This week, we welcome artist Shelly Bahl, an interdisciplinary artist born in Benares, India. She spent her formative years in India and in Toronto, and is currently based in Brooklyn. Her art projects have been presented in a number of solo and group exhibitions in North America and internationally.
Her art practice explores the strange and surreal aspects of cultural hybridity and old and new forms of colonization. She is interested in the global transmission of iconographies and other forms of visual culture. Bahl also investigates the surrealistic experiences of women who lead enigmatic transcultural lives. These narratives are based in facts and fictions rooted in specific cultural histories, which she then recontextualizes and reimagines.
She has also worked with numerous arts organizations as an educator and curator, and is currently teaching at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn. More of her work can be viewed here.
Shelly Bahl has created a fictionalized environment of a “Peace Force Security” office within galleries at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia and at New York University’s Commons Gallery. A small temporary office area is custom-wallpapered with a repeat pattern and is surrounded by security cameras.
For the wallpaper design, the artist has transformed a well-known pictogram — a road sign graphic of a running family used to warn motorists of undocumented immigrants crossing highways near the US-Mexican border — into the company logo of “Peace Force Security.” Viewers are instructed to sit and fill out a form to receive a gift of Peace Force Security-branded candy. The goal is to create a visually overstimulating and claustrophobic environment, as well as to lure the gallery visitor into a momentary performance of power dynamics that echo our contemporary obsessions with national border controls and security.
Bahl has turned the idea of an immigration policing unit into one that tests our past and current perceptions on authority and our interactions with the other. The viewer is asked to participate in an exchange of candy, which calls up memories of the US phrase indoctrinated into every child, “Don’t take candy from strangers.” Highlighting structural indoctrination and relationship formation with the other, racial profiling and how immigrants live their everyday lives, the artist asks us to question our current positions while affecting an underlying unease of what might come at the end of our exchange. The Peace Force Security questionnaire asks us about our “worst nightmare,” but also if we “dance in the dark,” perhaps asking us to see possibility and alternatives to our current interpretation of borders, in a hope for peace. — Alexandra Chang, guest curator, Asian Arts Initiative