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In 2014, Chiraag Bhakta’s installation of yoga ephemera titled #WhitePeopleDoingYoga was censored by the Asian Art Museum (AAM) in San Francisco. The installation was originally commissioned by the AAM as a contemporary and educational counterpart to the historical exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Recently, Bhakta reproduced his original uncensored installation at Human Resources and exhibited it alongside documentary evidence detailing the controversy surrounding the AAM censorship. Further, the day before his opening in Los Angeles, Bhakta published a lengthy exposé-style article, titled “The Whitewashing of #WhitePeopleDoingYoga,” in Mother Jones magazine, delivering a biting critique of the AAM’s mishandling of his project by predominantly white staff. According to Bhakta, this included, without his consent: the removal of “white” from the installation’s title; the reframing of his artwork as “lighthearted” in marketing material; and the refusal to sell merchandise that was printed with his hashtag for fear of offending museum-goers, donors, and staff. Adding insult to injury, the curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where Yoga: The Art of Transformation was to travel, declined Bhakta’s project after consulting with local yoga studios (as a part of exhibition programming, local teachers had planned to teach yoga in the same space as his aptly titled installation). At Human Resources, this collection of archives exhibited alongside the original uncensored artwork positioned white fragility, American capitalism, cultural appropriation, and institutional critique in a perfect messy alignment.
The exhibition, accompanied by the Mother Jones article and a catalog with supporting essays by independent writers, not only publicly aired Bhakta’s unresolved feelings about being mistreated by white institutional power, but also simultaneously outlined a critical argument for his work’s importance. From floor to ceiling, he filled the back wall of the gallery with a dynamic assortment of yoga-themed books, albums, pamphlets, magazines, and t-shirts from the 1960s to today. As an archivist and designer, Bhakta used scale, color, shape, and value to actively direct the viewer’s attention across the expanse of his collection, a difficult feat given the proportions of his display which contained hundreds of uniquely selected items.
At face value, the content of his archive, featuring mostly able-bodied, white Americans, reduces yoga to an exoticized system of self-improvement, physical fitness, or spiritual enlightenment. Since Swami Vivekananda introduced basic yoga techniques to the U.S. and translated sections of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras into English in the late 19th century, Westerners have been fascinated, channeling these ancient practices through a countercultural hippie modern aesthetic. Concentric circles, Yantra diagrams, and stylized fonts wrap guidebooks and album covers in Bhakta’s collection, invariably offering yoga to pregnant women, nudists, mothers, Christians, people over 40, and children alike. Across the subjects pictured—be it an American soldier in full uniform posing on the cover of Yoga Journal or Homer Simpson meditating in lotus pose—the collection evidences how Western culture has regurgitated yoga to mean very different things to different people.
On an adjacent wall, Bhakta outlined the AAM censorship with archival material—printed emails, social media posts, removed artwork, and unsold merchandise—judiciously linking one object to the next in sequential order like courtroom evidence. The timeline began with the AAM’s logo and a portrait of its founding collector Avery Brundage, whom Bhakta identifies as an avowed Nazi sympathizer, and ends with a printed email exchange between Mother Jones editors and an AAM curator, fact-checking the validity of Bhakta’s written claims (dated October 16, 2019, just two days before the show’s opening). Bhakta displayed materially what he so richly detailed in his online article; in effect, he showed us the receipts. His adeptness at branding his message, evident in both the name of his original show title/hashtag and his brash social media handle, @PardonMyHindi, was solidified in his project’s second iteration. Bhakta knows how to get his message across. What is less clear is whether Bhakta’s installation moved beyond his positionality to raise critical questions about the cultural ownership of modern yoga, which has transformed from a set of ancient traditions originating in South Asia into a transnational phenomenon invariably influenced by British colonialism, Hindu nationalism, American new-ageism, and global capitalism.
From the outset, Bhakta’s focus has been on calling out the appropriation and commodification of Indian culture by white Americans. The museum’s mishandling of Bhakta’s original installation reifies the need to decolonize art institutions and exemplifies the problem of whiteness—and how it is invisible only to those who inhabit it. But as his recent exhibition title Why You So Negative? interrogates, the controversy put Bhakta on the defensive. In his blow-by-blow account, he seemed to answer with ironic determination: “here’s why!” Publicly shaming the institution is one approach. Lost in the controversy, however, is a more probing question, raised by his archive, about the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. That task of discernment would require an engagement with yoga that goes beyond book covers, lifestyle trends, and Sanskrit tattoos.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 19.