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Occasional Lecture Series

Report on Laura Kina and Shelly Jyoti’s Talk

December 31, 2009


As part of the Occasional Lecture Series of the Forum on Contemporary Theory, we organized talks by Laura Kina and Shelly Jyoti on the topics “Diaspora on Devon Ave: Stitching South Asian/Jewish Intersections” and “The Politics of Indigo: Revisiting India’s Torrid Colonial Past” respectively. The talks were held at the Centre for Contemporary Theory, Baroda on December 31, 2009 at 4.00 pm. 

Laura Kina is an artist, independent curator and scholar, specialized in Asian American and Critical Mixed Race Studies. She is also an Associate Professor  & Vincent DePaul Distinguished Professor, Department of Art, Media & Design, and Director, Asian American Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, IL.  Her works have been displayed at galleries across the world. Besides noteworthy galleries in the US, prestigious venues such as the Spertus Museum in Chicago, the Rose Art Museum in Waltham, MA and Art Cologne in Germany have her works on display. Born in California and raised in the Pacific Northwest, the artist currently lives and works in Chicago, IL and her artwork is represented by Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts in Miami, FL. She is also a 2009-2010 DePaul Humanities Center Fellow.

Her talk entitled “Diaspora on Devon Ave: Stitching South Asian/Jewish Intersections” was based on, ‘Devon Avenue Sampler’, Devon Ave, a contemporary Desi/Jewish community in Chicago, IL. which featured street signs and imagery from her Chicago immigrant neighborhood where Orthodox Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Christians all live. The overall effect of the Avenue is mid-century “All American” while at the same time clearly “other.” This urban South Asian/Jewish corridor, lined with Islamic and Jewish books stores, spice shops, restaurants, jewelers, ethnic grocery stores, bakeries, spice shops, restaurants, colorful sari shops and eye-brow threading salons, travel and tour services, cell phone/electronics/luggage shops, and a kosher ice cream stand, had intrigued her and it in turn inspired her work on khadi, stitched meticulously by the artisans of Market Place: Handwork of India. She presented her work with the narrative of her memories of her childhood, about her great-grandparents, who belonged to Okiawan, originally from Hawai’i, who used to wear indigo kasuri fabrics while working on the sugar cane plantation. This made her think about indigo in relation to her family’s agricultural life in the past and her own present life as an urban artist and a convert to Judaism. She focused on the fluidity of cultural difference and the slipperiness of identity. Asian American history and mixed race representations were subjects that were touched upon. She also emphasized on India’s history, narratives of immigration and transnational economic interchanges. Her work depicted her origin and descendants, linking it with the metaphors of stitching and putting up a collage of memory, experience and observations. Laura’s work also raised issues of labor, authenticity, and positionality.


Shelly Jyoti a visual artist, a fashion designer, poet, researcher and independent curator and her research focuses on design/patterns of ethnic groups and its visual representation in 20th century costumes. Her talk entitled “The Politics of Indigo: Revisiting India’s Torrid Colonial Past” was an exploration of the historical iconographic elements within the cultural context of Indian history.

Through her talk and presentation on the installation entitled, ‘Ballad of Blue Farmers and Homage’, she brought forth the narrative of suffering due to the Ryots of Champaran during the 1917-1918. She quoted an Englishman in the Bengal Civil Service: “Not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood,” and observed that in the 19th century, Bengal was the world’s biggest producer of indigo but today, the deep blue color of indigo is synthetically created in labs and is associated, in the West, with blue jeans more than its torrid colonial past. But indigo holds a sustained presence in the post-colonial identity of India.

Her expression through art was suggestive of the numerous accounts of oppression of the farmers and also gave glimpses of the mightiest peasant revolts in the sub-continent. She also pointed out how Mahatma Gandhi stepped in and intervened for the support of indigo planters who lived a miserable life under colonizers. The indigo planters were coerced to grow indigo for the benefit of the colonizers and the available Eurocentric narratives do not bring out the intensity of their predicament. That is how Shelly’s expression becomes a significant and sensitive historical account. Living in subjugation for more than 100 years, the farmers wanted to free themselves from tinthanka land revenues system. Each circle of the installation metaphorically represented the indigo farmers’ woeful tales of inflicted pain, punishment, slavery and oppression. Her talk on indigo drew upon India’s colonial past but she could also effectively engage with contemporary economic interchanges.

Shelly also mentioned that azrak printing on khadi utilizing indigo techniques was used only by the khatris, the immigrants from Sindh and Baluchistan during 1600 C.E. Through this process she examined the implications of personal, political and cross-cultural choices of these communities. Working on khadi fabric with ancient indigo resist printing techniques with the help of 9th generation of azrak artisans in Bhuj in the interior of Gujarat, she asserted the designs were however entirely contemporary interpretations of the politics of indigo. Incorporating traditional designs motifs of different clans by artisans from fair trade women’s collectives such as Shurjan:Threads of Life helps in contributing sustainable means of income for some of India’s under privileged women. Shelly added that the embroidery patches done by coastal Gujarat women implicates the identity of clans represented by the uniqueness of the stitches. At the same time, hybridity with communities like indigo azrak printers who migrated around the same period, 1600 C.E is evident in their works. According to her, for the contemporary mutwa embroidery about 400 year old blocks are used by the khatri clan who are specialists in azrak technique.

To Shelly, textiles created for artwork does perform, to a great extent, the act of preservation as a visual medium for documentation than functional textiles do. Both have symbolic purposes. Through her contemporary design motifs and presentation she strived to present the viewers, a heritage so rich and colorful, so historically meaningful, in today’s context of technique and its conservation.


After the talk, the inquisitive audience raised certain queries on the politics of indigo and how the two artists from two different continents of the world came together to work on a particular, historically relevant, theme. Their talks gave a new perspective on the color Indigo, historically and economically.


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