The gods in Anukriti’s large drawings, paintings, and ceramics in “A Temple for Timeless Beasts” at the Boston Center for the Arts’s Mills Gallery are hairy and spry, monstrous yet alluring. Several openly menstruate.
“I was thinking a lot about the temples I visited as a child, and how entering the temple space, there’s a lot of norms and rules attached, especially when you’re a femme-perceived body. You have to dress a certain way. You have to act a certain way,” Anukriti said.
The artist, 24, grew up in New Delhi, going to Hindu temple with their family.
“People who menstruate aren’t allowed to enter temples while they’re menstruating,” they said. It’s not uncommon in Indian society for menstruating girls and women to be considered impure; they’re often prohibited from cooking. The painting “In place of monuments” depicts a woman seated on the steps of a temple, a trail of blood beneath her.
Exclusionary standards in religion are not just about gender, said the artist, who identifies as nonbinary. They can be about anything that marginalizes people. But for Anukriti, gender is where it hits home.
“I wanted to create a space that was inclusive of trans bodies, of gender-queer bodies. Anyone and everyone could enter and experience spirituality or godhood or God,” said the artist during an interview.
Religion reinforces societal norms at the same time it encourages spiritual life, which can be fraught with mystery and shadow. Anukriti’s work contends with that contradiction: Can you claim who you truly are in an environment with such strict rules?
“How can we insert ourselves into this religion,” they asked, “and actively make space for ourselves?”
Anukriti’s artmaking is a form of devotional protest. While the exhibition takes religious norms to task, it is also in certain ways a love letter to Hinduism, whose gods are often represented in wild, ferocious ways. The goddess Kali, often depicted in black or blue, has multiple arms and a lolling tongue.
The bold figures in paintings here are equally vivid. “Mother Militant” wields a rifle. The artist calls her “the beginning of the whole exhibition.”
“She’s a symbol of protection,” Anukriti said.
Exhibition curator Jasper A. Sanchez sees Anukriti’s work as part of the queer diaspora, a notion developed by transnational queer and feminist studies scholar Gayatri Gopinath in “Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora.”
“Queer people from diasporas of color around the world end up creating work with a shared visual language,” Sanchez said. “There’s a consideration of queerness as community.”
Sanchez discovered the artist’s work in 2021 while co-curating “Some Assembly Required” at the Distillery Gallery. Since then, Anukriti has had an artist residency at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art; they are now in residence at the BCA.
“It’s a delight to see their practice grow, and to see them use this solo exhibition as an opportunity to experiment,” Sanchez said.
Anukriti came to Boston five years ago to attend Massachusetts College of Art and Design. They graduated in 2021. In college, they realized they were nonbinary and created an animation, “Death Of The Woman.”
In the film, a masked nude figure receives a glowing orb. “Death of the woman is a process of killing parts of the self that no longer serve one’s truth,” says the narrator.
Identifying as nonbinary freed the artist, they said, “to kill the performative aspects of womanhood within me, to say that this isn’t who I am, and I exist beyond that,” they said. “It’s viewing womanhood as a system that is used to tie us down. It’s patriarchy.”
Anukriti acknowledged feeling guilty because the show “happens so easily over here,” they said. “People here don’t have the context for it. They don’t realize often how controversial this stuff is going to be.”
“There’s a lot of revisioning of history. There’s a lot of dangerous narratives regarding minority communities,” Anukriti said.
They said their family in New Delhi would support the show if they saw it. “The way that [my mother] practices her faith in a lot of ways transcends the ideologies of Hinduism,” Anukriti said. “I think her form of faith is what inspires me.”
Another painting of a femme deity includes text: “I was to strip off my coarseness and ripen into a woman of war, led by a militia of my mothers, draped in delicate dupattas,” scarves common in India.
“This feels like you’re readying yourself for something,” Anukriti said. “You’re preparing yourself for war.”
That war is less about godhood than it is about selfhood — although maybe they’re intrinsically connected.
“It’s just existing as yourself. There’s so much resistance towards that, it’s scary. Making this work feels scary. Because I feel like the audience I make it for and the people I have in mind obviously often resist and criticize it,” they said.
And who is that audience?
“Indians. Indian women,” they said. “Women are also often enforcers of patriarchy.”
ANUKRITI: A TEMPLE FOR TIMELESS BEASTS
At Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through Nov. 12. https://bostonarts.org/1-1-exhibition-series/anukriti-a-temple-for-timeless-beasts/
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.