Meena Hasan’s newest show at LAUNCH F18 is, what she brilliantly and comically calls, a “kaleidoscopic onion.” To understand that, one must first understand her vivid works that stem from diverse compositions and series but are now in giddy and ponderous conversation with each other in one show. She shares this LAUNCH F18 exhibition with the Tommy Kha, who, alongside Meena, is exploring imperialism through a contemporary lens. To learn more about Meena and her work that “investigates and reveals Asian American experiences,” read on, follow her Instagram, and visit “Other Echoes Inhabit The Garden” at LAUNCH F18!
Greenpointers: You’re a Greenpointer yourself, I hear! How has the neighborhood treated you. Any favorite spots?
Meena Hasan: Yes, I’ve been in Greenpoint for about six years and I love it. I am hesitant to tell too much, since one of the greatest characteristics of Greenpoint is that the best spots feel secret, tucked away and well supported by local patrons. Northside Bakery has amazing Polish food – schnitzels and stuffed cabage are my go to. I am always on the hunt for good curry and am lucky to have a legit take-out Indian food spot nearby, Moharani, run by Bangladeshis. They use all the right spices and do not water down their food like most places. I also discovered the Lite Bites lunch hour, they have insanely tasty Trinidadian curries and rotis during the week, but you have to hit it before 2pm to get the choicest morsels. Possibly the best hot sauce I’ve ever had too (in the US). Not to get all romantic about it, but the distinct flavors really do unveil themselves slowly on your tongue, in your throat and belly, like a raga, and trying to decipher their recipe is great fun.
Your current show at LAUNCH F18 Gallery in Tribeca deals with “post-colonial legacy,” the press release says. Can you dive into the works you contributed to this exhibition?
This show, titled “Other Echoes Inhabit The Garden” unfolded over time. I like to think of it as a kaleidoscopic onion of distinct shapes and ideas reflecting each other across and through the room. Each of the works that I included is from a different series that I have been working on for the past few years and it’s fantastic to see them all hanging out together. Included are a first-person perspective or PoV painting as I call the series of putting on gold bangles, a small paper sculpture of my grandmother’s earrings, a portrait of my mother’s nape and a large hanging paper piece that investigates and transforms a Chintz pattern (a calico textile made in South Asia for the British). Also included are two small gouaches on cardboard that were made as meditations in between the making of the above pieces.
The show was an experiment in many ways, a chance to juxtapose the many distinctions not only within my pieces but also those in contrast to Tommy’s works, with the hope that they would converse, open up and find meaning through their interaction, that they would “echo” in other words. This could be like any group show, but in our case it was particularly significant given our shared desire to investigate and reveal Asian American experiences through our works. Tommy and I, like all children of immigrants, and honestly like the majority of individuals in the world, have inherited the post-colonial legacies of our families. The show seeks to pay respect to this inheritance and, particularly, the matriarchs who have shaped and raised us, whose influence pervades the works and, of course, our daily lives as well.
You’re sharing a show in Tribeca with another Brooklynite, Tommy Kha. What has it been like to show your work together?
Tommy and I have been in dialogue since our time together at Yale’s MFA program (Tommy was in Photography and I was in Painting & Printmaking). When I first proposed the show to Tommy a couple years ago, I wanted to investigate how we both subvert and distort the authority of an image as well as the givens of everyday life. I also wanted to contextualize my own work with his photographs, to deal directly with the influence and power of the photographic image in my paintings. I’ve always been interested in photo, in terms of the speed of image-making, the idea of a replica or a mimetic copy, and also especially in terms of how truth and authenticity functions in photography. When I was little I thought of photos as soul-stealers and I would put tape over the eyes in the few posters and photos that hung in my bedroom each night before bed, starting with the Michael Jackson “Bad” poster (and fascinating that that action now has yet another level of meaning).
The resulting show now on view far exceeded my expectations and I am so happy with how Tommy’s photographs have helped me clarify aspects about my own work, particularly in terms of locating post-colonial influence via the everyday. The show also revealed a number of formal discoveries and affinities like the significance of pattern and decoration as reflections of subjecthood. Color took on a life of its own in the show too, where yellow and yellow gold grew into symbols of cultural identity threading through each image. The show also revealed certain shapes, particularly the curve and the triangle, as presenting different kinds of speed and weight not just in the image but also in terms of the concept of matriarch.
Lots of artists flock to NY, but I see you were raised in the city. In what way did that upbringing affect your work?
I have and continue to struggle with all the names given to me other than New Yorker, which I wear with confidence and pride. I love being allied with other NYC painters like Martin Wong and Alice Neil who both explore ideas of distinction in terms of character and personhood and embrace otherness with a NY attitude, with curiosity and empathy. I remember the first time I saw Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” hanging at MoMA. It used to occupy a small wall in what felt like a corner, as in it felt like that painting actively carved out space for itself and was one of the few you could stand in front of uninterrupted and get lost in. Like Neil and Wong, “Broadway Boogie Woogie” uses distinction, in this case between the primary colors, to create a dynamic space that rhythmically moves and breathes as your eye travels across its surface. That painting really feels like the city to me in other words.
I think New Yorkers have a unique sense of scale in relation to their own egos, where one can be the center of the universe, but also just one ant living amongst millions of other ants. There is a simultaneity in micro and macro ideas of existence. I think this can be a very difficult thing for outsiders to come to terms with and I am so grateful that I was born with this understanding. I absolutely love how New York City constantly puts you in your place while asking you to move beyond it, where systems are pervasive and overbearing but also made to be broken. When I was about 14 riding my bike way too fast down a hill I came inches away from hitting Woody Allen because he was j-walking in the middle of a sidewalk between two cars, I didn’t see him till too late in other words. He had to jump back and his bags went flying into the air and I have an image of him sitting up on the street, leaning on a car, straightening his sweater vest, fixing his glasses and shaking his head with disappointment. It makes me laugh out loud every time because suddenly this everyday moment became even more than a celebrity sighting where a scrawny Bengali-American teenager came close to taking out an international superstar. I certainly felt really guilty for riding my bike so fast and I did stop on the corner and look back to make sure he wasn’t really hurt. But there was also a weird sadistic joy in dwelling in the momentary power that I, a nobody, had over someone like Woody Allen, that I was able put him in his place.
Many of your works feature the nape of people’s necks. Can you discuss the influence for that?
Yes, I have an ongoing series of paintings, titled “Napes”, maybe now nine in all and more to come. They focus on the backs of women’s heads, with the nape of the neck as the central point of each composition. The idea started in my drawing class with Sam Messer first year at Yale where our assignment was to make many, like 50 maybe, drawings of a partner each week. My partner was the fantastic artist Mark Thomas Gibson, and towards the end of the semester I was honestly quite tired of representing his face and wanted to try something else, so I did a charcoal drawing of the back of his head. He was interested in it because I think it felt like a gift, it was a perspective of his body that he could never see, it was generous in a sense.
This idea resurfaced years later after graduating as I was doing one-shot drawings from stills from Satyajit Ray’s film, Charulata. The film is set in Bengal while India was still under British rule and at the height of the Bengal Renaissance and follows a woman, Charu. There are a few gorgeous tracking shots, where we follow right behind her head as she walks through her gorgeous historic home, sometimes reading. I made two drawings from those tracking shots, and her nape was at the center of those compositions. I loved how her figure largely blocks out her environment and that her head, neck and shoulders become the narrative. In my “Napes” I hope for the color, textures and patterns to stand in for the woman’s gaze and perspective. They are, in a sense, a compressed third-person perspective, where the viewer sees with and through the subject herself. They are large paintings, about four feet long and three feet tall, so the subject is both incredibly vulnerable and empowered through her posture and through the aggressive materiality that I paint. I hope for the works to illicit a physical reaction, perhaps making your neck hair stand up on end, to encourage a discomfort but also a curiosity and ultimately an empathetic relationship to the subject.