Adele H. Stamp Student Union - Center for Campus Life

Not Your Model Minority
Pandemic, Proximity, and Power

payal kumar

Artist Statement

Whiteness as a point of departure is taken as a norm, with discussions around race focusing on Black and brown bodies as the "other"- this assumption obscures how whiteness is socially constructed just as much as anything else, and has very real and violent material consequences. We can't undo the violence of white supremacy without first unpacking whiteness itself as a historical category. It's not just about skin color- many European immigrants coming to America were not considered white at various points in history (the Irish, Jews, Italians, etc) to justify their exploitation. As a political category, it has always been conveniently fluid within the United States (reflected in the Census over the years) and intentionally made invisible to those who benefit from it. "Whiteness" as a racially significant category has largely been defined in opposition to the inferior "other"- whether it was the Indigenous folks who colonizers sought to wipe out of the Americas, enslaved Africans who had become "property" for slave-owners to brutalize while maintaining "moral" superiority, or emancipated Black workers excluded from white labour movements during industrialization. Whiteness is relational, oppositional, parasitic. Why are we so invested in maintaining a system that exists entirely to justify dehumanization and violence? That historically has and continues to pit minority groups (like us Asian Americans) against each other? That only values us conditionally? Who is this for, really?

payal kumar, white supremacy is a weapon of mass destruction (after james baldwin and tony morrison). acrylic and ink, 2020.

payal kumar, decolonize yr thirst, acrylic, watercolor, and ink. 2019

payal kumar, dowry, watercolor and ink. 2019

payal kumar, haanji, watercolor and ink. 2019

payal kumar, bite. watercolor and ink, 2020

payal kumar, kulfi. acrylic, watercolor, and ink, 2020.

One of my recent series explores the trope of the "submissive desi woman" through the lens of racialized and queer/gendered power and pleasure. As brown women and femmes, we find our bodies and sexuality defined outside of our agency as soon as we're visible- we are inscribed with docility, naivety, novelty, disgust (particularly for those of us who fall outside the realm of "desirability" or hold multiple marginalized identities). In the vulnerable and intimate space of a sexual/sensual encounter, kink provides an explicit framework to communicate of power dynamics and boundaries that can be really powerful as someone routinely silenced by external conditions- the power dynamics of control, authority, pain, and pleasure continue to exist outside of these encounters, but we don’t often get the ability to control and manipulate them safely. In public spaces, I am fetishized and dehumanized without my consent. In the visceral moments of an intimate encounter, I can consent and become the subject of my own experience. I can return your gaze and still demand that you objectify me. By contrasting motifs around bondage and sensuality with symbols of idealized South Asian femininity and domesticity (such as traditional desserts and elaborate gold jewelry), these images create an exploratory space that asks us who is in control. What does it look like to reclaim the tired trope of the south asian femme, submissive and devoid of pleasure? Does the "submissive" still hold appeal if willful? What is the relationship between south asian femininity and sexual agency? Where is the boundary between exotic, erotic, and exhausted?

Artist Biography

payal kumar (they/them) is a diasporic dreamer working towards inclusive solidarity and liberation based on Wampanoag territory. As a multimedia artist, doula, medical advocate, and futurism fanatic, they invoke the power of interdisciplinary movement-building to construct tender new possibilities of being beyond borders and capital. They have performed spoken word and facilitated imaginative workshops in different spaces across the country- from open mics and grassroots protests, to national conferences (like the Allied Media Conference), to the Museum of Fine Arts. Their visual work is rooted in the Desi folk art of their ancestral villages and traditional Americana tattoos to construct new in-between spaces exploring mental illness, queer intimacy, and traumas around embodiment. Through creative strategies, they cultivate playful intergenerational dialogues challenging us to blur the boundaries between body and time-space so we can all fully unearth and activate our collective power. Currently, they manage the Gender Affirming Hormone Therapy program at the Planned Parenthood League of MA, are on the board of Subcontinental Drift Boston, and organize around South Asian/Asian American community issues.

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