Oh my fucking god was I born into a religious family! It was of the Western-flavoured, Catholic variety: “One God, the Father, the Almighty,” a Caucasian, paternalistic Papa-Smurfy figure, infallible, omniscient, omnipresent, and always judging. My father migrated from India to Australia in 1973 after leaving the Catholic priesthood. I went to church weekly for fifteen years, and was taught that this God was the very literal manifestation of perfection. There was no room for error when it came to living life by His values. I was never to disobey His wishes. Otherwise, it was Hail Marys or Hell. Fortunately, with a little training, my family are all awesomely liberal, pro-marriage-equality, left-leaning Catholics now.
I’ve travelled to India over a dozen times, and have always been powerfully drawn to the Hindu depiction of Gods. Initially it was the aesthetic – vibrant and explosive with bold colour and ornament. Over time, as I got to know these figures, they began to mean a whole lot more.
Kali: Mother issues
Goddess Kali is a favourite of mine. She is a paradoxical mother figure – maternal, but also violent and insatiable. Kali embodies the boundless and existential freedom to be, without permission. She is beautiful in a way that is almost frightening, and not ‘pretty’ in any way. She is not shallow. Not manageable. Not comfortable. She is an odd archetype of the mother figure, and her ferocious femininity harbours a dark, destructive side, complete with apparent bloodlust.
She is wildly different to the depictions of The BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary) that I grew up with. These holy mothers could not have been more stark in contrast. Mary is depicted in a muted palette, specifically in white, pale blue and faded red. Her outfits looked to me more like they were from the maternity section of a Best ‘n Less in one of the fancy suburbs. Kali, on the other hand, wears necklaces made from men’s’ decapitated heads, and is traditionally depicted in a matching skirt made of their severed arms.
I've been through a lot of therapy. If there was a Facebook quiz called ‘Which maternal holy figure’s emotional volatility spectrum most represents you?’, the result page at the end would probably say ‘‘You got 95%+ ‘Kali!’.
Image credit: Kali Maa, via https://www.kalicollective.com/blog/2018/5-ways-to-invoke-the-energy-of-the-goddess-kali
Durga: Maintain the rage!
I've had a lot of demons that I've had to address in my past. One of the things that's been most significant for me is learning how to sit with complex emotions and learning that they are there for a reason. They teach you stuff. Rage, for example, can be damaging when misguided, but when harnessed in a measured way, it can change the world. Rage helped give women the right to vote. It has pulled down tyrannical governments. It helped to legislate marriage equality. It was felt and harnessed by some of the greatest artists: Goya, Bacon, Bourgeois, Banksy.
It’s the contained power that I love about another Hindu Goddess and mother figure, Durga. She is often depicted sitting astride a tiger, which to me conveys that although there is an incredibly powerful force of anger beneath, one can be in complete control of it and only unleash its force when it absolutely calls for it. It’s an awesome attribute, and one that I’ve seen and admired by powerful women in my lifetime: Helen Mirren, Stacey Abrams, Greta Thunberg, Hilary Clinton, and Julia Gillard. They all share similar experiences in harnessing sometimes white-hot anger—whether it be on account of misogyny, gross injustice, tyranny or discrimination— and have had the strength and resolve not to use it as a weapon but as a tool, and go on to achieve arduous and sometimes unfathomable feats. They are modern day expressions of Durga’s energy, and to me, an inspiration.
When I was growing up I was confronted with, and experienced, some really terrible things. But instead of letting the inviolable rage that manifested from my experiences consume me, I made it through, and came out the other side. I tapped into Durga’s super power. It was in no way, shape, or form, smooth sailing, nor will the journey ever be completely over, but I feel in a pretty good place at the moment - something I never imagined would be possible a decade ago. Through making art, I find ways to acknowledge, sit with, and truly experience the full range of my emotions for however long they need to be processed. Like Durga’s firm grasp on the powerful beast beneath, I have wrapped myself firmly around art. She reminds me that even with forceful emotions of all kinds rumbling inside, it’s possible to master how and when they emerge.
Image: Fernandes, Leon. Durga: Suburban Goddess. 2017 - 2018, private collections
Krishna: CANCELLED for 'appropriating' my own culture!
Image: Fernandes, Leon. Krishna in Erskineville 2.0
Krishna is the god of love, flirtation, beauty and charisma, and his skin is periwinkle – one of the most charming shades of blue. He’s a bit cheeky; a bit of a prankster. He has eight wives and sixteen thousand consorts, and can often be spotted playing the flute and dancing up a storm around town, including places like my right thigh (beside Kali on the left one), or even outside a gay bar, holding a meth pipe. Well, that was my interpretation, and it caused a bit of a stir.
Image: my pious thighs
I've had a long relationship with methamphetamines, including ice, and having worked in drug law reform, I have a lot of experience with people affected by illicit drugs. I've grappled with the edifice of brutal legislation and inhumane policy relating to drug use, and am unceasingly frustrated by the resulting stigma and injustice it generates. All art is self-portraiture. When exhibiting the original Krishna In Erskineville series (2017-2018), I caused an unanticipated international media shit-storm with a representative of Hinduism for disrespecting religion. Admittedly, challenging the way we talk about and depict drugs was an underlying intention, so I enjoyed the attention and discussion it generated – a deity consuming the demon drug!
Some called for its immediate removal from display, though other Hindus did celebrate my work and I gained a small following. If denigrating Krishna was my goal, I’d have depicted him as the CEO of a tobacco company, an unscrupulous politician or a right-wing media magnate. What troubled me about the call for my artwork to effectively be ‘cancelled’ was the idea that the depiction of my Anglo-Indian Australian heritage, sexuality, and experience with drug use, all coming together in celebration, was somehow ‘abhorrent.’
All of those things were part of me… should I be cancelled? Was I abhorrent?
One of the most important ways that I healed and ultimately developed much healthier relationships with drugs, alcohol, and struggles with my sexuality was to actively challenge stigma and to separate who I was from what people told me I was, and the negative connotations that came from their judgements. I have very little in common with an imagined perfect white cloud-man who shall never do wrong, or with Moses, the guy with unquestioning faith who ordered the execution of three thousand people for cattle worship. In navigating through the darkest parts of my life—suicide attempts, problematic drug use, catatonic depression, hospitalisation—and coming out the other side to also experience ecstatic joy I never before dreamed imaginable, I like to think I have far more in common with gods that show a much broader spectrum of emotion, just like little old atheist me.
Krishna in Erskineville 2.0 is a finalist in the 66th Blake Prize exhibition
1 Powerhouse Road, Casula
13 February - 11 April 2021
The Blake Prize is Australia's most significant religious art prize, representing faith, spirituality, religion, hope, humanity, social justice, belief and non – belief. The Blake Prize presents an aesthetic means of exploring the wider experience of spirituality and all this may entail through the visionary imagining of contemporary artists.
Krishna in Erskineville 2.0 limited prints are also available
hand-signed and printed on archival acid-free cotton paper with a white frame
framed, available in two sizes:
20 x 30cm (frame size 30 x 40cm) - AUD$275
30 x 40cm (frame size 40 x 50cm) - AUD$325
Please contact me for any media- or art-related enquiries.