Manuja Waldia's Rich Femme Existence
The nourishment of womanhood and friendship in Manuja Waldia’s paintings
By Jennifer Delgadillo
A field of dark-skinned Mona Lisas carries flatbreads and naan in bowls over their heads in Manuja Waldia’s painting, Shared Bread. They hold them with their small, long fingers and pass them from one to the other. Some of the bread is heated over tiny volcanoes, while some is laid out in a swath and is distributed by a woman wearing a celestial gown. There is so much bread in this scene; some gets hung up to dry like large bed sheets on a clothesline.
The women seem unfazed, and although there are no toothy smiles to be seen, the moment in this painting is pure joy. It’s the picture of women tending to each other in substance, tradition, and myth. It is worth noting that they are uncorrupted by the male gaze.
And these themes repeat in each of Manuja’s works. Like a steady feminist mantra, food appears in Waldia’s work as metaphor. When there is sustenance, it is refreshing and recognizable — detailed and comforting — as the binding which brings women together.
In some of the more complex scenes, there is a subtle intergenerational sequence, as in the painting Paneer Tikka which contrasts matriarchal cheekbones among youthful round faces. When the food is a snack, like the fruit and pastries in The Moon, or the fried onion, potato and spinach fritters with ketchup and chai in Chai and Pakore, it becomes the bite-sized metaphoric joy of being young, just hanging out in a bedroom with a friend. The details of cucumber slices on eyes, the Mirch Masala film poster on the wall, perfumes and books, all make these moments even more precious and sacred — holy and relatable.
Originally from Nainital, India (near the Himalayas), Waldia is a Portland-based artist and illustrator. Waldia transferred from the fashion communication program at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, in New Delhi, to the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design in Wisconsin, where she graduated with a BFA in Communication Design. She briefly lived and worked in Indianapolis, where she collaborated with PRINTtEXT, which is how we met.
Since then, I’ve followed Waldia on Instagram, seeing her journey to the West Coast, learning about her productivity hacks and getting an up-close look at her very magical process of sketch drawings to canvas and print reproductions.
Can you describe your first memories of making art or becoming interested in art?
I started making art when I was very little. It was a way for me to express myself, to feel achievement and joy.
When was the moment you began thinking of yourself as an artist?
When I realized time goes by fast when I am making art — and it makes me happy.
What has your support system been like in your journey as an artist?
I've found immense support in my family and friends! Being an artist can mean long or short spells of intense solitude, so having a circle of trusted and reliable friends is so important.
Your illustrations for Penguin's Shakespeare Series garnered lots of attention — rightly, because they are gorgeous. But you've been illustrating for a while. When was the first time you felt that you got your break as an illustrator?
I don't think there will be a big moment or moments in my artistic journey, as there will always be self doubt and the drive to do better than the last time. Making original and beautiful work is hard work which is very humbling. Being trusted with an important project, like the Penguin Shakespeare series feels like an incredible gift and inspires me to do my best as an artist. I'd love to collaborate with other amazing artists and make work that matches my vision at any given point — they would both feel like catching a break.
In your current work, groups of women, food and colorful environments take center stage in depictions that feel film-like. What is it about these things that draws your attention. And does film influence the visual language you use to convey the narratives in your paintings and drawings?
I grew up in India where the male gaze is strong. I've always found safe spaces in women, and it comes naturally to women there to band together. I want to draw about a rich femme existence, with its ups and downs, not mined just for trauma or achievement but also images of enterprise and self-care, friendship and humanity. I love watching films of all kinds and find something beautiful, hilarious, ironical, tacky and insightful to get inspired by.
What are your favorite foods and what role do these foods play in your work?
I am inspired by how food looks, smells and brings people together. Growing up, some of my favorite memories are drawing on the kitchen table while my parents made mutton curry for lunch.
What is your process like? Do you make lots of sketches or are the paintings born on the canvas?
I love making lots of sketches but sometimes I work directly on the canvas without sketching. I work as a visual designer by day where I have to be critical of the work and polish it to achieve as much perfection as possible, so working loosely in my personal art practice feels like a nice balance!
In your painting, The Moon, women are eating different foods and also wearing cucumber on their eyes. There seems to be some kind of feminine ritual taking place. Can you describe a little bit the ideas behind this work?
I want my work to express glimpses of a rich existence. Our worth is not just about our productivity; caring for our bodies is not frivolous. It's important for keeping focused on everything else we set out to do. In this painting, the women are nurturing each other and themselves as a celebration and also preparation.
Do you have any rituals?
I love rituals — I use them as little checkpoints or treats for myself throughout the day. Even something as simple as setting an alarm to unclench my jaw, relax my shoulders and drink water every hour or so goes a long way.
As an artist, do you find value in finding other artists who share similar ideas and inspirations or do you find intellectual solitude more useful?
I find immense value in finding inspiration, wonder, and learning from others. I love soaking up as much as I can of the world, and solitude is nice to process it all.