by Jennifer Smart
When Kanishka Raja passed away last year, the international art world marked his passing by describing his singularity as a contemporary artist, one “caught between two worlds.” These certainly included America, where Raja studied and lived for 30 years, and India, the home to which he returned throughout his career for family and inspiration. But Raja was also caught between an early commitment to abstract painting and the problem of representing his experience. As retired sculpture professor Jay Sullivan notes, the problem lay in relating his work to his Indian home and heritage, to the post-colonial world of India, and to the unplaced diaspora in which he worked.
Raja moved to the United States 30 years ago to pursue his studies, earning an undergraduate degree at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and an M.F.A. at SMU in 1995. When he arrived in Dallas he was already, in Sullivan’s words, a true “painter’s painter,” interested not in storytelling or narrative but rather in the formal issues of painting such as structure, design and color. During his graduate studies he worked closely with SMU Professor of Art Barnaby Fitzgerald, who taught him relationships between surface and color. Sullivan notes the color palette Raja used during his later studies at SMU might have been an early indication of his turn toward work that engaged more directly with his heritage: his favored green, orange and yellow earth tones are often associated with Indian manuscripts and art.
After graduation, Raja continued to work in an abstract vein with increased emphasis on design, with more pattern and ornament-based motifs, no doubt due to his engagement with the work of his father, an illustrator, designer and owner of a large textile business in India. Although Raja was based in New York City throughout his career, he returned to India for inspiration and, eventually, to show his lush, visually intoxicating paintings. “It is very hard to build a career in painting, particularly in New York, but Kanishka did just that,” Sullivan says. Over the years Raja exhibited in solo and group shows throughout the United States, India and Europe, and was the recipient of numerous awards and honors including the prestigious Joan Mitchell Foundation award in painting.
First and foremost a painter, Raja was not afraid to work across mediums or motifs, engaging painting, sculpture and installation, and regularly shifting between representation and abstraction, formalism and narrative. “He was one of the rare, successful painters who I would not identify with a certain motif or image but for a consistency of thought as well as a consistency with material and scale,” Sullivan says. Brian Molanphy, associate professor of drawing and ceramics, notes, “Raja brought to the fore in national and international forums questions of displacement, migration and liminality for 20 years, beginning when these were relatively vanguard topics, leading to their ubiquity today.”
As he gravitated more toward representation, his work often became almost architectural with solid walls, extended paintings of interior spaces, the traverse of landscapes and the placeless space of airports. His paintings themselves were, in most ways, multimedia creations; in later work he incorporated the textures and patterns of weaving alongside and layered with more traditional painting techniques. He also began experimenting with technology, layering scanned and printed images from the internet within oil paintings. His multilayered work was a nod to his own heritage as a diasporic, post-colonial artist, as well as an attempt to incorporate different stories into a discipline still dominated by Western art institutions and artists.
Molanphy notes that throughout Raja’s career, he was committed to broadening the understanding of visual art and art history by engaging and confronting the regionalism of individual art centers and recognizing the beauty of ornamentation in art. In his examination of identity and citizenship in a postcolonial, globalized world, without sacrificing a commitment to exploring and expanding the discipline of painting in a contemporary context, Molanphy notes Raja “exemplified the critical global impact to which SMU aspires.”
Kanishka Raja’s work may be seen here.