Art, family and expansiveness in Chennai: Reflections from student artist in residence Danièle Dennis

Danièle Dennis is a Fine Arts graduate student at PennDesign. Her artistic practice investigates the daily encounters that call into question the boundaries of race, culture and identity. This summer,  Danièle was able to join the SAC Summer Research Internship Artist Residency program based in Chennai, India. Learn more about Danièle's experience working with artist mentors Krishnapriya and Narendrakumar. 

"Summer Seventeen was more than I had bargained for, in many ways.  I didn’t quite know what to expect, what a two-month artist residency in Chennai might entail.  I stepped foot into the home of artists Krishnapriya and Narendran Kumar, and there began our friendship. Krish and Naren – more than mentors, became family. Their minds were thoughtful and critical, constantly aware of framing the historical and the political context. We shared countless stories and laughs, but also butted heads; a family in many senses. Their door remained open, with friends constantly visiting the house and where all felt most welcome. This sense of family without a doubt extended to Kamesh, Ram Moorthi, Ponraj, Sinduja and all the other BFA and MFA students from the local College of Fine Arts. Through their actions they showed me the true definition of kindness and generosity.

We stayed in Krish and Naren’s home, a spacious building that once belonged to her grandfather. It is partially open, allowing the sun to shine on us in the days and the moon to bless our skin at night. I shared the room with two other students, all three of us were women. We each had our own beds, and the fourth student had a room to himself. The room was comfortable with lots of lighting and three fans to keep us cool. The rest of the house is spacious and includes a studio. We spent a couple nights on the terrace being merry under the rain.

As my peers and I sorted through our ideas over the course of the 8 weeks, Krish and Naren sought out the expertise of a wide range of local artists and cultural producers to help inform our understanding and research. Nearly each week, there was a place to discover or a person to engage with. 

I worked primarily on a photography project that focused on capturing women from the Dalit community specifically in Namakkal, a town where Kamesh, one of the students, and Narendren are both from. The Dalit community is considered to be the lowest caste, often relegated to some of the dirtiest jobs, such as cleaning up garbage or the disposal of the deceased. My past work was concerned with those often marginalized, so I was quickly drawn to this community. Our trip to Namakkal was the highlight of my stay – staying with Kamesh’s family and getting to meet a community filled with warmth and character will remain imprinted on my mind. Despite language barriers, Kamesh and Selvam, another student, accompanied me along the way and were pivotal to the success of the project. We bonded in many ways through out the short trip.

The program is highly recommended to anyone considering this opportunity. Let me be clear: I was in no rush to head back to the US/Canada at the end of the 8 weeks.  There was still so much left to discover, I felt I had barely grazed the surface. There will be moments you cannot predict (e.g. attending Dancehall classes), moments that may make you uncomfortable (e.g. the constant stares being a woman of color with faux dreads) but there will be moments where you surprise yourself (e.g. how easy it was to adapt to showering using cold buckets of water). Without hesitation, all of it, all of the growth is worth it. I am eager to return, but also to discover other parts of South India. It was truly an eye-opening experience and I am humbled to have taken part."