She has this fear that she has no names that she has many names that she doesn’t know her names She has this fear that she’s an image that comes and goes clearing and darkening the fear that she’s the dreamwork inside someone else’s skull
- “Borderlands,” Gloria Anzaldúa
This collection of self portraits and poems was born out of an encounter I had at a Harvard party where a white girl told me I was the “prettiest Indian girl” she’d seen. More specifically, it was born out of my initial reaction to her words; I had so deeply internalized a negative image of myself and others who look like me that I felt flattered before I ever felt offended.
Last spring, for the final project in my Art, Film, and Visual Studies sophomore tutorial, I put on some makeup and one of my mother’s saris to look like the “pretty Indian girl” of someone else’s mind. I picked up shards of a broken mirror (which had accidentally fallen and shattered in my room) and my camera. Soon after, I also picked up my pen.
To be an artist is to create, and throughout history, there have been the creators and those created, the inventors and the objects invented. But those categories aren’t exactly mutually exclusive; after all, self-portraiture is proof that one can be both the framer and the framed. “both and" is a testament to living in contradiction — existing both within and beyond the projection of Otherness. The collection is about internalizing and sometimes benefiting from your own oppression while also actively working to overcome it.
Put together, the words in this piece comprise a poem that I see as my own kind of artist manifesto. Many of the lines are arranged so that they take the same shape as the mirror shards, reflected across the page. Mirrors are projections. Often, words are too, or at least they are one vehicle through which those in power have always projected their own fears and beliefs onto others. Like mirrors, words can both clarify and distort our perceptions of who we are. Like mirrors, words can put you in a box: they can reduce you to a mere body yet also push you so far out of your own that you no longer feel like you belong to yourself. Like the sharp pieces of a broken mirror, words aren’t inherently violent, but they can be used violently. And like words, mirrors can illuminate but can also cast shadows. They can both shroud and spotlight your existence, both erase and accentuate your presence.
The final image in this series contains a reflection of my own hand trapped in but reaching out of a mirror. The hand looks as if it is reaching out of my mouth because an artist’s hand is her voice. Self-portraiture is an act against the forces that seek to make you — out of “the dream-work” inside someone else’s skull — and an effort to become a maker, yourself. I believe that artmaking is, at its core, also a practice of self-making.