Her Nuclear Waters: An Appeal to Transcendence in Diaspora Art

Written by Mekhala Dave

Edited by Hannah McGurk and Ketaki Zodgekar

Illustrated by Jahnavi Zondervan

As a result of this globalised world, in the echo of the text from the Her Nuclear Waters comic by Chitra Ganesh, ‘tattoo her onto this city’s skin, stroke by stroke by stroke’, I moved into and away from borders. Borders, at once as the physicality of territories of nations, and as cultural, psychological and linguistic divides; as sites of violence and militarisation.

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Her Nuclear Waters, Chitra Ganesh (2013)

My story is an urban journey that takes place within the acceleration of globalization that opened passages of information and access to new intimacy with locations. The unfolding of the expansive Arabian moonrise over the sea, on an Alpine landscape and the mystifying rays of sun upon Scottish lochs. The poignancy of this untouchable safety in my childhood memories, nourished by the universal scenes of the Earth has persisted well into my adulthood. However, in my adulthood, I have developed a deep concern about the shape shifting of identities in our hyper-technological era, and this is something I have never explored within university curricula. 

Chitra Ganesh’s artistic world of comics creates a dystopian comfort through the intermingling of feminine hybrid bodies and the divinity of cyborg-like elements with Lacanian texts. Informed by her own upbringing in the US, with South Asian roots, she inhabits a duality in her lived experiences, and depicts a transcendental churning of artistic expression in her comics. At first glance, her comics compliment the Afrofuturist tradition: a term introduced by the scholar Mark Dery and developed by Alondra Nelson in the 1990s, to describe the African cultures and jazz musicians that reimagine the power of African root and conjure futuristic tales of empowerment (Nelson, 2012). Understanding this decolonial practice as a recreation of an imagined future opens us up to new frames of interpreting Ganesh’s art. For example, in The Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway (1991) rejects dualities that limit a feminist world view, such as: Western/Eastern historie and animal-human-tech divides. Haraway posits that a cyborg identity could represent women of colour, and other ‘Othering’ (outsider) identities that subvert normative white women identities. As she articulates, the cyborg identity’ does not know the Garden of Eden, does not know mud and cannot return to the dust’ (p. 151).

Just as Haraway rejects Biblical thematic spin, instead embracing the cyborg identity, there is mysticism in Chitra Ganesh’s dystopian universe too: a fiery flame-like landscape with high fumes, a scene in which an accident has taken place, with the injured blended into the shards and pieces of materials in the calamity. In the loom of a gracious feminine creature with a space-like suit, from her, a gush of blue liquid spills onto the injured like an anecdote, submerging them. There is ambiguity as to whether the feminine creature only just met with the sight of the accident or if the anecdote gestures a part of her duties and this space-like suit certainly separates her from the injured, whose nakedness denotes a vulnerability. The feminine creature looks upon the injured with an observing yet sympathetic gaze, as she kneels by the injured, her figure is thrown into not only a caregiving role but also as a savior of the injured. The female form is often depicted in victimized, eroticized or even helpless roles, but this comic offers a welcome respite, instead acknowledging the female form in an active, skilled labour and even a heroic commanding role. Perhaps the feminine creature in the space-like suit is staring at the carcass of her old self that she left behind in order to embrace this new-found cyborg identity whilst she struggles to revive her new self and to entirely let go of her old self. The image is gripped with mysticism, but one thing is clear: there is no point of return. 

Furthermore, in the text ‘…under her skin rise and fall: an immortal jellyfish, of unspoken pleas & mechanical hands’ (Ganesh, 2013) we see Donna Haraway’s commitment to viewing hybridity as a site of affinity, not of identities, but of kinship. The soul of a cyborg identity is here fueled by elements of being human, of nature, animal, and technology, without borders/divides. Unlike Donna Haraway’s embrace of a singular hybrid identity, the scholar Homi K. Bhabha (2004) carves out a third space for identity. The ‘third space’ recognizes the antagonism within the diaspora, between wanting a nostalgic return to the merits of the past, a ‘nation’s dust’, and the misalignment of settlement in a nation that is socioculturally opp. Not imposed and non-hierarchical, the ‘third space’ does a charming dance in recreating a ‘safe’ hybrid space for the diaspora. 

In Chitra Ganesh’s comics inspired by the Amar Chitra Katha comics from India, which recount popular Hindu stories, her artistic tones draw subjectivities of the cyborg identity, as opined by Donna Haraway. Further her work bleeds into the third space, a conjuring of Homi K. Bhabha’s ‘third space’ by addressing this diasporic antagonism. Art exists in “high” forms, within a white cubic spaces, where Chitra Ganesh’s comics adorn gallery walls, but also in “low” forms: comics in the hands of children and adults alike or familiar memorabilia in personalised spaces.  As globalisation accelerated through the 1990s, unwinding and flattening access to information with a postmodern force, South Asian diaspora art like Chitra Ganesh’s remains a spot-on testimony to my lived experiences across locations. The simplistic terminology “diaspora” means “dispersion from the land of origin” – it doesn’t just embody dualities, as propounded by Donna Haraway, but goes beyond them. We need to enact real diversity and inclusion to mend our fractured curriculum – in studies of identity and media, but also of borders and oppression and culture. However, a truly transformative educational reform in the way that we look at, immerse in and connect with art, requires the recognition that our intimacies lie in the study of ourselves in relation to the others, and that identity and Othering often overlap in ways that mirror our complex, collective, interwoven lived experiences of our world. 

Works Cited 

Bhabha, Homi K. (2004). The Location of Culture. Abingdon: Routledge.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne (1991). “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge. 

Rambsy II, Howard (2012). “A Notebook on Afrofuturism”. Cultural Front. 

Mekhala Dave is a doctoral researcher at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. Her research is at the intersection of art and law. Her focus is on human rights representation from visual cues of art that is political and activist on issues of migration, ecology and gender.

Ketaki Zodgekar is a Research Assistant with the Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict project and a Master of Public Policy candidate, an editor for Project Myopia, and Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.

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