Goa-based artist Manuja Waldia’s paintings depict safe spaces where brown women hold each other in love


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Goa-based artist Manuja Waldia’s paintings depict safe spaces where brown women hold each other in love

In line with Swiss-Tamil artist Priya Ragu’s debut A COLORS SHOW that dropped earlier this week, we spoke to her collaborator, the Goa-based painter Manuja Waldia, about her work and inspirations.

Read on to find out more about Manuja’s love-hate relationship with fashion, why she wants to depict safe spaces in her paintings, and the process of creating the album artwork for Priya’s upcoming debut album ‘Santhosam’.

Where are you writing to us from? Can you describe the scene outside your window?

I am writing from Colvale, a quaint village in Goa, India. My partner Puneet and I share a beautiful Indo-Portuguese cottage surrounded by lush nature, with our three pets. My studio is in the back portion of the house. For a few hours a day, we open a portion of the space as an atelier to showcase my work. It also functions as a culture library and coffee house.

The scene outside my window is a provincial setting at sunset. Golden light with hues of acidic green reflects off the garden, birds are chirping, people and school kids are walking back home from work and school, and the smell of coffee is in the air.

What first attracted you to art, and the disciplines of painting, ceramics, and textiles in particular?

Art is a way to express myself non-verbally. I love consuming more verbose forms of expression like literature and writing from other people, but visual forms of creativity like painting come more naturally to me as an artist. I also love working with my hands. Like paintings and ceramics, textiles have very tactile textures. I am drawn to the collaborative nature of the textile-making process. It contrasts painting, which is a more solitary endeavor.

Who or what were some of your earliest inspirations?

I grew up with limited access to western art or museums, so Indian art history and popular culture, especially literature, cinema and advertising became my first reference points. Growing up in India instilled me with a natural sense of color, aesthetics, and maximalism.

Your work is known to showcase females, friendship, and food. In works like ‘Against All Odds’, ‘Samose Aur Taash’, and ‘El Pelele 2’, we often see women—specifically brown women—moving through their daily lives, indulging in food, company, and conversation. Why is it important to you to create visual spaces that showcase sisterhood?

My paintings are a reflection of my gaze and experiences as a brown woman. They depict safe spaces and interiorities, where brown women hold themselves and each other in love, care, creation, vulnerability, and rest. Some are imagined, while others are from memories and family archives. Almost all the characters are inspired by real life women that I know, and some are inspired by iconic figures from Indian pop culture and art.

“My paintings depict safe spaces and interiorities, where brown women hold themselves and each other in love, care, creation, vulnerability, and rest.”

You studied fashion communications at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Dehli before transferring to Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. Can you tell us about your relationship with fashion, and the role it plays in your artwork?

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with fashion. At its highest, fashion is about creative expression, personal style, and it empowers self-esteem. This said, it’s also a world of consumerism, inequality, exploitative working conditions, and body dysmorphia, even though things are changing now.

I have reverence for designers’ artistry, creative philosophy, and how they influence the choices of contemporary women, but personally, I don’t like to consume fashion. All of my wardrobe is thrifted. My style is pretty minimal and I like to stick with timeless pieces. Fashion does inspire the way I style the characters in my paintings though.

As an artist, you’ve worked with numerous globally recognized companies. For Pelican, you worked on their Shakespeare Series, creating 40 unique book covers. You were also behind the Google doodle commemorating Begum Akhtar’s 103rd birthday. More recently, you collaborated with Project Purkul, a cloth-based handicrafts brand sustained by Indian local female artisans. They recreated your pieces ‘Troublemakers’ and ‘Oranges for Everyone’ as textile quilts. What was it like to see your work reinvented in this new medium?

I am inspired by the community driven and women led culture at Project Purkul. It is dreamy to see my art translated so beautifully to textiles. Each piece is entirely hand-made by the fabric artists over many months.

Recently, you worked with COLORS artist Priya Ragu to create the cover art for ‘Santhosam’, her upcoming debut album.

I am so thrilled about our labor of love! I’ve been following Priya’s journey for a few years, she is brilliant and so iconic—I’m a fan. It was thrilling to receive and read the email from her team asking me to work on the cover art. Over the course of the process, we worked very closely together and were in touch regularly.

The album artwork for Priya Ragu's upcoming album 'SANTHOSAM', painted by Manuja Waldia

What do you think makes Priya so iconic?

I admire Priya’s clarity of vision. She’s so beautiful and magnetic. Her sound is contemporary yet rooted in heritage and community. Priya is a star!

Tell us about the final two pieces you created for her album cover.

The first painting is a portrait of Priya. Behind her there’s a Swiss landscape and a winding purple road—they symbolize Priya’s life journey in Switzerland. The second sees her looking out onto a ravaged landscape—it’s a nod to her Tamil roots. The hair ornament she wears is her brother (and close collaborator) Japhna’s ring.

“I admire Priya’s clarity of vision. Her sound is contemporary yet rooted in heritage and community.”

In 2019, you made a statement on Instagram. It read: “I’ve been thinking about how with technology and AI, it gets easier and easier to create images faster, and that’s great but personally it makes me want to make things even slower.” Now, in 2023, post-pandemic and post-NFT boom, how do you see the relationship between art and technology? 

I believe AI can be very empowering to speed up automated and administrative aspects of my creative practice. It can free up more time for me in the studio to actually paint! All the advancements in tech push me to explore the “human-ness” in my work, like imperfections and ethos.

What are you working on at the minute? What is inspiring you in 2023?

Currently I am working on some super sized oil paintings on wood surfaces. Being surrounded by gorgeous nature and a vibrant creative community has had a very healing and inspiring effect on me and my work.

Manuja Waldia is a painter based in Goa, India who created the artwork for Swiss-Tamil artist Priya Ragu’s debut album ‘Santhosam’. Priya performed two tracks from the album for her A COLORS SHOW that was released on 5th October 2023. Watch the performance on our YouTube channel, and make sure to follow both Priya and Manuja on Instagram to stay up to date with their work.

Text: Emily May and Katerina Lytras


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