Shyama Golden: Incarnation
September 15, 2022–October 21, 2022

Friends Indeed is pleased to present Incarnation, the first solo exhibition of paintings by Los Angeles-based artist Shyama Golden in San Francisco.

Golden wore many hats in the making of her most recent works. She took turns as a self-trained anthropologist, an art historian and, once she touched brush to canvas, a dramatist of fantastic, autobiographical tales. Born in the U.S. to Sri Lankan parents, Golden draws upon histories both personal and distant in these images, traversing time, geographic locations, material realities, and psychic territories in the process.

Golden’s series hinges on deep research on Thovils, exorcism ceremonies with ancient roots in Sri Lanka. These events, which can stretch from dusk until dawn, continue there mostly as cultural performances rather than for their original purpose as healing ritual. A Thovil is led by a shaman (“edura”) who uses structures made of young coconut palm leaves (“gok”) and performs alongside drummers and dancers. Together, they enact a drama intended to bring relief to an ailing patient. Costumed characters take on the role of Yakkas, demons of divine origins, who plague those they possess with psychological disturbances, physical disorders, and even social ills. In Golden’s hands, the Thovil is rich ground for exploring communal attempts to navigate the corrosive effects of repressing unconscious desires, emotions, and personal needs for the sake of traditional power hierarchies and social norms. “It’s particularly striking to me,” she says, “that the subject of the exorcism tends to be a woman.”

In her paintings, the Thovil is not a one-off event confined to a single time and place. Instead, its dynamics and characters roam through settings ranging from a densely wooded forest to a L.A. overlook crammed with cars. Golden herself is a consistent presence in the works, either in the form of an easily recognizable self-portrait or as her sly alter-ego, a bear-shaped Yakka. In Incarnation, the artist-as-Yakka and a Thovil dancer stride atop car roofs, many of them draped in veils that bring to mind the iconic surrealist gambits of Christo and Jeanne-Claude or, earlier, René Magritte. In Carry On, the Yakka sits on Golden’s shoulders as she wades in chest-deep water. It’s a game of chicken in which the artist and her otherworldly avatar are at once tightly entwined and mutually destabilizing. In Projections, Golden faces down multiples of her Yakka self as they slip in and out of tree hollows, evading any attempt to pin down the creatures and thus reconcile the competing parts of a single self.

With each painstakingly rendered ripple of water, blade of grass, and alluring bit of detritus in her canvases, Golden calls attention to her own curiosity, self-awareness, and care as an artist. She transforms the Thovil from a ritual enacted on a suffering subject to a forum in which her subjectivity, introspection, and imagination hold the fore. As viewers–contemporary stand-ins for the Thovil’s traditional communal audience–we have an insider’s view as Golden plumbs her psyche, finds humor in darkness, and remakes a time-tested cultural rite.

— Jodi Roberts