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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pixar Animator Sanjay Patel Sees Himself in Maharajas He Made for the Asian Art Museum

Posted By on Wed, Nov 16, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Vishnu, from The Big Poster Book of Hindu Deities - SANJAY PATEL
  • Sanjay Patel
  • Vishnu, from The Big Poster Book of Hindu Deities

For the Asian Art Museum's current show, "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts," officials asked Pixar animator and storyboard artist Sanjay Patel to illustrate the outside of the museum with Indian images in his bold, colorful, Pop Art style. Patel, who has three books, The Little Book of Hindu Deities, Ramayana -- Divine Loophole, and most recently, The Big Poster Book of Hindu Deities, also has a gallery show at the museum, "Deities, Demons, and Dudes With 'Staches."

Patel talked with us about how he relates his own experience as an Asian American to those of the maharajas in India, how the museum staffers aren't nearly as brutal as his Pixar colleagues, and how he's helping the museum reach people who might not otherwise be interested in history and art.

What did you think when the Asian Art Museum asked you to do this?

"You're talking to the wrong guy." I just felt it was totally out of my wheelhouse. I was really kind of intimidated. Being asked to do something on the side of a museum was just incredibly intimidating for me at least. But what opened the door to loosened me up and let me play and have fun was one word, "maharaja." When they told me that, I was like, "Oh, that's so cool." I don't know anything about the rajas of India. And it became all of a sudden like an awesome homework assignment. It was like, I get to do a book report on the maharajas. Any excuse to learn it and research it was really inspiring to me.

What was your way in to draw them?

I knew what the word means but other than the image of the bejeweled, turbaned maharaja, that's kind of all I knew. Co-curator Qamar Adamjee said that the maharajas could be this exotic symbol or pioneers in helping championing education and women's health and all these other things. So it was a contrast of ideas, and the complexity was really interesting to me. She explained that the maharajas were in a lot of ways a conspicuous symbol of wealth and power, and maybe they got caught up in that. So it became relatable to me as a second-generation Asian American. I know it sounds fucking cheesy, but it's true. Having to traverse being brown, but growing up in America and feeling totally American, and sort of straddling the line, which I think the maharajas totally had to do.

  • Sanjay Patel

What's it like to work with the Asian Art Museum?

I really don't do gallery stuff. I did one dorky show at an animation gallery, but that was with friends. I really just work with the studio at Pixar, and at Pixar we're really brutal with each other and you just get smashed. Your work is literally torn apart every day and then rebuilt. I walked in with that approach. But it wasn't there. They walked me around the museum and they said, "We don't want to tell you what to do, you just go." They stayed out of it. I thought when I went to go pitch my work, OK, here we go, it's like Pixar where we smash things and utterly shatter them. But they just lapped everything up. I was shocked. I didn't believe it. When they asked me to do my own show, that's when I was convinced they actually liked it.

How would you like people to react to this work?

Before the Asian Art Museum asked me to do this I was with my brother who lives in LA. We went to a show at the Los Angeles County Museum to see a show based on Lucknow, a state in India. I was psyched to go and my brother begrudgingly went, and I was taking in all the objects, reading the stuff, and my brother popped me out of my museum bubble and said, "This is so annoying. It's all the same stuff; it's just variations of the same stuff. It's just a bunch of history I'm not even interested in." And it's true -- the academics of how these things are presented can be so intimidating even for somebody who went to art school and college, and it can really keep people at bay, sadly.

So when the museum asked me to do this, I was so excited to make something fun and immediately engaging and appealing. I'm really hoping that people will be like, "What is this zappy, zany, bold, graphic stuff?" and hopefully that can be an entry point, because I feel that's all people need is to be shown the door. It's like the candy over the medicine.

Maharaja with Falcon - SANJAY PATEL
  • Sanjay Patel
  • Maharaja with Falcon

What do you think they wanted? Were they trying to make the museum more relevant?

They actually are trying to walk the talk. They've been trying really hard to marry the past with what's going on with contemporary work. I think it's so smart to be able to engage people with what they're doing today as an entry point for people to walk in and understand what's going on with the museum. They want to keep Asian art alive and to really exemplify that by engaging contemporary Asian artists. I'm super cynical. I'm like, "Dude, this is just corporate speak," but they're actually making it happen.

What excites you most about working with the museum?

My parents didn't have much money. A lot of my artwork is on the outside of the building. That's the part that's almost more thrilling to me. I like it when it's out there for the public, for everybody to respond to.

"Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts" continues through April 8, 2012, at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin (at McAllister) , S.F. Admission is $5-$17.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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