The photographer Spandita Malik couldn’t have known that a breaking news story in India in 2012 about a brutal episode of violence against women would inspire an ongoing project that has shaped her work for years. Malik is originally from Chandigarh in northern India, and her work is focused mostly on women’s rights and gendered violence in India. Featuring women she met at centers in India who have experienced or are experiencing gender-based violence or abuse, her work uses archival photographs that have been embroidered and embellished to allow the women to be centered and to take control of their own narratives. Her embellished photography prints on fabric are stunning and collaborative, including and amplifying the voices of the Indian women she works with, many of whom have or are experiencing violence close to home. Highly publicized gang rapes in India have occurred before and received media attention, but have not prompted any lasting change in policies or attitudes.
Malik’s show at Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York, Vadhu: The Embroidered Bride, is a perfect example of her specific style of photography. “It's a photograph transferred onto fabric and there's women embroidered on top of the image; there's a whole fieldwork that is behind it,” she said. Malik initially studied fashion design in India before moving to New York to pursue a master’s degree in photography at the Parsons School of Design. Malik explained to us that there is a long-standing tradition in India of embroidery, and the style varies greatly from state to state. “It's an amalgamation of textile art and doing something I could never get away with with straight photography,” she said.
We spoke with her from her current residency with a teaching fellowship at the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, about her New York show, which runs until Nov. 10.
How did you get into photography?
It goes back to my dad; he's a great photographer too, our house is always filled with portraits that he's taken of us and our mom. I always had an interest, my father’s best friend was a photographer as well and he would take portraits of us from when we were 2 or 3 years old. He and my dad both gave me cameras, so I was always interested in photography. When I was doing my undergrad in fashion design, I got really interested in photography and prints. I wanted to make my own prints, and that led me into the world of photography. I learned the basics, I just taught it all to myself. I taught myself digital and lighting and started auditing classes in undergrad so I could learn more.
How did you continue that work when you moved to New York?
I had moved to New Delhi from my hometown before coming to New York. It was right after the major gang rape case that had happened. I was living in this city, far away from home for the first time as a young girl. I was surprised that there was no major political outrage. There was a lot of publicity, but there wasn't enough action taken by the political leaders at the time. It was a look at how society operated and how normal these rapes and this violence had become.
When I moved to New York for my master’s degree, I had enough distance to start working with this story. I started researching statistics, laws, how many rapes were documented in a year, or how many rapes were reported and what was the law around it. I started my research, and in the first year of my grad school at Parsons, I really got involved in the laws around rape. I was very supported at school. I think Parsons was a good choice because they want students to pursue what they want. I was given the right tools and the right opportunities at the right time by the faculty members. There is an ease in unloading the pain in the agony of another; there is a strange trust and care in these private places, shared by women, known to women. These collaborations created a connection between me and the women in our shared language of art; by listening through our inherited language of embroidery, I learnt the true meaning of nā́rī [Sanskrit for "woman" or "wife," which can also be defined as "sacrifice"].
How did this lead into your current work?
The work at Baxter St is the second iteration of the project Nari. I started it in March 2019. I was done with research, I'd gotten into deep, dark holes of research and coming to conclusions. There was no urgency and tactability to that research because there was nothing in action. At some point, my professors asked me to go back to India and conduct research in the field. I got a travel grant from Parsons, and I got in touch with self-help organizations to try to speak with survivors [who had experienced this violence].
These women are learning to embroider at the center to gain a skill and get some kind of financial freedom, to not be fully dependent on their abusers, which are in most cases their husbands. Embroidery is something that's culturally famous for each state in India. Each state has a certain kind of embroidery, and while the women won’t know every style, they’ll know the embroidery of their state. The embroideries at Baxter St are Phulkari from Punjab and Zardozi from Rajasthan. I believe that embroidery is a language that's passed on through generations of women. My grandma taught it to my mom, and my mom taught it to me. It's a passage and a legacy that's passed down. It's not just the skill, it's more like a language, to break the oppressor. The other day I was talking to a friend about a song, and this [line] stuck out to me — “We should be thankful that women learned to whisper, or we would not know the stories that were passed down.”
One woman introduced me to another woman who did not come to the center, who embroidered from home. I learned that there were these communities of women who couldn't leave their houses, they weren't allowed to leave but they were in the same situation. I went to their homes, I talked to them, and taught their kids photography on disposable cameras, just anything to stay involved.
At some point I asked these women to embroider their own portraits that I had taken of them in their homes. I gave them full agency to do anything they wanted.
I was thinking a lot about documentary photography in India, and as we know, it has been very much colonized through a Western eye. We have these photographers who go to India and come back with photography of poverty. I wanted to do the opposite; I didn't want to become a colonizer. These women with their portraits, they had full agency. They chose to cover their faces, they embroidered themselves with gold jewelry, they adorned the walls behind them in gold.
How has COVID and the last 18 months changed the project?
The last year, I wasn't able to return to India because of COVID. My dad was really sick, and in May 2021 they shut down the borders. I wasn't able to go back home, and at that point I had to stop the project. The women and I were talking on WhatsApp — we'd been working together for two years, so a group chat was easy. Not all of them are in the group, but a lot of them are, and we all started speaking about what people needed during the surge in cases in May — a bed in a hospital, a syringe, an oxygen cylinder. The chat has become its own resource center in a way; we were able to send oxygen and we were able to help each other. They sent recipes on the chat, all of these women from different states who make the same dish, but differently.
They were teasing me about getting married in the chat, since I’m of marrying age in India, and I asked them if I could see their marriage photographs. They were hanging out in backyards, bringing the photo albums and talking about it. The way that they talked about those photos in particular was so interesting. They said that they were so naive, so young, many of them were in arranged marriages and they didn't know anything about their husbands. The way that they talked about the images was so interesting, and so I asked them to embroider them. They sent the wedding photographs to me, I scanned them and transferred them onto fabric and sent them back, and asked them to embroider in whatever way they wanted. They were able to go into those wedding photos and take back the narrative of their wedding day and the memory. They have agency with these photographs now to control what's in them in a way that they didn't when it was taken. These works are on display at Baxter Street right now.
Wow. Is this the end of this project, or do you want to continue?
The borders are opening in a week, on Nov. 9. I'll be going back over winter break in December and June, and I'm traveling to two other states in India. I've gotten in touch with not-for-profit organizations in Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. I want to see if I can meet with women who are working on crafts and embroidery. It's kind of a dying craft, but there are still communities who are practicing it, and they're mostly women. I'm planning on going back as soon as the borders open.