An in-depth look into New Jersey-based artist Ela Shah’s life and work, Ela: Breaking Boundaries screens at the Fall 2021 New Jersey Film Festival on Sunday, September 26. Directed by Swapna Kurup, this touching documentary explores the intersections between an artist’s personal life story and her work through interviews with Ela herself as well as several friends, family members, and colleagues. Hearing from various figures at institutions such as the Montclair Art Museum, the Aljira Center for Contemporary Art, and Rutgers’ own Zimmerli Art Museum, it is clear that Ela is an important fixture in the New Jersey art community whose body of work is deeply impactful.
Across several decades of projects and through many different mediums, we witness the evolution of Ela’s art and how it both reflects and at times differs from the artist herself. Kurup very effectively paints a detailed picture of Ela’s journey, weaving together her meditations on gender, motherhood, and migration. Through talking to Ela and her family members, we learn about her struggle to balance societal expectations and her strong desire to create. In one amusing tale, Ela’s husband Bipin recalls how, back in India, he would tell his family that she was going to cooking lessons while she was really attending art classes. Ela later went on to earn a master’s degree from Montclair State University when they moved to the U.S.
Another, more poignant part of the documentary explores Ela’s early experience in the United States following her family’s move to New York from Mumbai in the early seventies. The culture shock was difficult for Ela as all of the sights, smells, and sounds she was accustomed to were gone. She describes this period as a dark one, quite literally, as she says, “After coming here, I just couldn’t paint. The colors kind of left me. I couldn’t express, it was just too… too gloomy and dark.” Her son, Dhwani, describes the move as “real trauma of loss and melancholy” for her. During this time, Ela turned to bronze sculpture, resulting in some hauntingly beautiful work.
Many of these works feature female figures, often with children, in conflict with conventional, expected roles of women in the world, whether, for example, as provider or mother. But eventually, colors came back to Ela a couple of years later with her series of flower paintings. Over the years, she has continued to move through various mediums: paintings, bronze sculptures, mobiles, wood towers, quilts, short films.
And, no matter what the medium, Ela’s works are sure to provoke thought with their bold and colorful designs, often mixing the iconography of traditional Indian art and religion with elements of American culture and the gender conflicts that might arise between the two. She describes this tension, saying, “In India, motherhood was like glorified. If you are a good mother, good wife, that’s good for your life, nothing else you’ll need. But here, when you come here, it’s so different. You have to prove who you are and all that. So, it was such a conflict.”
Ultimately, Ela’s art is a means of escape, whether from societal expectations or more so as an outlet for emotions she cannot express verbally. Her son describes it, saying, “In her work, it’s the one place where she can be free. And so much of her work is about freedom, and about breaking chains.” In combatting more traditional gender roles and persevering through migration and loss with her artwork, Ela’s story is truly inspirational. Constantly evolving and ever-beautiful, Ela’s body of work is a delight to be exposed to. Director Swapna Kurup does an incredible job of shedding light on a local artist worth exploring.
Ela: Breaking Boundaries Show date: Sunday, September 26, 2021.
More Info and Tickets are available here.
The Fall 2021 New Jersey Film Festival -- which will be taking place on the Fridays and Sundays between September 10 and October 10 -- will be a hybrid one this Fall as we will be presenting the Festival online as well as doing live screenings at Rutgers University. All the films will be available virtually via Video on Demand for 24 hours on their show date. Each ticket or Festival Pass purchased is good for the live and virtual screenings. The live screenings will be held in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ beginning at 7PM for each program on their show date. Ticket buyers will also have special access to Filmmaker Introductions and Q+A Sessions for many of the films.
Tickets: $15=Per Program; Festival All Access Pass=$100.
To buy tickets go here.