Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Pritika Chowdhry of the South Asia Institute of Chicago Is Helping…

Posted on

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Pritika Chowdhry of the South Asia Institute of Chicago Is Helping To Change Our World

Leadership is inspiring people to do something that they most likely would not do otherwise. Inspiring people to step out of their comfort zone, familiar day-to-day, and make a concrete change in behavior, attitude, or thought is leadership.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pritika Chowdhry.

Pritika is the Senior Curator at the South Asia Institute of Chicago, a Board Member of the Woman Made Gallery in Chicago. She has an MFA in Studio Art and an MA in Visual Culture and Gender Studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has exhibited her artworks internationally, and her artworks are in museums and private collections. Pritika has been interviewed on CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox affiliates, and articles about her artwork have been published in the Indian Express, the Jang Media Group, and The International News.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Sure, I can! I am a socio-political activist artist, and I make anti-memorials to traumatic geopolitical events from a counter-memory perspective. My mission is to reveal what has been forgotten about traumatic geopolitical events that we would rather not remember; events that leave unbearable memories.

For example, the widespread use of rape as a weapon in traumatic geopolitical events, such as partitions of nations, often gets buried in layers of nationalistic rhetoric over time. I excavate these counter-memories and create site-sensitive anti-memorials as a gesture of repair.

French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard has written about how art can reveal the submerged and trigger new thought and discussion, which can, in turn, create deep healing for individuals and possibilities of reconciliation between nations.

August 1947. In the searing summer heat, Lord Mountbatten announced the Partition of colonial India into India and Pakistan. My maternal grandparents are from Karachi, in the Sindh province, now in newly-formed Pakistan. They, along with their extended family, decided to migrate to India.

My grandfather was in the Indian railways. So they were fortunate to get rail transport to India. However, trains going back and forth over the new border were prime targets for marauding mobs. The journey was harrowing. My grandfather’s brother’s family was murdered by the time they got to Delhi, except for his 16-year-old son, who suffered 17 stab wounds. And one of his sisters was abducted. They tried to locate her for years, to no avail.

Fast forward 60 years. It is 2007, and I am in grad school doing my MFA. I was making rather personal works about surviving rape and domestic violence. I didn’t know these details about what our family had gone through. I only knew that my grandparents had come to India in August of 1947.

I stumbled upon the history of the Partition through movies and historical fiction. On one of my weekly calls with my mother in India, I happened to mention my research on the Partition and asked her casually if she remembered anything. She was three at the time of the Partition. She told me the details as told to her by my grandmother and grandfather.

I was stunned. I was 34 at the time and knew nothing about this piece of our family history. But it explained a lot about my extended family and my grandmother, mother, and aunts. I started researching the Partition obsessively. The more I dug, the more I found. Twenty million people were dislocated. Over 2 million died in the Partition riots.

But that wasn’t all. Over 300,000 women were abducted and raped on both sides of the border during the intense communal riots. This last part is not very well known and came as a shock even to me since I had been researching the Partition by then.

The monuments built in India and Pakistan after 1947 patriotically celebrate the creation of the new nations. They obliquely mourn the people who perished in the Partition riots in 1947 by euphemistically calling it “sacrifice,” like “we salute the people who sacrificed their lives for our nation.”

But none mention the hundreds of thousands of women abducted and raped during the Partition riots. Those women still live in the silence of the monuments. I knew I had to memorialize the women who had been brutally violated in the Partition violence and then silenced.

This is how the Partition Memorial Project was born in 2007. I started making art installations that go deep into and inhabit this silence. My experiential art installations invite viewers to be in the space and commune with the women. It is an act of bearing witness, holding space, mourning, remembrance, and repair.

The goal of my anti-memorials is not necessarily to “speak for the women” or “give a voice to the voiceless.” That would be another silencing for the women.

My research about rape as a weapon in partitions has expanded to include rape as a weapon of civil and military wars, genocides, and pogroms around the world, such as in Bosnia, Kashmir, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Korea, Iraq, Syria, Rwanda, East Timor, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, and more. It is so widespread that it was officially recognized as a weapon of war by the UN in 1994.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Okay, so in 2011, I was doing an artist residency in Lahore, Pakistan, working on a new art project titled “The Broken Column,” that involved taking silicone and latex casts of monuments in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India.

One day I was going from my studio in Lahore to the Minar-e-Pakistan monument with my studio assistant, working on my new art project, the Broken Column. We happened to pass by the Red Mosque, and it had these giant posters of the brutal communal violence that had occurred during the Babri Mosque demolition in India in 1992. I asked my studio assistant to slow down to take a few photos. He told me that this area was unsafe and this was a bad idea, but I begged him to stop for just a few seconds to get a few quick photos. He stopped against his better judgment, and I took maybe two pictures before we had men in guns rushing towards us from inside the mosque. They told me to put the camera away. I was in shock.

They asked my studio assistant to come inside because I think women are not allowed inside the mosque. I looked around and saw several men in various strategic positions on the building with guns, on high alert. I stood there calmly, not letting my fear show.

Several minutes later, and those minutes felt like hours, my studio assistant came out. We silently got back on his motorcycle and left. He told me that he had been interrogated by one of the higher-ups in the Red Mosque organization. He had an AK-47 with him in plain view during the interrogation. Then he told me that I needed to quit being a privileged American and heed his advice about the very real dangers that exist.

Other than that one incident, my stay in Lahore was amazing and enjoyable in every other way, but that one incident still sticks out for me as I guess an “interesting” story happened!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I guess the biggest mistake I made when I started and continued to make for many years was that I didn’t do much marketing and PR for my causes, artwork, and myself. I don’t know if this is funny, but it certainly is a mistake. I’ve learned that even high-minded activists who want to change the world need effective marketing and PR to get their message out. You can’t change the world if the world doesn’t even know you exist. I am making a conscious effort now to spread the word about the issues that I make artwork about because I feel like that will help trigger the changes I hope to make in the world with my artwork.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Yes, of course. My arts organization comprises four different initiatives seeking to make substantial socio-political changes in the world — the Partition Memorial Project, the Counter-Memory Project, the Nirbhaya Project, and the Transdiaspora Project.

The Partition Memorial Project comprises seven anti-memorials that examine various aspects of the Partition of India in 1947, in 1971, and the ongoing communal riots and ethnic conflict in India. In addition, it also examines partitions of other countries that occurred in the 20th century, such as Palestine, Ireland, Cyprus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, Korea, and Vietnam. This project also raises awareness about rape as a weapon of war in partitions and civil and military conflicts.

The Counter-Memory Project comprises seven anti-memorials that examine American and world issues globally. Such as 9/11 and 9/11-type terrorist attacks worldwide, the Shadow Pandemic of domestic violence, the silent epidemic of loneliness, the challenges of the Immigration process in the USA, and hidden histories of cities in America.

The Nirbhaya Project raises awareness about the high incidence of rape in South Asian countries and connects it with the #MeToo movement in the US. There have been some high-profile rape cases in India, Pakistan, and other South Asian countries, and one of them was Nirbhaya in 2012. This project reimagines rape victims as reincarnated superheroines whose mission is to eradicate rape in their rebirths.

The Transdiaspora Project is a curatorial initiative that brings together artists working in minority spaces around overarching themes. Minority artists making artwork that addresses issues relevant to their identity and location often get side-lined in mainstream art venues. One goal of the Transdiaspora Project is to create more exhibition opportunities for minority artists. The other goal is to tackle complex topics, such as pogroms, genocides, and so on, that afflict minority communities disproportionately.

In addition, I have been appointed as the Senior Curator at the South Asia Institute of Chicago (SAI), and as a Board Member of the Woman Made Gallery (WMG) in Chicago. As a South Asian American feminist artist, these two positions have given me an incredible platform to raise awareness about the social issues relevant to South Asia, the South Asian diaspora, and women through impactful and engaging art exhibitions.

In SAI, I will be curating a major exhibition on the Partitions of India in 2022. I will also be organizing a conference on Partition and Contemporary Art which will feature prominent artists, scholars, feminist historiographers, and literary figures that do significant work in their practices on the Partitions of India. In 2023, I plan an exhibition on the #MeToo movement in South Asia, and another on Afghanistani women’s lives under Taliban.

In WMG, I am working with an incredible group of women artists and curators to plan out our program of feminist exhibitions over the next two years. In 2022, I will also be participating with other WMG board members in the Women’s Caucus for the Arts on feminist art practices in the current moment. We are aligning the curatorial vision of WMG with current geopolitical issues and politically engaged feminist art practices.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

When I started the MFA program at UW Madison in 2006, my art was engaged deeply with domestic violence and sexual trauma from individual women’s perspectives. I remember making a life-sized sculpture in ceramics in my first semester in grad school, showing an Indian woman in a saree with her head shaved, a prominent black eye, arms crossed, and tongue sticking out. She looked furious and enraged, like a modern-day goddess Kali, a woman who had suffered enough domestic abuse and was finally confronting her abuser.

That sculpture caused a bit of a stir in the MFA community, where I had displayed it in an exhibition of incoming MFA students. At the opening of that show, I had a woman come up to me in tears, and she said, “thank you for making this work. I needed to see this.” And I knew that she was who I had made that work for; she was one of my people.

I got a wide variety of responses to that sculpture. Some of my professors felt that it was a bit too dramatic; some thought it was not universal enough because the protagonist wore an Indian saree. However, some professors were very interested and intrigued by what I was trying to do. These professors were women, feminists and made art that also took up cudgels for trauma victims and disadvantaged communities. I learned that my artwork would not be “popular” or commercially viable, but it will speak deeply to certain people, and those are my people.

I entered that sculpture in a call for art by Woman Made Gallery in Chicago, and it was selected for a group exhibition. I was an emerging artist back then, and I still remember how excited and validated I felt when I got the acceptance email from Woman Made Gallery. The work I have made has brought me to this career path, and it has guided me to my people and my mission — to spark social change through art.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Well, there are many things, but I will pick three! If these three can become a reality, we will have a much more peaceful world –

One, nations and communities need to stop persecuting Muslims and other minorities. Many pogroms and genocides in the last 100 to 150 years have been directed at Muslim populations. For example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Bosniak Muslims were massacred. In Kashmir, the Kashmiri Muslims have been facing extreme repression from Indian security forces. In Palestine, the Palestinian Muslims are the target of Israel’s Zionist policies. In China, the Uyghur Muslims have been under attack. In Myanmar, the Rohingya Muslims have been facing a brutal genocide. No wonder they are so mad at the world!

Two, everybody in society needs to do their part in treating women with respect and not violating women’s physical and mental boundaries. Whether in civil and military wars or situations of individual crimes, women are being sexually abused and violated at alarmingly high rates. It is like there are ongoing genocides and pogroms on the female gender. And then there are female infanticides, intimate partner violence, trafficking, and others that affect women in disproportionately higher numbers than men. Be an ally of women and be a feminist, no matter your gender.

Three, study history, and I mean really study it with a critical eye. Ignoring history makes us amnesiac to the causes of much of the violence and conflict in the world. Study the history of colonialism and imperialism to better understand the international power inequities in the current times. Study the origins of slavery and apartheid to better understand race relations and racial tensions today. And resist official narratives of history because history is not an objective, neutral account of events as they transpired. Identify who wrote the history you are studying and their self-serving biases to get closer to the objective truths of past events.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is inspiring people to do something that they most likely would not do otherwise. Inspiring people to step out of their comfort zone, familiar day-to-day, and make a concrete change in behavior, attitude, or thought is leadership.

The leaders in recent years that have inspired me and many around the world are Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Kamala Harris, and a few more such leaders on the national landscape

In my immediate community, I would say the leaders that have inspired me are Beate Minkovski of Woman Made Gallery, and Shireen and Afzal Ahmed of the South Asia Institute.

Beate Minkovski was the executive director of the Woman Made Gallery for many years. She is a true advocate for women artists and fearless in curating “difficult” artwork. She gave me many opportunities in the early years as an emerging artist, a new curator, and a green arts writer. And I know I am not the only one; she gave opportunities to many women artists of color. So when I saw the opening for a Board member to serve on the board of the Woman Made Gallery, I applied immediately. I was gratified when I was accepted. I serve on the programming and curation committee, an honor and a fantastic opportunity to give back to this outstanding arts organization.

Shireen and Afzal Ahmad are retired physicians and lifelong collectors of political and “difficult” artwork. They care deeply about art, value artists as truth-tellers, and believe in the capacity of art to transform communities and bring positive change. The vision of SAI is to elevate South Asian voices through art. It is the only contemporary art museum dedicated to showcasing contemporary South Asian art and artists in the US. They believe that “art and cultural expression represent areas that bring together people from diverse backgrounds, to share in an experience. These encounters help us to understand and identify with one another and become more tolerant of our differences.” Their vision and commitment are admirable, and I am honored to be part of this fantastic arts organization.

Salima Hashmi of Pakistan leads by example and is a living legend. She is an internationally renowned artist, curator, writer, educator, activist, and advocate of socio-political artists. In 2010, I gathered my courage and wrote directly to her, introducing myself and the Partition Memorial Project. To my utter surprise, she wrote me back herself saying yes and invited me to Lahore to show the Remembering the Crooked Line anti-memorial from the Partition Memorial Project. She also gave me an artist residency in the Beacon House National University, of which she was the Principal. Ms. Hasmhmi also helped me get permission to work on the Minar-e-Pakistan monument for my next art project, the Broken Column, which I started in Lahore.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Well, the following five things come to mind, based on my own particular life experiences and 20-year career as a professional artist.

First, being an artist is likely the most absurd thing you will do in your life. Let me explain. If somebody were to ask you to do a job for free, with no guarantee of income, a job that will consume your heart, mind, and soul, and oh, by the way, the job has no benefits, no time off, no vacation, no retirement fund, but you have to keep doing it. See what I mean? It’s absurd.

Second, art is more than making crafty stuff or colorful paintings or fun drawings for enjoyment or as a hobby. Don’t get me wrong. I occasionally make fun drawings and colorful paintings just for fun. But I know that that’s my hobby! My real work is the artwork I make to change the world and help make the world a better place.

Third, as an artist, you need to reach deep inside yourself to find your most authentic motivations and who you are as a human being. You also need to reach deep into the outside world to find the issues you truly care about, commit to them, and make meaningful artwork about them.

Fourth, the art world today is a competitive field. But there is a surprising amount of collaboration between artists. Artists support other artists in more ways than you can imagine. Yes, artists also compete with other artists for grants, fellowships, residencies, gallery representation, and museum exhibitions. However, artists help other artists all the time. They share their time and hard-earned knowledge simply out of the generosity of their heart and for the selfless joy of helping a fellow artist make or show their art.

Fifth, only about 10% of artists make a living from their artwork, and only about 20% of art graduates continue to make art after art school. Think about that for a minute. If you want to be an artist for life, you are better off getting a marketing degree than an art degree! Seriously. I have three degrees in the arts; two of them are graduate degrees, an MFA, and an MA. They have helped me be a better artist and scholar, without a doubt. But neither of them gave me the skills to market myself as an artist for the long term. I had to learn that all by myself.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could, I would want to start a movement to eradicate sexual violence in any form — child abuse, rape, rape as a weapon of war, trafficking, or any type of sexual violence. We talk about eradicating diseases like polio or tuberculosis, or Covid. As a society, we need to eliminate sexual violence in any form; it is entirely unacceptable.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi.

“Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America.” — John Lewis

These two quotes encompass my whole art practice. I make art installations that are anti-memorials for brutal geopolitical events. Unlike nationalistic monuments, my anti-memorials are quietly provocative, temporary, incorporate visceral materials, and create experiential environments in which viewers can be vulnerable with unbearable and difficult memories with empathy.

In short, I make “good trouble” with my anti-memorials. Each anti-memorial I make is a gesture of repair. I am trying to repair the world, one anti-memorial at a time.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to meet these two powerful women and have a private breakfast with them –

I’d love to talk to Angelina Jolie about her important work on ending the systematic use of rape in war. And Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement.

I’d love to talk to Tarana Burke about the #MeToo movement in South Asia and how it is developing in India, Pakistan, and other South Asian countries.

I would love to talk to Angelina Jolie about the widespread use of rape as a weapon in the Partition of India, in the Bangladesh Liberation War, in the Kashmir insurgency, in Myanmar against the Rohingyas, in Sri Lanka, in Nepal — it is a long list, unfortunately. Maybe that would need to be a private lunch!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Yes, of course, here are my social media channels –

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Pritika Chowdhry of the South Asia Institute of Chicago Is Helping… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.