‘We Can Just Be’: JAGAH Collective Creates Home for South Asian Artists

DJ Eddemami performs spoken word at JAGAH // JADOO on May 17, 2019 at San Francisco's Mission Cultural Center. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

Before entering “the magic place,” SNJV swipes pink pigment across his eyelids. His sister adorns his slender wrists with clinking, colorful bangles. His mother pins her sparkling clothing to fit her son’s body.

He’s gearing up to perform—a feat he’s no stranger to. Growing up, he watched the women in his family transform their domestic gatherings as they danced to glamorous musical sequences seen in Bollywood films, known as item numbers. At the age of three, he joined in as the only male-identified participant, but that never held him back.

Now, SNJV is preparing for a drag performance in a much more public space, the opening reception of JAGAH//JADOO, a group exhibition at San Francisco’s Mission Cultural Center. But there’s a comfortable familiarity to the gathering. “To be at a place that reminds me so much of family parties and puja I go to, and just hanging out with my cousins and my aunties and my uncles and dancing for them, is beautiful,” he says.

“And these are extensions of that love and that connection,” he adds, looking around the room at his fellow artists.

SNJV performs at JAGAH//JADOO on May 17, 2019. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

In Sanskrit, “Jagah” means place, home or sanctuary; “jadoo” means magic. The exhibition JAGAH//JADOO, or “magic place,” is a collaboration between two Bay Area-based South Asian artist collectives, JAGAH and S//M Productions—a partnership that has created a platform for artists to reimagine their identities without the erasure of colonization.

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Natasha Kohli and Vasudhaa Narayanan founded JAGAH Collective in 2018 to explore their own multidimensional identities and empower other artists to uncover the complex stories of the South Asian diaspora through collaborative, community-building practices. South Asian artists, specifically those from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, are often underrepresented in artistic spaces and beyond, they say.

“Art spaces are traditionally for and by white people, and it’s hard for us to show our work, talk about our work, talk about things that we share, in spaces where we feel misunderstood, where we feel exotified or fetishized,” Kohli says. “We really wanted to create our own seat at the table and a place to share our stories and memories in a way that is sacred and safe.”

Natasha Kohli and Vasudhaa Narayanan are joined by other artists at JAGAH//JADOO on May 17, 2019. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

When they issued an open call for the show, on view at the Mission Cultural Center through May 25, Kohli and Narayanan were overwhelmed by the amount of applicants. Most were from the Bay Area, but some hailed from as far away as the East Coast. The show features 33 South Asian artists’ works from a wide variety of disciplines, all exploring nuanced perspectives of identity and home.

“Our goal was to create a platform where we don’t have to explain ourselves," Narayanan says. "We don’t have to apologize for ourselves. We don’t have to do any of those things, but we can just be."

“And we realized there’s so many others out there who are also searching for the same thing we were searching for,” Kohli adds.

Shannon Prasad and madhvi trivedi-pathak embrace as they watch a performance on May 17, 2019.
Shannon Prasad and madhvi trivedi-pathak embrace as they watch a performance on May 17, 2019. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

Kohli and Narayanan met through a mutual friend a few years ago, but reconnected in the summer of 2018 when their work was displayed side by side at a group art show. They began dreaming up the collective over shared stories of their ancestries, which they quickly discovered to be intertwined yet vastly different.

Kohli, who recently took her mother's maiden name to connect to her Indian roots, grew up in Southern California but moved to the Bay Area six years ago. Narayanan was born in India and came to the Bay Area three years ago to pursue her MFA. As the two discussed topics like feeling physically disconnected from their shared place of origin, and the migratory patterns of their families’ movements, JAGAH evolved organically.

With a December 2018 grant from the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, JAGAH began to plan the show as part of the United States of Asian America Festival. At their first grant meeting, Kohli and Narayanan met the founders of S//M Productions, Shannon Prasad and madhvi trivedi-pathak, who were simultaneously developing a project focused on highlighting queer and trans South Asian artists.

They put their heads together and developed the idea for the JAGAH//JADOO showcase.

“Our focus was always about having collaborative community practices and artist exhibitions, and having group discussions or critique sessions where South Asian folks can present themselves without always having to second-guess, and question whether the feedback that they’re getting is from a white person’s perspective because they lack the understanding culturally and emotionally,” Narayanan says. All four individuals helped curate the show in addition to having their works featured in it.

Two attendees gaze upon "Menstrual Bindi," a self-portrait by Vasudhaa Narayanan. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

Narayanan and Kohli display their pieces on adjacent walls at Mission Cultural Center. Kohli honors her late grandfather with a journal entry and a self portrait with mirrors, text and video stills to explore death, grieving and healing. Narayanan’s photograph is also a self-portrait, titled Menstrual Bindi; it confronts the shame she experienced from menstruation while growing up in the south of India.

The duo plans to continue their collaborative work by curating more group exhibitions, creating a series of podcasts and a publication to highlight individuals in the collective.

As artists arrive before the show begins on May 17, the energy in the gallery feels like a family homecoming. It’s the type of greeting you can hear before you see: shrieks of laughter, smooches, tight embraces and, in some cases, the giddiness of meeting a stranger with whom you already share feelings of kinship.

“Let’s be what we want to see: joy, happiness, radical kindness, family. That’s what it is,” SNJV says as he prepares for his performance. “Come eat, have a seat, let me hear about your day. That’s the joy, that’s what we live for.”

SNJV electrifies the crowd at JAGAH//JADOO on May 17, 2019. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

As SNJV glides to the center of the room, oversized flower in hand, he “disconnects from the physical and starts moving to the rhythm of the universe,” as he told me before the show. He takes inspiration from aarti in Hindu puja, a place of blessing within worship where his spirit is cleansed with fire.

A melody from his childhood reverberates throughout the room as he flings light pink petals all over the floor and bursts into energetic movements: voguing meets Old Bollywood. As each improvised step intertwines SNJV’s past and future, his fellow artists and community members clap and cheer along in celebration.

“This showcase is such a celebration of a narrative that’s often hidden behind shame and culture and success,” SNJV said. “I’m just so grateful to do what I do and be this visible.”

In other words, welcome to the magic place.

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'JAGAH//JADOO' is on view at San Francisco's Mission Cultural Center through May 25. Details here.

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