists of Victoria. So, despite my short Melbourne visit, this was one exhibition and talk session I wanted to be sure to attend.
In my mode of ‘listen, learn, leave’ I had no intention of striking up conversation with anyone, but I am so happy that Texta, cheetah-hot-pants clad, made our paths cross. One brief introduction later we were chatting comfortably like long lost friends.
Texta fast learned I had no plans after the talk and invited me to the baths in St. Kilda. We grabbed a bite at a vegan fast-food joint and headed an hour south where we were able to catch the sun setting over the ocean, comfortably submerged in a giant jacuzzi. Spontaneity has its rewards and this chance meeting with Texta in Melbourne was special.
Texta is an artist known as the "felt-tip-marker super-heroine." Her drawings are detailed, colorful, and incorporate queer, and ethno-cultural imagery into self-portraits and drawings of others. “Known for virtuosity in using the humble and unforgiving medium of fibre-tip marker (aka ‘texta’), [Texta] articulate[s] complex politics of race, gender, sexuality and identity; examining how visual and popular culture inform personal identity with increasing focus on the influence of ethno-cultural and colonial legacies on these dynamics.”
I asked a lot of the questions below while Texta and I conversed well through the sunset and beyond. Our night ended watching dozens of penguins gently chirping into each others chests as they snuggled up in pairs preparing for sleep. Texta’s answers have been refined over email.
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Lekha Jandhyala: You can trace your ancestry back to Goa, but you were born and raised here in Australia. Can you describe what your upbringing (hometown(s), family, early creative outlets) was like? How and why did you choose art?
TextaQueen: My parents migrated to Perth a year after the White Australia policies ended that limited immigration to people from the UK and certain places in western Europe. My sisters, my cousin and I were the only non-white kids in the entire primary school, where I was socially isolated and subject to a lot of blatant racism. My parents had the immigrant dream of moving to these colonised lands from their our own colonised lands for a better life for their children, for me to be an engineer or a scientist. But, I did that thing that second-generation kids, who are often in many ways more privileged (at least financially) than our parents’ upbringing, while dealing with that cultural disconnect of being born and raised here - I did that thing of wanting or needing to process this experience creatively.
LJ: Most of your works are either self-portraits or portraits of others. Why do you choose people as the center of your work?
TQ: Portraits have been my main thing I think a lot because I desire intimacy with other people and portraits are a way to process that desire. The title of my survey exhibition is 'Between You and Me' about that intimacy, among other things. I made all of the portraits of other people in a collaborative exchange with them, deciding on props and accessories and concepts together as they would pose live for me. They were quite incredible intimate experiences. For the last few years I have been creating self portraiture, which is a much more personally vulnerable genre, but it has been a way to work through vulnerability into empowerment. Though it is very emotionally exhausting to exhibit those works when I witness how that vulnerability is consumed in the colonial capitalist patriarchal art world in a way that is not empowering at all.
LJ: You explore multiple identities in your work as Australian, Indian, queer, and badass. Can you describe your process of creating your drawings, how do you pick the symbols, objects, phrases, and titles that you do?
TQ: I will say that [my process] is a very considered one. My recent works on paper series Gods Save the Queen, born out of a residency in Varanasi, India, took a lot of research and articulated very intense experiences of neocolonialism I had or witnessed there. Making this personal work takes more of an emotional process than before, because it's about my own identity plus how my subjective identity relates to collective identity and experiences of oppression. I'd like to say I'm really clever at choosing titles and I'm sure that talent comes from my mother here who processes everything through humour.
LJ: In many of your interviews, and I can imagine, even at your artist talks, you are very open about your social anxiety. The “artist” today is an extremely socially-demanding position considering gallery receptions, artist talks, and general art-world networking. How do you deal with it?
TQ: I think I use the words ‘social anxiety’ a lot to actually describe very natural reactions to experiencing the patriarchal heterocentric capitalist colonialist etc world we live in. It's an ever-changing process of how to deal with that but I have no simple answers for you.
LJ: Your name “Texta” comes from the felt-tip coloured marker brand and you are well-known for your marker drawings. Recently, however, your solo exhibition “Eve of Incarnation” at The Blak Dot Gallery features photographic self-portraiture. Can you tell us more about this medium of choice and the project conceptualization?
TQ: I actually did mostly photography and video when I went to art school a really long time ago but this is the first exhibit of photography that I have had since then. I made the series as artist in residence on Boonwurrung country in the point Nepean National Park. It's about that complicated desire that I have to connect with land my ancestry doesn't belong to, that my body is on as a result of the land's colonisation. I was thinking a lot about white nature nudes and how they're so often about this supposedly passive fragile white body in the landscape when actually the presence of that body is the result of the violence of colonisation. I was also thinking about how as a brown skinned person my body in the landscape can have ethnographic projections on it and how to process this. So the images are self portraits of myself draped in the seaweed and plants there in a way that references high-fashion, using that artifice as a way to science-fictionally process these dynamics.
LJ: The Blak Dot Gallery, itself, is a contemporary Indigenous-run art gallery & performance space showcasing modern & traditional artworks from world Indigenous cultures. I believe you mentioned you are the first artist-of-color, not of Indigenous descent, to be showcased. How have you navigated your identity within the Australian indigenous historical context?
TQ: This question is so complicated and I don't know that I navigate it very well at all to be honest. I think there's a tendency in liberalism to think that thinking about things and being aware of your dynamic in a situation is enough- without actually trying to address that dynamic in a meaningful way and so often just enforcing that dynamic. I've drawn a few portraits of First Nations people and yes it was a collaborative process and attempted to be a consensual one in how I represented them but who benefits most socially or culturally from that representation, really? I think part of moving to self portraits was trying to process these power dynamics of representation. But then there's also even having a career as a neo settler in the art industry that exists because of, is built on, the genocide and continued exploitation of First Nations people.
LJ: How do you consider art & activism especially given this extremely tumultuous time in world politics. Would you consider yourself an activist?
TQ: I don't consider myself an activist because I feel like I'm too privileged to claim that. I feel like I have very little to risk by calling myself an activist. Also I feel like many privileged people use 'activist' as an identity badge to avoid accountability for the ways that they carry out oppressive power dynamics. I also don't feel that the art I make, being shown a lot in institutional and commercial contexts, can act as activism there; that's not what I witness at all, though I witness it being talked about that way. My work isn't educational or isn’t intended to be that way. If I didn't hear all the stories of people who relate to the images rather than feel educated by them - if those people didn't tell me those stories - then I don't know how I would continue to function in the art world. I hope that in the process of me processing my own empowerment or trying to represent others in empowering ways, that it aids in others' empowerment. And I guess others might consider that activism.
If you are in Australia you can catch her current exhibitions:
‘Between You and Me’ (a touring survey exhibition)
On Now - April 30
Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery
Civic Reserve, Dunns Road
Mornington, Victoria 3931
‘Gods Save the Queen’
March 4 - 18
799 Elizabeth St
Zetland, Sydney NSW