Ela Shah’s art depicts the struggle of immigrants

This is part of a series from Ilene Dube of The Artful Blogger.

The first thing to catch my eye when I entered Ela Shah’s exhibit at Princeton University’s Bernstein Gallery were the guns. There’s a whole wall of them, made from jigsaw cutouts. The wooden pieces painted bright colors and gold leaf have a female figure integral to the pistol. One wears a floral skirt, roller skates and has a dog’s head (the pistol grip). Another is a henna tattooed hand with a winking ring holding a phallus. Yet another figure holds the reins as she rides a rifle, with a white furry creature riding her back.

Titled “Guns,” these depictions represent women interacting with power in a male dominated world, asserting their femininity through flowers with human eyes, bangles and floral textiles. It’s possible to be both feminine and have power, they seem to be saying.

The work of Shah, who was born in Bombay, is about the immigrant experience. There are references to traditional Indian art – goddesses, Lord Krishna, bejeweled elephants –taken apart and pieced together in a contemporary vernacular.

A short video, taken from Mahabharata, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, represents a cow that fulfills all human desire. In the video “Immigrant Story,” a woman’s heart goes back and forth from India to America. She travels down Memory Lane where she sees herself transformed and empowered.

Shah’s work is most certainly autobiographical. It is about the push and pull of assimilation – to hold on to your culture or become part of the one in which you live. In one large work, a “Desi” girl, clothed in a hybrid of Indian and American garments, emerges from a puzzle with a computer and H1B visa card application forms. She is surrounded by Indian imagery such as a peacock – the national bird of India – facing off with an American eagle. The Statue of Liberty has a red bindi on her forehead and wears a necklace of white flowers.

When Shah came to the U.S. in 1972, it was on a temporary visa, she recounts. The female figures in her work are frequently on rollerskates “because women are always in a rush,” she said.

Cavorting with Indian goddesses in her artwork are figures from American popular culture: Spiderwoman and Big Bird.

“When I first came here, I watched ‘Sesame Street’ with my kids to learn English,” she said of how Big Bird entered her work. And Spiderwoman, like Indian gods, “is a symbol of hope.”

There is a little tiger at the woman’s foot, representing a threat. And a large snake refers to the symbol for the American Medical Association. “It’s about the power of healing.” Shah’s daughter was once bit by a cobra, and the artist has been using snakes as a symbol of healing ever since.

Another work, “Welcome,” features the Statue of Liberty. “When you come to this country you realize it’s not all paradise, it’s violence,” said Shah. She finds herself transformed into Spiderwoman, getting empowered to do all things. “Children are killed by insanity,” she said, showing one of the gun cutouts that depicts a woman riding a rifle like a rocking horse, and another of a boy born with a golden gun.

Many of the works seem to be about the dream world or subconscious. Shah has been interested in psychology since majoring in the subject in India. Before coming to the U.S., she traveled the world, and earned a master’s degree in sculpture from Montclair State University. She spends some time in India every year.

In describing her work, the artist writes, “It addresses conflicts of spiritual and material worlds, and the complexity in women and children’s lives in this postmodern world. I search myself through art and it helps me survive and have faith in this confused and often contradictory world.”

PASSAGES: Mixed Media Artwork by Ela Shah is on view at the Bernstein Gallery, Robertson Hall, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, through Sept. 11. Gallery hours: Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and by appointment: 609.497.2441. Closing artist reception: Sunday, September 8, 4:30 – 6:30 p.m.,


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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