"In Good Hands": MFA Lauren Altman Discusses the Chennai Artist Residency

Lauren Altman is a Fine Arts graduate student at PennDesign. Her artistic interests include fiber arts, photography and video. This summer,  Lauren was able to join the SAC Summer Research Internship Artist Residency program based in Chennai, India. Read about Lauren's experience working with artist mentors Krishnapriya and Narendrakumar and her research on women's labor and garment manufacturing in India.

My residency was located in Chennai, India but my research spanned to Kanchipuram and Tirupur, two other cities near Chennai in Tamil Nadu in south India.  I worked with students and recent graduates of the Government College of Fine Art in Chennai on two areas of research: labor in the cotton manufacturing and exporting industry in Tirupur and in the handloom silk weaving industry in Kanchipuram. The specific topics I touched on in my research were textiles and craft, the garment industry, labor, and specifically women’s labor.

A collaborative project also came out of the residency. A local student who shared an interest in the topics of my research and I worked together to make an artwork from recycled clothing. The hosts were very helpful to me in developing my project and introduced us to many people in the Chennai art community. I also made deep personal relationships with my mentors and the students who were part of the residency. A personal highlight was a group visit to Pondicherry, a city on the coast south of Chennai. On the way there we visited an alternative school for performing arts and met with students there and saw them perform. An intellectual highlight was spending time with a family of five handloom weavers in Kanchipuram and learning about their craft. 

One of the things I learned during this journey is how to be more diligent about my water usage, and to be more aware of my carbon footprint in general. The artists I met in Chennai are especially concerned about the environment because land in Tamil Nadu, which has been used for farming and agriculture for generations, is directly affected by big industry, pollution, and drought. 

My advice to future students is to go with the flow and know you are in good hands in the residency! I would definitely recommend the program because it allows students the chance to get out of the comfort of their studios and work within an entirely different context for two months. Spending this much time in a fully funded residency is rare, and there are so many topics one can delve into by working in Chennai. After two months I felt as if I was just getting started—and also felt so much a part of the community I had worked so closely with—but now I have a lot of content to continue to research and work with in my studio back at Penn!