Saleha Belgaumi ’18 is one of the most talented people I know at Bates. We met during a life model drawing session last winter semester after she came back from a study abroad program in Rome. It was my first time modelling for the sessions and Belgaumi, quickly realizing my inexperience, gave me tips on how to better sustain the longer poses. Belgaumi (who I quickly got to know as “Sal”) had a number of incredible life-size studies of the human body pinned to the wall of the drawing studio in Olin.
As a fellow studio art major, I already knew that Belgaumi was up to something intellectually and technically challenging and, even back then, I could not wait to learn more about her practice. Last Thursday morning, I finally got the chance to interview Belgaumi about her senior thesis work and career at Bates.
As I walked into Olin 253, I was mesmerized. Three senior thesis students shared the space – the walls and floor were covered in studies, sketchbooks, brushed, canvases, and wood. All studio art theses are year-long and there is a good reason for it. It takes time to find one’s personal voice, even for the most experienced artists. “I’ve only just made a piece that is finished; that I am happy with; that I think is resolved in itself,” Belgaumi told me. The fantastic artwork that Belgaumi referred to is a large canvas drawn in charcoal portraying a crotch covered by a pair of hands. On top of the figural body, intricate yellow patterns in yellow paint flatten the dimension of the image while adding dynamism to its composition. Pinned to the walls, I could see dozens of studies that led to that final composition. The size, subject matter, color balance, and the raw canvas texture of the piece immediately called my attention. For me, the pull of the gaze was accompanied by a push, in form of the slight discomfort of looking at an intimate framing of a gestural life-size crotch.
Belgaumi was reluctant to provide any explanations about what the work is about – the audience has to do the work of interpreting and relating to it in the first place. What Belgami revealed was a trend that connects a few of her works: “My work is about my thoughts and feeling about the experience of being myself,” she mentioned.
There are a number of challenges that come with portraying one’s own experience. Belgami is a biracial (half American and half Pakistani) female artist, and her identity certainly is evident in her work. But there is more to experience than collective identity. Belgaumi told me that no one should be responsible for representing the collective and general experience of the race, gender, origin, and culture. Belgaumi mentioned the art world’s tendency to tokenize identity, reducing artists’ lived experiences to a collective struggle (and reducing a collective struggle to a personal experience).
While her work may encompass collective identity, it is representative of her own personal experience that surpasses any possible check boxes. “I don’t intend to represent a whole group of people, because I am not a whole group of people,” she told me, responding to the stiffening of identity in issues of representation. Belgaumi’s hope, which I am sure is already successful, is that the audience will look at her work and have a reaction to it without the need for a reductive given explanation. “I just want you to look at it and have your own thoughts! That’s the whole point,” she emphasized.
The technical aspects of her art are as impressive as her critical approach to interpretation. Belgaumi has had some form of structured art making practice pretty much constantly for over a decade – she is familiar enough with the forms of the body to create and recreate it from memory. I look forward to seeing what Belgaumi will put forth for the senior thesis show later in the semester. In her technically skilled self-exploratory practice, she already far surpassed conventional notions of identity painting, and there is much to expect from this body of work.