Meet Riya Chandiramani, the Indian-Hong Kong Artist Blending East and West
April 07, 2022
Riya Chandiramani does not want to be known as just the “cereal artist.”
However, her pop art series, featuring fusion-communist red pop art and Indian and Chinese motifs on cereal boxes, has seen the Hong Kong-born artist shine during the pandemic.
The commentary on consumerism, female nourishment, and womanhood and inspirations of Indian classic paintings, Maoist propaganda, and Western commercial branding with her cereal box parody art challenge our perceptions of our greed and consumerism within our world.
The Beat Asia sat down with Riya in her Soho studio to explore her youthful beginnings in Hong Kong, her significant connection to cereal, what inspires her communism-capitalism artistic attack, and what is next for the up-and-coming artist.
Riya has been painting since she could walk, but admits she “wasn’t very good at that time.” Art followed her into her home, with inspiration from her graphic designer mother, and into school in Hong Kong, where she picked up art studying GCSE and A Levels.
Her project for A Levels explored the diverging similarities between communism and capitalism, and how similar the advertising practices and propaganda are between the eastern and western philosophies. Her high school studies kickstarted her formidable artistic exploration of cereal boxes, an important tool of capitalism, she says.
Riya loves cereal – without pause when asked of her favourite brand she immediately answered “fruit pebbles” – the sugary morning snack has a great significance to her.
In 2012, she began her studies at the University of Pennsylvania. However, a crushing eating disorder developed in the second year of her studies, leaving her “spinning out of control.” She stopped eating, studied whenever she could, exercised, and constantly weighed herself to “get that high.”
By third year, Riya developed depression and anxiety. In fourth year, she committed herself to a residential centre for treatment in upstate New York, joining 14 women for a series of weeks to gain weight and undergo therapy.
“It was in treatment that I realised what [my eating disorder] was. I joined other women I was there with as the only international person. We had constant group circles about various topics, ate at specific times, and ate specific things.”
Riya was 21 years old with the weight of a 12-year-old. She had a daily routine of eating six meals, with three snacks in between.
As part of her regiment, Riya was instructed to pick out her breakfast every night for the following day. “I always picked cereal and I always picked Honey Bunches of Oats.”
“Cereal was just a really big part of my recovery. I always loved it before, but it is a really interesting and underlooked symbol of my time [spent in recovery]. Back to when I was thinking of something that I wanted to paint [in early 2020], a series, cereal boxes came to mind!”
Returning to Hong Kong in 2017, her hometown felt like a new city to Riya. She quickly began work at gender equality non-profit, Women’s Foundation, on the development side, but would spend her evenings - up until 2 AM or 3 AM sometimes - painting for clients’ commissioned work.
Her commissions, elegant and intricate, black and white designs inspired by Indian henna, drew away energy from her day job, soon ballooning into a full-time passion that convinced her to “pull the trigger” and “become a full-time artist without really knowing what that would mean.”
When the pandemic hit Hong Kong in early 2020, Riya grew tired of working on commissions. “I did not want to be known as the shoe or custom artist; I was just doing these things to get by. I was feeling like I had lost a part of myself and the work I was doing and the whole reason I had become an artist.
“I wanted to focus more, look inward, and just create something that was more me.”
Riya began her original cereal box-only series as Hong Kong closed its borders during the worldwide pandemic. In September 2020, she was featured in an article by the South China Morning Post alongside two other Indian artists about the expression and representation of the subcontinent in the city's art world.
Shivang Jhunjhnuwala, co-founder of the youthful and bold Hong Kong-based Young Soy Gallery, reached out to Riya for a proposition to join the growing artiste team in late 2020. With a passion for modern art created by Hong Kongers, Riya was drawn to producing art under the company.
In March 2021, Riya held her first show, Milkmade, to showcase her initial series of cereal box creations at Young Soy’s former-gallery space in Wong Chuk Hang (now located in Central). She sold out all her pieces before the show began.
Representation from Young Soy Galley allowed Riya the emotional and financial support to “sit and paint and create.”
“I was and still am skeptical of the commercial art scene [in Hong Kong]. You have a very money-driven city that these cute white very-expensive galleries selling expensive art to wealthy people.”
“But I realised that [Young Soy] are doing something really cool here. They are making the shows exciting. They are putting art first [and] truly care about bringing art to Hong Kong people from Hong Kong.”
“[Our partnership] has been about creating more. It gave me so much motivation to know that there was a gallery who supports and loves my work, and a base of people here that enjoyed it too.”
Her work has been purchased locally in Hong Kong, shipped to Los Angeles and Germany, featured in the 2021 Affordable Art Fair, and is now being shown in Young Soy’s Singapore pop-up art exhibition.
Riya’s research of cereal began with her need to further elaborate on her highschool study of consumerism, capitalism, and communism, and have a defined space to parody and re-create the bold designs of cereal boxes.
“When I started researching cereal – it began as a starting point – I realised that all the [cereal] mascots are male. I was like, well, there you go, there is your gender [motif]. The empowerment aspect of the series was born through that.”
Riya sought to import an Indo-European artistic style to her cereal art, primarily in the form of Mughal miniatures, a North Indian style of painting focussing on tiny, yet intricate drawings of daily scenes from 16th to 18th centuries.
“[In Mughal art], all women look the same throughout those pieces. Their faces are the same, their bodies are the same, with different clothes. The ideal women these painters were paintings where women you could not see, and I wanted to reclaim that. In place of these forgotten invisible women, paint fierce mother goddesses.”
Riya’s style is definitive. It is bold with flashy reds, yellows, greens, and blues, employs distinctive Mao-era propaganda Chinese text and flowery Indian decorations, zoomorphic cereal creatures and Hindu goddesses, and imagery of female genitalia and milk.
"Very quickly the series became about feeding and power and women's bodies, because that is what I have experienced with having to feed myself and grow my womanly body back as a result [of my eating disorder].”
The inclusion of breastfeeding breasts and splurging milk are included in her pieces, Riya says, as a symbolisation of “female bodies that can feed and give life.” This amazing power is “completely overlooked.”
“I am not breastfeeding, but I am being fed by a metaphorical mother goddess.”
Riya tells The Beat Asia her inclusion of genitalia in her illustrious artwork is not due to her “hippie” mindset, but a need and desire to provoke.
“I am as uncomfortable as it is for a person to view it. If someone views it and feels uncomfortable, I want them to lean into that discomfort and ask them why it is making them feel uncomfortable. Because that is the process I have had to go through as well. “
“I really want my work to provoke people and make them think about themselves and their relationships to their bodies, women's bodies, or consumption of our media.”
The communist iconography – rising sun, Chinese slogans, red Maoist poster style, strong infantile figures – harps back to her study of the diverging similarities of communism and capitalism.
"When I use that iconography, I'm not trying to say anything about communism – other than it is the opposite of capitalism - but I'm trying to actually say something about capitalism.
“I'm trying to say that capitalism is as an equally oppressive system as communism.”
The iconography, imagery, and bold colours of communist-era Indian and Chinese posters allow Riya for some room to be “totally experimental and expressive,” yet within the confines of a literal border – the crafted cereal box.
“Back in 2019 and early 2020, when I wanted to create something that was my work and I hadn’t used colour, I was just ready to get back into colour,” she says.
Her artistic influences hail equally from her uber-internationalism background and third-culture world that has encircled her entire life.
“It is a clusterf*** of everything I have absorbed while I have been here, from going to the American store to buy American cereal, but then eating Indian food for dinner, and having Dutch, British, and Chinese best friends.
“Hong Kong is a unique place in that way. My work illustrates that mix because it is everything I am a mix of. [My work] is as much Indian as I am, as Chinese as I am, and as Western as I am in my influences.”
Riya’s Cereal Box series has continued and evolved from its former form of cereal pop art. “I started running out [of ideas]. I didn't want to keep redoing the same thing, and then I realised I don't have to do anything.”
Her current artistic exploration has expanded into other “mass-produced, quick-to-make-at-home" breakfast food, such as Eggo waffles, Poptart's, and Hong Kong’s signature Kowloon Dairy milk. Riya’s commentary remains on the themes of cultish consumerism of Western brands in our daily lives and nourishment and life of the female body in the form of milk.
In the summer, Riya is anticipating a presentation at the Affordable Art Fair in Hong Kong, set to open in August. Co-founder Alexander Glavatsky-Yeadon is set to travel to New York in the coming months to promote Riya’s artwork to a hungry American art scene.
She anticipates wrapping up her cereal series by the end of 2022, but more is in store for the artist breaking barriers in Hong Kong.
In reference to her previous work parodying cereal in the past two years, Riya calls this “a step forward towards getting established.”
“What I will I do next, it'll still look like my work. It just may not be cereal, maybe even food, but I want it to still look like my work. So, this has been really great to establish what is my style and who am I as an artist.”
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