Aruni Dharmakirthi approaches textile art with the looseness of drawing; her stitching is a clean singular line, edges are often left purposefully frayed, and her compositions are uncluttered — simple, almost abstract, shapes floating in wide expanses of negative space. Subtle patterns emerge frequently, sometimes printed on the fabric, sometimes created by hand. And her color palette is always just a little unexpected: muddy khakis, chartreuses and pastels alongside brilliant primary reds, yellows, and blues.

The aesthetic restraint of her work belies Dharmakirthi’s deep understanding of her material and traditional textile processes. She is a fabric collector and creator: natural-dyeing cloth herself, needle-felting by hand, while simultaneously always open to incorporating and recontextualizing fabric that has already lived another life — as a shirt perhaps. Kajal connected with Dharmakirthi to discuss a recent textile sculpture, quixotically titled, Over time I taught myself to hold my throat shut and force the energy into my belly. Assuming it dissipated into my body, not realizing it gathered.

Aruni Dharmakirthi, Over time I taught myself to hold my throat shut and force the energy into my belly. Assuming it dissipated into my body, not realizing it gathered, 2021, Quilted Textile indigo dye, poly-fil,paint, 27 x 24 x 8 inches. Photograph, courtesy of Nationale gallery, by Mario Gallucci.

Kajal: I’m conflicted. Should we start with the title of the work or the sculpture? They’re both so compelling — what came first for you? The words or the object?

Aruni Dharmakirthi:It was the object. It tends to go that way for me where I’ll make the work and then I’ll either source the language for it from my journals, or, I’ll do some writing and figure out what I want to name it. But it is usually afterwards.

There are so many beautiful materials and processes happening in this piece. Could you talk me through them? How did this piece come together?

The first thing that I did with this work was the figure — and I tend to do that. I make the figures first, for all of my work. I don’t think I drew it out, I think I just started to cut out the shape of the head. I generally work in a collage process. I will iron out a bunch of different fabrics, place colors next to each other and at that point, I’m purely just thinking about the work formally.

I made the figure first — it was just the body shape — and then I started to pull out more fabrics, placing them together and just playing with the aesthetic of it. It was actually a flat piece for a really long time.

I’m often working intuitively, so the process of exploration and playing with the materials feels very important to me. Developing the figures is like creating a character and while it starts off formal, through the time spent in the act of making, I start to think about what emotions and expressions I want them to reflect.

Works in process in Dharmakirthi’s studio

You create a lot of flat pieces. When did this transform into a sculpture and what about this felt like it needed to be a sculpture?

This piece was made during the pandemic, and, for a long time, it was flat. But then I started to think about wanting to hold something. It really had to do with missing people and the act of being in the presence of someone that you could hold. Creating figures, I think spoke to that as well, of wanting to surround myself with other people. I started to research scream pillows. This is kind of funny. I was thinking about pillows, and the act of screaming into pillows that you see in movies, like teen dramas, And then I did a quick search to see if that was a thing that was being sold. And I found that there are YouTube videos of people teaching you how to scream into a pillow!

I remember thinking “Is this a thing that gets marketed? Are people selling pillows to scream into?” But the reason that I made the mouth like that, in that shape, was because I was thinking about all of the pent up energy I was feeling and how to create a release. The piece, at that point, already had a mouth. And then I was starting to consider making it three dimensional at the same time that I was doing this research about the scream pillows. And I was like “Oh, like this is where this is going.” It really is about trying to release energy and the idea is that it is a functional object, it’s kind of in between an art object and a design object, it has a function: you can place your face against its face and scream into its mouth.

Detail from Dharmakirthi’s Over time I taught myself… Photograph, courtesy of Nationale gallery, by Mario Gallucci.

And how did the rest of the elements like the mouth come together? Can you break down the construction for me and tell me more about each material?

The mouth for this piece came from a gift I received from an artist I met at a residency. They gave me this massive indigo dyed rope and I’ve been slowly pulling it apart and giving it away to friends and sewing it into my own works. I just love the look of yarn that hasn’t been woven into anything and just using it as a drawing tool to create mark making. I was messing around with how this yarn could function on top of the piece and I eventually placed it to create facial features and the mouth just stuck. It’s simultaneously very expressive and kind of stupid and simple.

This piece, like most of my work, comes from playing with the materials. Pulling out as many colors and textures as I can and then placing them together. The cut out shapes are a mixture of an organic process that comes through use of scraps and working with sketches that are a bit more planned out. The end results are often a combination of these sort of planned out concepts, research, journaling, etc and messing around in the studio.

Are those flowers hand painted by you? Or is that printed fabric?

The flowers come from a blouse that was gifted to me. I loved the hand painted flowers on it and I knew I wanted to use it on a piece so I held onto it for a long time. I eventually started painting a similar style of loose brush strokes on fabrics and I like to mix in my own textile designs. Overall in my work, there is a mix of designs I’ve digitally printed, designs that come from the fabrics I’m sourcing and then some I’m painting directly onto the pieces.

And the flecks of white on the blue neck and the torso. The bust part is that hand painting by you or was that on there?

That was hand painted by me, the flecks of white and the pink, those dashes were all hand painted. With this piece, I did a mixture of hand painting and working with fabrics that already have textile designs. I think you can see the grid pattern on the head — that was actually part of the weave. So there’s a design quality that was already on the fabric. I’m not an artist that has to do every single thing to the fabric, I use a lot of clothing and materials that are found, I’m often using fabrics that have patterns already on them but then I also create patterns as well. So it’s hard to tell what is like the artists’ hand and what is another artists’? I think collage and quilting have an inherently collaborative nature that I really like. The work feels connected to a greater history just through the materiality and I don’t necessarily want to obstruct that. When working with materials that were gifted or sourcing used clothing, there are personal histories, energies, relationships, generosity all imbued into the materials. I’m putting it together and adding my own narrative to it but the work is coming out of an interconnectedness.

Was the flower pattern upside down in your shirt? Or did you flip it for this piece? That’s a very charged visual — falling flowers or are they wilting?

I was thinking about it as the world being upside down. The way that I see this piece is that it’s a window, and you’re looking out and you see this other person. The viewer is in the interior looking at a window which shows this other world, like a portal. I love that idea of flowers falling or drooping, but I I was thinking of it as the world being upside down.

Are you always collecting and finding fabric? Is it a permanent state of openness to fabric? Or do you go out and look for particular textiles?

It’s really a mix. I have an openness to receiving fabrics. I love looking through my friends’ give away piles. If someone offers me materials I tend to say yes. Especially working in New York, there tends to be access to a lot of materials from photoshoots. My partner was working on sets and in studios for a long time so he would bring home all these textiles from give away piles. I buy materials from my local thrift store as well. Sometimes when I want specific colors I’ll go there with an idea of what I’m looking for and see what I can find.

When I lived in Crown Heights I had a small fabric shop I would go to called Nur Jahan Fabrics. Everyone that works there is so kind! Lately, I’m not using as much raw fabric unless I’m doing a natural dye or if I need a giant solid fabric — I’m not opposed to using raw fabrics when it’s needed and I am primarily working with found material because I feel like there’s so much of it. I think that fabric is something that people want to get rid of. There’s an aspect of fabric that is, well it’s a material that’s over consumed. So it’s easy to find. Sometimes I will buy it from thrift stores. I also go through my closet and ask myself, “What am I trying to get rid of?” And just start pulling my clothes out and cutting them up and putting them in my pile. In my studio, I have two giant shelves full of just rolls of fabric.

Dharmakirthi’s studio

I’m seeing more and more contemporary artists coming out of traditional MFA programs, where they were in the painting department, now working with textiles. There’s a very noticeable interest in or perhaps more accurately championing of textile techniques that used to be relegated just to “crafts” — things like embroidery, applique, and so on. Initially I was drawn to your work because I felt like you’re approaching textiles, with the looseness of drawing almost, you’re not looking back to a textile technique, you’re using it with the vocabulary of drawing but are you dying your own fabric? 

Yes. I do like to use more traditional processes. I naturally dye my fabrics, I do needle felting, I weave. So I do use those processes, but I don’t want to feel tied to only making something in that way. I think that a part of it is that when I’m trying to think about how to approach being a textile artist, I recognize there is already so much fabric that has been made and why wouldn’t I use it?

I think another reason is that at my MFA program, we didn’t have a specific genre of art. The program was called Visual Studies — it was really open ended. I did take a lot of the fabric classes, even in undergrad, I was taking textile art classes. At the Pacific Northwest College of Art, I was introduced to more traditional techniques, but in undergrad, my textile art teacher was a very crafty artist, and she was always hot gluing things together, cutting up old stuffed animals and reattaching them and because I was introduced to that early on, I always saw it as an acceptable way to make art. I don’t have to make every single aspect of it. I can pull from what’s already there and infuse it with my own meaning. I like that the materials I use already had a life in a way — whether it was my friends clothing or someone I didn’t know.

Dharmakirthi’s studio

That’s fascinating! You are the first artist that I’ve spoken to that’s actually manipulating the textile! Your color palette is so familiar but I can’t place it. It’s very aesthetically pleasing but then you have these slightly incongruous colors like chartreuse and these like greeny almost bright, mucousy colors. What’s informing and influencing your color choices? 

A lot of my color palette references are coming from cartoons. I watch a lot of anime so I’m definitely very influenced by these sort of bright neon colors. I love the palettes and compositions used in anime like OnePiece and HunterxHunter.

I would say that my teaching practice has started to influence my colors as well. I’ve worked with elementary and middle schools along with art centers and museums throughout New York City. I’m primarily working in Queens at the moment but I’ve worked in several boroughs including Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. A lot of my approach to art making comes from working with kids. I’m interested in creating an environment of play, experimentation, discovery and joy in my studio and my classrooms. I want the experience of art making to leave a positive imprint so I’m always trying to hack ways to keep it interesting and fun.

There was a time where my work was becoming really digital, and I was inspired by a digital color palette, and then when I started teaching I was influenced by the colors I was seeing my kids use. And thinking about my teaching practice, I tend to teach a lot of Matisse, Amit Ambalal, Yayoi Kusama, Bodys Isek Kingelez. The medium we use varies: painting, drawing, printmaking, collage, clay, paper sculpture, natural dye, etc.

I’m often teaching my students about colors, and I feel like a lot of my own use of color is coming from thinking about how I teach color theory to students and then how they are discovering color in their own practice. Their processes come in the form of play and experimentation. Kids are pretty intuitive about their use of color. I think some of it comes from observation of the world around them but a lot of their work is really just play.The end results are less important in my classroom. The expression is happening in the act of making and the art work is the evidence or an artifact of that. I’m always trying to recreate that for myself, with my own art making.

Installation view from the exhibition Portals at Nationale gallery. Photograph, courtesy of the gallery, by Mario Gallucci.

Can you talk about the larger body of work that this came from?

The pieces that I showed in that show at Nationale were all made together in the pandemic. During that time period, I was going through a lot of my own personal things, and then also navigating what was happening, collectively. I wasn’t working as much, I was home a lot, and I just remember spending a lot more time on social media, getting into YouTube influencers and all of this stuff about healing was coming up, which has been a journey that I’ve been on for a while in general, like I’ve been in therapy for about 4 years. And I was reading a lot of social media therapists posts —that’s the kind of headspace that I was in, having all of this time to myself, not being around as many people, and going more into my interior landscape. Since I wasn’t allowed to go outside and spend as much time around other people. It was like, how do I learn about myself? How do I spend time with myself? Art became a way to reconnect. There was a period where I couldn’t make anything because I was reading the news too much and then I shifted back into it, like this is something that I know how to do. I used to do it as a little kid and it was what I did when I was lonely. So it’s like, “okay, I can do this.

I started to make a lot of work that was specifically about mending my relationship to myself. And the different pieces explore these ideas and there’s one called Moon God Alchemizing, which was more so about the erotic and related to my body, rethinking feelings of shame, and also reclaiming desire and sexuality. Each of the works had a different theme that I was working through. There was a piece called Attempting to Smile, which was one of the first pieces I actually made in this series of works. That was made really early on and so it was really just like, trying to, like, smile through, all of the shit that was happening. But it also had to do with thinking about how we’re constantly bombarded with imagery of people having these positive experiences through social media. And feeling like that was not my lived experience, but feeling the pressure to show a different face or a different mask to the rest of the world.

Aruni Dharmakirthi, Moon God Alchemizing, 2021, Quilted textile, paint, felt, Sharpie, 58.x 28.5 inches. Photograph, courtesy of Nationale gallery, by Mario Gallucci.

In your body of work before this, I feel like we were seeing a lot of the serpent figure and which I see as a symbol that relates back to South Asia and in this body of work, it’s much more about your internal headspace. Are there references to South Asia or South Asian heritage that I’m missing in this work?

That’s actually a really good question. I think there aren’t any specific references to South Asian culture or iconography in this body of work. But I was thinking about what it means to have a symbol of worship. That older body of work was much more referential to Gods and Goddesses and Nagas. And in this body of work, I was thinking, “How do I create my own?” In Seeds of their Memories, it’s a demon type figure. I was thinking “What does my demon look like?” so I’m moving away from using the iconography that has already existed, and towards what they look like to me? And just thinking about what it means to work with a god? Do I get to define who they are? Can it be anybody? I’m part of a sangha and something that we’ve been learning is this practice of bowing to the seat of your teacher. And my teacher in the Sangha doesn’t really want to be referred to as our teacher, so she sometimes will bring in like a little pineapple and we’ll bow to the pineapple instead. It’s funny. but it’s the idea that what you’re bowing to isn’t the person, it’s not even the seat, it’s to the wisdom that’s already in your mind. The icon can be anything, and you’re placing the meaning in it, rather than the meaning just emanating out of it. I’ve been kind of toying with that idea, I can create who I worship.

Aruni Dharmakirthi, Amma With All Her Eyes Open, 2019, Mixed media, 55 x 37 inches. Photograph, courtesy of Nationale gallery, by Mario Gallucci.

You have so many practices: a personal writing practice and a visual arts practice. Within your visual arts practice, you have a digital practice, and then both a sculpture practice and two-dimensional work. And then you also have a teaching practice. How do they interact? How does the digital and the physical sort of come together? Or does it not? Are you working out the same problems in both spaces?

I don’t show my digital work very often, but I did actually show it during the pandemic, because there were so many online shows, I did a performance where I used a video I made and read a poem in conjunction with the video. It’s interesting to think about this, because I’ve never really put it together. I feel like there’s more of a relationship between my textile based practice and writing poetry. In school I often showed my textiles and the digital work together but those works have separated over time. I still create digital drawings and use them as surface designs for my textile projects. However, I’m not projecting digital work onto or near my textiles like before…there is definitely the potential for that but I have to figure that relationship out for myself. I think that in many ways I am working out the same things with them, like a lot of the digital work has to do with nostalgia and the textile has more directly to do with my personal culture and trying to figure out how I create it for myself. I moved to America when I was five so how I experienced South Asian culture and Sri Lankan culture was either with my family and storytelling or through media consumption. So we’d be watching Hindi films which, we’re Sri Lankan we’re not even Indian or like we kind of are, but you know, we don’t consider it our culture really but because it was close enough, it was good enough. We’re gonna consume this. As a kid I would also Google search, “What do Sri Lankan people look like?” Like, what are we like, what does the country look like? My relationship to the culture came from digital spaces, especially after we got computers so I think that my digital work tends to call back to the experience of trying to understand my inherited culture. Even when I make it now it tends towards nostalgia and trying to create a version of my culture through this digital space. I’ve not been to Sri Lanka very often. There’s a lot of relationships that are formed on the Internet — for example, with a lot of my family in Sri Lanka the way that we communicate is through Facebook. We interact with each other in a digital space.

There’s something really beautiful about how you’re using technology to capture and explore nostalgia, using machines which we associate with the future to look back. 

Now, can we talk about the title? That’s a poem in itself.

Over time I taught myself to hold my throat shut and force the energy into my belly. Assuming it dissipated into my body, not realizing it gathered

I wrote this in the Notes app on my phone, it was part of something else, and I pulled it out of that piece and placed it into this context. Which is how I work a lot of the time — I’m pulling things from other places. With this writing, I was reminiscing on my relationship to what is considered a negative, or harmful behavior/emotions… I don’t want to make a general statement, but I guess in my personal familial experience, the relationship to certain types of energies. I think anger is one of those energies, there is a lot of messaging around who is allowed to express it and who isn’t. When it is not allowed to have a space within the world, what happens to that energy? if you can not express it. It gets trapped in the body and it can be passed down generationally. There are these beliefs that it can manifest into ailments in the body. And when we really break down emotions, we can see that they are messages from ourselves to ourselves. They carry a lot of information and they can tell us about our needs and how we are perceiving the world around us. My personal belief is that they need to be fully experienced (in as safe a way as possible) to receive the wisdom that they carry.

All images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise stated.