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Interview with Artist & Activist Jas Charanjiva

Jas Charanjiva is an artist, activist, and entrepreneur

Jas Charanjiva is a Mumbai-based street artist, who was raised in Northern California and was influenced by San Francisco’s Mission District murals, uses her vibrant art in service of global feminist and activist movements. Jas Charanjiva, at the age of 12, while living in California received her first professional skateboard and loved the art on the back of its deck. Since then she was deeply interested in underground street art and started to observe and shape her style in graffiti and underground art. Jas is currently a co-founder at Kulture shop which is an art + design brand that curates and champions the best Indian Graphic Artists from around the world and prints their exclusive works on limited editions tees and art prints.

Official site | Instagram | Twitter | Asian Art Museum

What life obstacles has art helped you overcome, and what did it help you strengthen? What is the biggest lesson you have learned from art?

As an Indian teen living in America, I had strict parents who didn’t allow us to hang out with our friends outside school. I wanted to be like my American friends who had the freedom to have boyfriends, go to parties, attend sleepovers, etc. Music and art provided an outlet for me that kept me busy and allowed me to discover and become inspired by artists I still love today. Later in life, art helped strengthen my voice to speak on issues. It’s become a tool for me, in that sense. My voice through art is much louder and more far-reaching than the voice with which I normally use. People tend to pay attention when they see art. This opens the gate for me. My voice through art is then shared and seen by others. Art is a powerful way to amplify my message. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from art thus far is that sometimes you just need to allow the viewer to come up with their own interpretation. I was watching an interview with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails speaking about his own music. He said (verbatim) “The reason why I tend to shy away from talking about lyrics is it can shed too much light on what my intent was. To me, it’s about your experience with that song what it means to you, and how it feels to you. I’ve had many songs ruined by the writer telling me what they meant by it, or correcting me about what I thought the lyric was about which was way better.” I resonated with what Trent Reznor had said. Two years ago, I created a 5-story mural of a young girl standing amongst nature, looking peaceful with a river flowing from her belly. Several people who walked by were asked by an interviewer to express what the mural meant to them. At first, I thought “I hope they give the right answer otherwise I didn’t do a good job”, but then I let go of this thought once I started hearing the responses. Their unprovoked interpretations were beautiful and some were very personal.

“Everything starts from the fire I have for wanting to see things change.”Jas Charanjiva

Her street art rallies for women’s empowerment and for an inclusive, cruelty-free future. The Pink Lady means different things to different people

“Don’t Mess With Me” (2013/2020), aka The Pink Lady, is a piece of street art that became quite viral over the years, due to Jas’s character. After a violent crime in Delhi, a gang rape, Jas Charanjiva turned to art to confront harmful social conventions and raise awareness about the “boom” of new cultural approaches towards women and women’s safety. The artist responds to the public outcry and demand for change with an image of a woman brandishing brass knuckles that spell out “BOOM.” The Pink Lady mural has come to be known as a symbol of women’s empowerment. This artwork is becoming a symbol of courage and change for many women in and outside India. “Don’t Mess With Me” is open for visitors in 2021 at the East West Bank Art Terrace, an outdoor platform for contemporary art featuring thought-provoking works by both emerging and world-renowned artists. The artwork can also be viewed from the corner of McAllister and Hyde Streets, outside the Asian Art Museum.

“Creating art is often an inward journey that makes you question everything that’s going on around you.” Jas Charanjiva

She lived outside of San Francisco so Jas was fully exposed to quite a lot of street art, especially the works of Mexican artists, which showed to her the richness of Latin culture

How can art help build a more inclusive world? What role can art play to cope during this time of increase in bias and hate crimes?

Preface: Throughout my childhood and teenage life, I was influenced by mostly Caucasian people. They were everywhere – on my cereal box, cartoons, tv shows, store catalogues, magazines. It made me want to be like them because they were being celebrated, I suppose. Thankfully, we had ‘Good Times’ and ‘The Jeffersons’, both shows that revolved around Black culture. For my first few years of schooling in Canada, I was among a handful of brown kids in a predominantly white school. My sister and I were loved by our peers and we had seamlessly blended in as far as I knew and still know looking back. I remember with such regret a sweet small-framed Indian boy sitting alone next to me and my girlfriends in the cafeteria. He leaned over and gently asked if I was Indian. I scoffed and told him “No” before I scooted closer to my friends. The little boy must have felt traumatized. What a horrible and uncharacteristic thing I did, which left me feeling really bad and confused about my sudden action. I understood many years later that not living in an inclusive world can be dangerous, harmful, hurtful, and confusing. It can make you reject yourself and in turn reject others. There were no Indian influencers for me growing up.

Jas Charanjiva is a self-taught artist that often uses non-conventional characters in her work

Where was the South Asian representation in pop culture during my formative years? Art plays a massive role in pop culture. Through pop culture, we shape society for better or worse. In order for art to play a role in this volatile time of hate crimes and biases, art with an agenda needs to reach the masses NOW. If art is as powerful as I and others believe it to be, then we need to get the most impactful work that people can resonate with out to the streets and subways in the form of street art and video installations – in order to create dialogue, in order to question ourselves, in order to influence new concepts and open the eyes of those who aren’t “woke”. Bringing the art from marginalized communities and giving those artists a platform to talk intimately about personal experiences where biases and hate affected them can touch hearts and change perspectives. Art already does that but when art can’t be stumbled upon by the public, then art won’t be able to reach its fullest potential in reaching those who need their hearts touched and their perspectives changed the most.

Artist and entrepreneur Jas Charanjiva, co-owner of Kulture Shop proves that change begins from within. She believes in the importance of self-care rituals

Photos courtesy of Afruz Amighi & Asian Art Museum
Special Thanks to Zac Rose

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