Interview with Cheryl Mukherji

I know that the last two terms have been very stressful for you. All your equipment and hard drives with your works have been stolen right at the start of the second year. Can you talk about how has it been having to develop new work?

I don’t think I had the luxury of time to mourn the loss of my older work. As surreal as it sounds, it happened one day and the next day I was already thinking about what was I going to do for my thesis. I work under stress really well so that worked in my favor. In a way, losing photographs made me break out of my fixation of understanding things only in terms of photographs. Last fall, after the robbery, I enrolled myself in a pottery class, I learned how to screenprint, I taught myself how to embroider. I opened myself to a lot of materials that I did not reach out to instinctively because I was always tied to the image. I am still attached to my older work, I still miss looking through my hard drives and editing a series on a whim that I had shot 3 years ago but it doesn’t beat the excitement of having new materials to work with. I am still fixated on the image but photographs have become the raw material for something larger. 

How did you decide to start working with archival materials?

After the robbery, the only thing that was left with me that were the family albums I had brought with me to New York when I first moved here. I was always interested in working with the album but I could not find a starting point until when I wasn’t left with a choice.

You also make your work in different mediums, can you tell us about the process?

Every medium has a different process. None of them are mediums I have used before in my visual work: embroidery, sculpture, ceramic, screenprints, text, so process, for the most part, is learning how to sit and work with the materials and incorporate them in my visual work. Screenprinting, for example, requires an elaborate set up if you’re doing it on a large scale professionally, but my station is very bare-bones and every print is far from perfect and picking it up after a gap for some weeks feels like teaching myself how to screenprint all over again. Pottery is a completely different ball game. I call it humiliating–you walk into a studio and struggle for weeks to center the pound of clay on a wheel, but you go back in there again and fight with it all over again. It is ultimately very rewarding. Sewing was never considered domestic labor in my family, it was aspirational. In a family of surgeons where someone was always sewing something back up, it was a skill that one learned in order to fix something. I picked up sewing and incorporated it into my work because a lot of my work was about healing, fixing, and staying connected to my family. 

How do you define your practice? Is your approach more intuitive or analytical?

It is difficult to articulate what my practice is. My approach has been firstly intuitive and then, always analytical. I am a compulsive note-maker. I analyze too much sometimes. I think about something as small as what the gesture of drawing a line across a paper means. I’m not saying analysis has always helped me because sometimes I do things for the pure joy of it. But I also understand that all gesture in art, whether thoughtful or joyful, is political and no matter how instinctively I follow a chain of thought, I am ultimately responsible for it when I am putting it out in the world. 

You often turn the camera on yourself. Could you speak about this? What does it mean to you to be your own subject?

I started as a photojournalist, even during my personal travels I would photograph other people because I was always in familiar environments and always had control over the narrative as a photographer. Turning the camera on myself happened much naturally after I moved to New York. I started thinking a lot about representation and control and how New York was an antithesis of everything I had control over. As an immigrant and a person of color, I did not–and still do not–think that I have the cultural authority to point my camera at someone else. Being new to a country made me feel so alienated from everything that the easiest thing to photograph without a confrontation and being true to it, was myself. It probably means that I am responsible ultimately for my own representation and people who are like me. With respect to my current project, which involves turning the camera to my mother, I made self-portraits alongside to bring myself into work and understand my role as a virtual caregiver and a surveillant and someone who is navigating a relationship through distance. 

Your mother also became your subject, and you worked with archival (family) photographs of her. Did it change anything in the way you see her as well as your relationship to family photography?

My mother and I have become very close ever since I moved to New York. We have almost transcended our customary mother-daughter roles. Bringing her into my work did not change my relationship as much as it changed the work I was doing. As an artist, I looked at her very objectively sometimes, sieving out details of our relationship that did not serve the story but I was connected with her enough to know how much it meant to me to be able to articulate my relationship with her. I learned so many different ways of looking at the same photographs of my mother from the family albums. I looked at them grammatically, structurally, aesthetically, in terms of the color palette, in terms of what resembled more amateur photography and what followed the precise rules of a professional photograph. I looked at the photographs in terms of their function, whether it was a matrimonial photograph or just an outing with friends; one where the photographer was the family member or an unknown person. All these subcategories helped me move through the albums in more than just a linear way and ultimately lent themselves to how I articulate it in my work. 

What are your next steps after graduating?  

I want to work in publishing, specifically in the editorial department. Ideally, I would like to have a balance between personal art practice and writing about photography. 

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