BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“There are four million Indian Americans in this country, and what better way to tell their story than through contemporary art. The artists are as diverse as possible, responsive to the very evolving state of the diaspora today,” says Shaurya Kumar, curator of The National Indo-American Museum’s current exhibition, E/Merge: Art of the Indian Diaspora.
Some of the most vibrant visions by emerging artists are now on display at Chicago’s newest museum, the National Indo-American Museum (NIAM) in nearby Lombard. E/Merge: Art of the Indian Diaspora, up through March 27, features cutting edge works created by nine up-and-coming Indian-American visual artists now living in the United States.
Originally launched in 2008 as the Indo-American Heritage Museum, NIAM grew organically into its current incarnation from the education department of Chicago’s Indo-American Center. NIAM, which opened its doors in the fall of 2021, is the first U.S. museum established by and for Indian Americans, evolving to tell the stories of this immigrant community. It is also the first museum of its kind to combine art, education, and digital technology to preserve the heritage and celebrate the contributions of Indian Americans to America’s cultural mosaic.
Surabhi Saraf, a graduate in arts and technology at the School of the Art Institute, explained in a recent Zoom lecture her incredible video and color palette in one of her submissions titled Fold: “I never liked folding clothes but when I moved to San Francisco, I had time, plus the uncertainty of being in a new city. While I was doing it, I realized how you can take a mundane moment of domestic life and make it meditational and transformational. I hope that it is tactile as well as visual. The sound attached is my own quiet humming as I work.”
The body of work included in the exhibition, by Saraf and her peers, is guaranteed to fascinate and provoke thought.
Curated by Shaurya Kumar, Chair of Faculty and an associate professor at the School of the Art institute, E/Merge received major funding from a National Endowment for the Arts grant. “Works in the exhibition challenge the preconceptions of what and how diasporic artists represent themselves and their histories and investigates the notions of origins, narrative of dispersal, and cultural difference under the condition of globalism and mass migration,” Kumar says. “The artists look at the world through a kaleidoscopic lens and employ a diverse set of tools including print, drawing, sculpture, video, photography, performance, and installation.”
The generosity of Umang and Paragi Patel and the dynamic leadership of board member Dr. Sujaya Rupani, who has worked for many years to build bridges within the Indian and South Asia community here and the larger community, based on the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion, are the driving forces in making a brick-and-mortar location for NIAM possible.
Rupani explains, “I am not a founder—my work began with NIAM in 2015, and we grew as a board becoming a national museum in 2017. At the same time, we received a grant from the Smithsonian and were able to put up the show Beyond Bollywood at the Field Museum. It is so important to start cultural education at a very young age.”
“I have been a trustee at the Avery Coonley School and when we present international curriculum, we incorporate everything: food, art, dance, music, as well as the whole history. This is what we have been doing at NIAM,” she continues. “India is a relatively small country, but the diversity is enormous, linguistically, ethnically, and regionally. Like Europe, there are so many cultures there.”
Dr. Rupani, an ophthalmologist, has two daughters with her late husband, who was also a doctor. She says he “worked ceaselessly to aid the underserved in the Indian community here, not just from a medical standpoint but to point out the importance of diversity as well.”
E/Merge runs through March 27, 2022, at NIAM, 815 South Main Street in Lombard. The Museum is open Saturday and Sunday, from 1 until 5 p.m. with group tours available by appointment. For further information, visit niam.org.