Photo by Etienne Frossard.
Spandita Malik is a New York-based artist from India, whose work often addresses women’s rights and gendered violence. Her ongoing project, Nā́rī, features embroidered photographic portraits made in collaboration with women in India. Nā́rī is a Sanskrit word meaning woman, wife, female, or an object regarded as feminine, but it can also mean sacrifice. Malik explores these ideas in a series of intricate and intimate portraits, nine of which are on display here.
Interested in small communities in India where women use fabric and embroidery as a way to gain financial freedom, Malik traveled to three different places known for distinct styles of embroidery: Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh (chikankari embroidery on mulmul or voile); Jaipur in Rajasthan (gota-patti or zardozi embroidery on khadi); and Chamkaur Sahib in Punjab (phulkari silk thread embroidery on khaddar or cotton fabric). She visited women confined to their homes by husbands or fathers or by their own safety concerns and interviewed them to learn about the harsh social and economic realities and domestic violence many of them face. She photographed them in their homes, using these settings not only as “safe spaces” in which to share stories, but also as intimate backdrops for the portraits.
Seeking truly authentic representations, Malik printed the portraits on fabrics of the specific regions and asked the women to embroider them as they wished. She provided no guidelines, instead giving them agency over their own images and allowing them to embed their silent stories. Embroidering over the printed photograph is an artistic and cultural intervention by each woman, offering physical evidence of her touch. These threads and embellishments create a direct link between the eye of the artist and the hand of her subject, with each thread carrying a trace of identity. If the photograph conveys an unspoken message from the artist, “This is how I see you,” the needlework answers, “This is who I am.”