Sita Bhaumik: Artist, Scholar, Provocateur

Imagine a freestanding wall peppered with little slide viewers that have been drilled into its surface. Approach one of these apertures, peer in, and you’ll encounter a slide of an underwear-clad paper doll in some funny or abstract situation. Laugh, but then reflect. How did get into that pose? Why is she stripped down to her underwear? Why am I on the inside peeking in?

Like much art that seeks to provoke thought, and not just soothe aesthetic sensibilities, Sita Bhaumik’s senior project is multi-layered, complex, and yet intensely personal. “It really is highly metaphorical,” says T. Kim-Trang Tran, assistant professor of art, “which is not what one would think of when seeing it for the first few times, because it overtly addresses difficult issues of identity. But a while goes by, and perhaps it’ll dawn on the viewer how poetic the piece really is.”

As part of an unusually strong 2002 senior spring art show in the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Sita’s mixed media project (photography, installation, and video) stood out for its innovative approach to issues of representation, and its creator was duly recognized with a Fine Arts Foundation Award. In the words of Susan Rankaitis, Sita’s advisor and the Fletcher Jones Professor of Studio Art, Sita’s work manifested “the big questions of who are we, what are we, what is our place in the world… all done with humor and grace.”

Not unexpectedly, Sita herself has a more ambivalent and complicated relationship to her paper dolls, which have come to represent many stages in her development as an artist. “I turned myself into these over-determined cultural stereotypes that could be gleaned from my body,” Sita explains, “when I produced this series of paper dolls in Professor Ken Gonzales-Day’s basic photography class. The femi-nazi, the geisha, the sari-clad innocent. They were reactionary and angry because they were responses to people’s perceptions of me. But, as I sat with the project, I got tired of the baggage of the costumed ‘doll,’ and gave her another costume: underwear.”

Subsequent classes in intermediate photography and digital video and motion graphics opened up new possibilities, and Sita began manipulating the doll, even “videotaping competitions between myself and this little cutout of myself. Now, I keep telling myself that I need to stop working with ‘her,’ but I keep finding new things to do with her.” Ideas for producing multiple installations still proliferate in Sita’s mind: projecting the slides onto something; turning them into transparencies that can be displayed through light boxes; incorporating into the installation itself a double-image video she screened during the art show’s opening. Clearly, she’s not yet done “formulating a visual language for [exploring] important questions about cultural identity,” as Professor Rankaitis puts it.

Growing up in a family in South Pasadena, Sita struggled with “which identities to claim for myself.” Would she try to “pass” as American or Asian? Could she remain racially or culturally ambiguous in the face of others’ desires to pigeonhole her identity? And how would she define herself as an artist? When, upon high school graduation, it came time to choose among a large university, a liberal arts college, or an art school, Sita’s unwillingness to categorize herself led her to Scripps. “I remember when I visited a UC, they told me that if I changed my major I might just have to stay an extra year in school. When I asked the same question at Scripps, a woman from admissions told me that the students she works with change majors so often that she has no idea what they are majoring in from one day to the next,” Sita explains. “I liked Scripps’s answer better.”

What Professor Rankaitis remembers of Sita, as a first-year student, was the way “she made the seniors look less committed in comparison” as she put in 25 hours a week on her art projects. At the time, Sita wasn’t even an art major; she was wavering between women’s studies and religious studies. However, after spending her junior year in Nepal (“I made absolutely no art while I was there”), Sita understood that her commitment to art was the deepest of her passions. “After that, I dived in and started producing work that had some kind of theoretical and critical center.”

Choosing a liberal arts college that could provide her with “a solid foundation in writing and the humanities regardless of the major I chose,” Sita evolved as an artist as her intellectual horizons were broadened by her classroom and study abroad experiences.

“She’s an exciting student to have in a class,” notes Professor Trang. “Often I’ve been pleasantly surprised by her innovations and resourcefulness, both technically and conceptually. She’s a deep thinker and has a sophisticated sense of aesthetics. Add to that a political conviction that’s quite advanced.”

Still, not every politically and aesthetically aware student can create works of art that surprise and challenge even seasoned art faculty. There are less glamorous qualities that tend to separate the artistic cream from the milk within the studio or gallery. “Discipline and commitment,” asserts Professor Rankaitis. “It’s easy to make some nice looking things, but it’s harder to keep your work evolving and moving forward unless you are constantly learning and pushing yourself. A cliché that I think holds true is that you can’t make good art unless you first make a lot of bad art. I keep telling students not to play it safe. I’ve never known Sita to try to play it safe.”

All the Right Questions

Playing it safe seems a foreign concept to Sita, whose first-year project involved fabricating and folding a thousand white paper cranes. While many of us might consider it a nightmare to appear in public garbed only in our underwear, Sita Bhaumik went on to turn this common symbol of humiliation into a symbol of the self that seeks not just answers but all the right questions as well. And although she remains intrigued by the possibilities represented by her “Sita dolls,” she is also anxious to enroll in an enameling course at Pasadena City College as she puts together a portfolio for graduate school applications. “For now, though, I am going to take advantage of my father’s frequent flyer miles and travel,” Sita says, “to South America, India, and maybe Japan.”

“I wish that I could talk Sita into starting at Scripps all over again,” Professor Rankaitis reflects, “but I think that grad school beckons and that any major institution would be lucky to have her in its MFA program.” Sita laughs, pointing out that her three roommates (with whom she lived for four years) and her advisor all tell her that she is doomed to becoming a professor.

“Did I say doomed?” Professor Rankaitis wonders. “I thought I said ‘destined.’ Actually, I said more than that. I said that she should be ready for my chair in the department by the time I retire in 2014.”