Visual Arts

Fifi Shines as Bollywood-Style Avatar in Work of Siri Devi Khandavilli at Lisa Sette Gallery

The back room of Scottsdale's Lisa Sette Gallery has been transformed into something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Inky black walls create a mysterious cave-like effect, the perfect foil for the gleaming bronze sculptures sitting atop jet-black pedestals of multimedia artist Siri Devi Khandavilli. At first glance, they resemble classic Hindu deity statues.

See also: - Kathleen Vanesian's Phoenix Art Manifesto - Anthony Velasquez's An Odd Kind of Sympathy at Lisa Sette Gallery

While the ancient Hindu pantheon of gods, goddesses, and their avatars is more crowded than a New York subway at rush hour, Khandavilli (born and raised in Southern India as a devout Hindu) feels there's definitely room for her latest incarnation -- a glittery goddess who's taken on various incarnations as a snooty, highly manicured poodle she's dubbed Kama, a Hindi word loosely meaning desire.

The artist has taken the word from the name of a bovine-bodied goddess, Kamadheu, commonly called the wish-fulfilling cow-goddess. She also admits that she was equally inspired by Lady Gaga's ever-present accessory poodle, Fozzi.

"It is elegant, luxurious, pampered," says Khandavilli of her specific choice of canine.

Kama is the artist's take on post-modernity's obsessions with vanity, fame, wealth and the insatiable lust for the latest and best. They are soul-eating diseases endemic to most cultures -- and all too conspicuous in this era of Internet-fueled, pop culture-laced globalization. These recurrent themes in Khandavilli's work first developed when the artist came to Arizona at age 19 via a traditional arranged marriage and began to study art at ASU.

The barbed tangle of the traditional and the transgressive profiled in her work, whatever the media, has caused serious consternation in more religiously and culturally conservative viewers. Others have embraced the work enthusiastically, like two top U.S. contemporary art collectors, who have purchased one of each bronze in the small, limited-edition series.

Khandavilli's deity statues, like the original ones upon which they have been patterned, are served up on bases -- lotus pedestals and a festival cart, among others -- and often featured in highly sensual poses associated with standard Hindu iconography. But that's where the similarities to real Hindu effigies end.

In Vilasa Viharini (2013), a perky-tailed dog deity idol in a stylized, poofy poodle cut is being dragged in a wheeled cart by two tiny bearers, a common scene during India's innumerable religious festivals. Kama morphs into a dog-headed vamp in obscenely high heels and clingy gown caught self-satisfiedly gazing into a mirror in Darpana Sundari (2012), while in Diva (2013), the poodle goddess totes a jewel-encrusted handbag patterned after one the artist saw recently selling for $3.6 million.

While Khandavilli's idols smack of the hip, slick, and cool, they have been laboriously created with a primitive lost wax casting method used to make intricate temple sculptures in India for nearly 5,000 years.

The artist spends well over a month sculpting one of her statues in wax, adding minute beaded granulation and carved decorative detail. She then drives a total of four hours round trip to an idol-making foundry outside of her home in Bangalore, where the wax sculpture is repeatedly coated with a mixture of termite mound, river mud, and brick dust to create a hard mold that results when the wax is melted away after a number of other interim steps.

Foundry workers then remove imperfections and mold marks by hand with old metal files, polishing the finished product to a high sheen. Because of a high level of zinc in the bronze used to cast her work, the resulting effigy gleams like real gold. The process is exceedingly slow, often halted when a local festival lures workers away.

It took some fast and furious talking to convince the foundry's owner into actually casting Khandavilli's poodle deities, she reports. "I always have to dress very conservatively when I go to the foundry, since I am the only female there. [The owner] had serious reservations about doing the pieces, but eventually he was swayed by my sincere passion for this project."

She adds that there were pieces he downright refused to produce, including a multi-armed effigy that bore too close a resemblance to the iconography of any number of other real gods and goddesses. When idol vendors using the foundry ask who Khandavilli's goddess is, she merely smiles and stays quiet. "There are so many Hindu deities, no one could possibly know them all," she laughs.

The work of Siri Devi Khandavilli will be on display through April 6 at Lisa Sette Gallery, 4142 North Marshall Way, Scottsdale; for additional information about the exhibit, call 480-990-7342.

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Kathleen Vanesian