Priya Kambli was born in India. She moved to the United States at age 18 carrying her entire life in one suitcase. She began her artistic career in the United States and her work has always been informed by this experience as a migrant. She completed her BFA degree in Graphic Design from the University of Louisiana in Lafayette and continued on to receive an MFA degree in Photography from the University of Houston. She is currently Professor of Art at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. In 2008 PhotoLucida awarded her book publication prize for her project “Color Falls Down,” which was published in 2010.
Family Life: I work in the chaos of my house. My husband who is also an artist is supportive of my creative practice. I have two children, one 11-year-old boy, and a super gregarious 5-year-old daughter; I am constantly being interrupted. Recently my daughter asked me if she could have flour (one of the materials I use to embed patterns in my work) so that she could play with it like I do.
I am dedicated to my creative practices, raising my children, my husband and my academic position at Truman State University, Kirksville, MO. As many artists will agree this is a precarious balance to juggle and nourish equally. I have come to a realization that I am a poor juggler when it comes to juggling my various roles (artist, parent, spouse, and academic). As I am extremely focused and therefore tend to cater to one a role at a time. Which means something always suffers.
Finally, I live in a small college town in rural Missouri. This means I am largely cutoff from communities interested in speaking about minority issues. My creative work has been informed by my own migration and thus has always grappled with the challenges of cross-cultural understanding; creatively interpreting and publicly resolving such ideas is an innate part of my professional work.
One of my most startling early childhood memories is of finding one of my father’s painstakingly composed family photographs pierced by my mother. She cut holes in them so as to completely obliterate her own face while not harming the image of my sister and myself beside her. Even as a child I was aware that this act was quite significant – but what it signified was beyond my ability to decipher. As an adult, I continue to be disturbed by these artifacts, which not only encompass the photographer’s hand but also the subject’s fingerprints. Even though her incisions have a violent quality to them, as an image-maker I am aesthetically drawn by the physical mark, its presence, and its careful placement.
These marred artifacts have been significant in my work. I am fascinated by how my mother’s physical mark complicates the read of an otherwise mundane family photographs. Like my mother, I alter the family photographs to modify the stories they tell.
Hey Priya, I was curious if you could speak about your earliest perceptions of photography, and how those ideas changed after seeing the image your mother altered
My earliest perception of photography is related to a memory of standing beside my sister in front of my father’s Minolta camera- waiting, while he carefully framed and exposed us onto film. My father, an amateur photographer, took the task of making images rather seriously. And I often found myself to be his unwilling subject. My reluctance was related to his perfectionism. I (as well as other subjects) was constantly herded from one spot to another; posed in one pool of light and then another. As a child, I was certain that being photographed by my father was my punishment.
In the essay A Photographer’s Daughter– photographer Dayanita Singh talks about similar trials- of being raised in a family where her mother photographed her “just to validate her own experience”. This excerpt from her essay resonates with my own childhood memories.
“Being photographed was just another family ritual for me, and I had no interest in becoming a photographer. Photography meant that I had to sit still while my mother counted the footsteps towards me in order to focus her very old Zeiss Ikon camera. Every event had to be recorded in this painful manner, every departure delayed by her picture making.”
Seeing the photographs altered by my mother is monumental. Her approach of obliterating parts of the image is ingrained in the way I create work – obscuring and re-contextualizing information. Like my mother, I alter my family photographs to modify the stories they tell.
I understand that both of your parents passed away at a young age. How do you believe your photographic practice prolongs your memories of them and their legacy?
Larry Sultan in the essay for his book, Pictures from Home, writes:
“These are my parents. From that simple fact, everything follows. I realize that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demand of my project and my confusion and it’s meaning, is the wish to take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live forever”
I think this sentiment is echoed in my work. But for me, the task is a bit different. I am not trying to preserve the present but reinstate the past and to connect it to my present as well as my future.
Can you discuss the personal and symbolic nature of your mark-making style and materials, and how they elevate your ideas of a personal mythology?
My choice of materials and methods is informed and driven by specific details within the family photograph. Since the series Kitchen Gods is a conversation with my ancestors and also an effort to reconcile the cultural dualities that have helped form my hybrid identity this conversation begins with the family photographs that I carried with me in my suitcase when I moved from India to the United States – and which have been my companions ever since. I combine these family photographs with materials loaded with cultural significance in either my culture of origin (India) or my adopted home (United States). In my photographs, I am exploring the confluence of the two cultures through visual and material culture and incorporating those textures, patterns, and materials into the work. My preference tends to be for materials that are domestic and humble in nature and usually grounded in everyday use. In my work, I re-contextualize the familial qualities of these things to serve my own artistic and creative purposes.
Throughout your imagery, I’ve noticed your tendency to mirror certain images, making their presence repetitive. How do you explain these dualities within your photographs?
Looking through the family photographs taken by my father, I realized there were multiple duplicates of an image with slight variations, I was intrigued by this and wanted to play with this element of repetition in my work.
I see in your series, “Color Falls Down,” that you integrated some of the aesthetic techniques into “Kitchen Gods”. In this body of work, you interweave self-portraits and personal objects with family snapshots. Can you talk briefly about this project, and how it influenced “Kitchen Gods”?
When I first started creating the series Color Falls Down my intent was to work with just the family photographs. But it turned out I had too much on my mind and too much to say and the body of work morphed into a more complex avatar then I had initially intended. Once I completed that series, Color Falls Down, I felt that I had the emotional capacity to distil the work so as to only address the family photographs.
How does your artistic practice and investigation into your ancestry impact your relationship with your own family and children?
My extended family is proud of my accomplishment but most of them don’t necessarily engage with contemporary art. It may seem funny to anyone very interested in my work and my statements about the work, but there isn’t much of an impact on our family life.
To see more of Priya’s photography, please visit her website. Her work from “Kitchen Gods” will be on view at Filter Photo in Chicago until December 31, 2016.