Sari Project


In response to increasing racial polarity in the United States, Nirmal Raja and Lois Bielefeld have launched a collaboration exploring identity, place, and belonging.

Raja moved to the United States 26 years ago while Bielefeld is a Milwaukee native. Recent political events of the Trump era have given voice to xenophobia and racism compelling the two artists to examine how initial perceptions of the ‘other’ occurs. People innately categorize and stereotype and costume plays a large part in the recognition of identity. Raja has amassed over 200 saris as they are an integral part of her culture, but living in Milwaukee she rarely wears them due to both internalized social pressures and practicality. She is now wearing the saree as an act of resistance against assimilation and conformity and reclaiming the right to look different and yet belong.  While wearing one of her barely used sarees, she traverses Milwaukee’s urban landscape as Bielefeld documents her movement. They have photographed in mundane and landmark locations and also at quintessential Milwaukee events such as the Wisconsin State Fair. In part a social experiment and bordering on performance, the work has become a statement of occupying space in a town where Raja has only felt superficially at home. Recorded conversations between the two artists capture a sharing of each other’s histories. This body of work brings together Bielefeld’s innate understanding of the Midwest with Raja’s efforts to understand the city. Their exploration of Milwaukee is an exchange of spaces that seem natural to one but new to the other. This project is as much about Milwaukee as it is about what it means to be an Indian-American at the moment.

Bielefeld uses series-based portraits, filmmaking, audio pieces, and installation to capture those human moments and qualities that both bind us and display our uniqueness. These social studies center on food, identity, gender, community, and personal space.

Raja is an interdisciplinary artist whose work deals with concepts of displacement and cultural negotiation. Most often notions of temporality, memory and change as related to these overarching themes are explored through extensive experimentation with materials and processes.