“It is like saying I only see half of your body. I don’t see the other half”, says Durga, an artist based in Mumbai, when asked about the hard facts on their coming out as a nonbinary genderfluid person. From dreams to relationships with family and friends, from the inherent discomfort they experience in their body to breaking many norms through their art, this interview has it all…
Q. You identify as Gender-Fluid. Could you please explain what that means?
Being gender fluid means that I sometimes identify as female, sometimes as male, sometimes as both at the same time and sometimes neither. Like the term, it’s fluid like water, my gender flows into each other and sometimes there is more clarity about how I’m identifying in that moment, but most often, it is ambiguous and makes me feel closer to being human than when I used to try and force myself to fit the binary.
Q. Isn’t it complex to not identify with any gender?
It has been a long and exhausting process so far to come to the realisation of my gender identity. It’s easy to feel like an alien in my body and hate it from time to time, and then suddenly love being in it and feel attractive and comfortable. It’s hard to explain to people close to me why I feel the way I feel when I’m uncomfortable because I am perceived as an attractive woman, but I don’t always feel attractive. A lot of times it feels like my body isn’t even mine. The key is to constantly keep in touch with myself and accept my body for what it is and live in the present moment. I have to keep talking to myself and remind myself that I am human and human beings come with a body. I have been gifted with mine and it is a tool to give motion to my dreams.
Q. Does this aspect of your identity play out in your attractions for other people? If yes, how?
This aspect does play out in my attractions. For me, a person’s biological sex has never been criteria for attraction. Growing up in India, it felt safe to date the opposite sex as a teenager. Although I have explored my sexuality with women as well, I never found the strength to date a woman. Now things are different. I have come out to my family and they are very supportive, even though it is hard for them to understand they try very hard to. I have a male partner at the moment but it isn’t a safety thing with him, he just happens to be male. He is supportive and does all he can to understand me, just like my family does. My fluidity is hard to understand for most people because for me, it shreds all the set societal norms and structure of gender and sexuality and is down to the basic, which is I am human and I like this other person, because of their heart and whatever physical form they have, is beautiful because they are beautiful.
Q. Would you see the expression of your gender simultaneously with negotiating the acceptable beauty standards as dysphoric?
I guess it helps to be an artist because my mind is childlike. The beauty standards don’t concern me anymore. I just look like whatever I want to, whatever makes me happy and feel good about myself. I like to make myself smile when I look in the mirror. Although I experiment with my appearance quite a bit, I am always true to myself in that moment. My dysphoria is caused when my appearance is not true to my inner self.
Q. Tell us a bit about your work. Specifically sculpting and welding. When were you first interested in your art-form? Did you face any pressures on that front?
I was born in a family of fine art practitioners. Art was such a normal day to day thing that it didn’t even feel like I had any talent as an artist and I never even considered pursuing a career in the fine arts as a school student. For most of my school life, I was heavily involved in sports and I have always been a physical person. It was in my 11th grade as a student of science in St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, where I learnt that I am no good in academia as I failed my exams and got kicked out of college. Although my parents were upset, they told me that this was an opportunity to figure out what I wanted to study and maybe I should do something less formally academic. I gave my 12th board exams externally and got into a design school, which had a slightly different education system than the rest of the design schools in the country at that time. I went to Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore with the intention that I would figure out which creative field I wanted to pursue. At the time, the school had a two-year foundation program and in that time I figured out that I would either pursue photography or sculpture. I applied as a transfer student to colleges in America and got into my dream school, The Rhode Island School of Design, for photography. After spending the summer in the foundation program there I realised how much I loved working with my hands, and I switched majors to sculpture two days before classes started. This is where my journey as a sculptor began. At RISD, I wasn’t just trained to work with metal, we were trained to cast in various plastics and metals, and fabricate with everything from textiles, to wood, to paper. We learnt how our brains worked and how we could give form to our thoughts in whatever medium the thoughts demanded.
Q. What kind of reactions do you get to your work?
There are always mixed reactions to my work as a sculptor because it is so personal.
Until now, I have created forms that are derived from my investigation into biology. I have worked with many microscopes and obsessively read scientific papers and watched numerous documentaries. Because of which there is a bodily quality to my work. People are either very attracted to it or are repelled by it. There are no subtle reactions to my work so far.
Q. What fuels your work? Is queerness a part of it?
Like everyone else, I am trying to figure out what life is about. Until a few months ago, I would make artworks that were inspired by various biological forms and movement, which is a translation of energy or life force. In college, I worked with the scanning electron microscope; it is one of the most powerful devices available to us that let us zoom into anything up to 45000 times! I have seen worlds within us that are truly amazing and almost unreal. Being primarily a visual person, all the forms would get inside my head and mix with each other, eventually what would come out of me would be a form that was a combination of all the things I would feed my mind.
After spending a lot of time after college, trying to figure out what kind of artist I wanted to be, it gave me room to take a step back and look at my work so far from a distance. I realised that my internal voice wasn’t present in my work. After coming out to my family and going through a process of explaining my fluidity to them, I noticed the lack of content that could educate people about fluidity. Now, I am working towards bringing my unique internal voice into my work as well as keeping the biological investigation of life part of it.
Q. What do you want to show the world with your work? Is there a message? If yes, what is it?
While being a sculptor I am also an educator. So my work doesn’t just involve creating artwork, but also sharing my abilities to manifest my thoughts with others. In both my practices as an artist and educator, my goal is to show the world that it is important to be in touch with oneself, it is important to listen to one’s own voice and let it guide you to be everything that you already are.
One of my biggest inspirations is Ruby Rose. In an interview with Elle she said, “The takeaway is that only you know who you were born to be and you need to be free to be that person.” I believe in this ideology and think that my work should empower others to feel comfortable in accepting themselves for who they are and living their lives in a way that they can own themselves in the world.
Q. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
The quality that fuels my energy and pushes me is the ability to question everything around and inside me. The quality that holds me back is to doubt myself. If I had the ability to erase self-doubt, it would help me utilize my potential fully because I would have more energy for questioning and navigating my life and work with less negativity.
Durga Gawde graduated with a BFA in Sculpture from The Rhode Island School of Design. Her artistic practice is informed by an understanding of life, through investigation of the self, biological forms, and finding the congruence of all the above in spirituality.
She enjoys sharing her creative skills with the world through dialogue and demonstration. Through her practice she aims to nurture and challenge the creative thought process of individuals from various fields and age groups.