“She will never, ever show any anger or frustration,” says Dr. Bipin Shah about his wife, the artist Ela Shah, in the documentary “Ela — Breaking Boundaries.” “But she can clench her fist and do her artwork, and you can see the fist in every move that she makes.”
The 53-minute movie — which will be shown at the Fall 2021 edition of the New Jersey Film Festival at Rutgers University, Sept. 26, and also will be available online on that day — is an unassuming documentary about an unassuming artist. Director Swapna Kurup concentrates on low-key interview segments with the soft-spoken Shah, her relatives and friends, and art experts, with abundant screen time for the artwork itself, as well.
Shah is shown shopping and vacuuming and cooking (a dishtowel reads, “Grandmas make the world go round”), or walking calmly in the woods, and then stepping into her studio and doing bold, daring work.
The film’s producer, Rohan Sukhdeo, adds unobtrusive but evocative music in the background. There is no overselling, but there is no need for it, because Shah’s art and her story are both fascinating.
Shah, a longtime Montclair resident, was born and raised in India. She came to the United States with her husband and two young children in the 1970s, experiencing not just culture shock but the tension between her responsibility to her family — the expectation that she would be a typical housewife and mother — and her need to express herself through art.
That tension, as well as the culture shock, became two of the main themes of her art, and remained so even as she became increasingly comfortable with the American way of life and found professional success. (Her work has been shown in many museums and galleries.)
Her art utilizes both traditional Indian images and images taken from American culture (Big Bird, from “Sesame Street,” and Spider-Man both show up with surprising frequency). It often depicts women in motion, negotiating the many demands made on them with grace.
“Women think they can do everything,” Ela Shah says in the film. “They can take care of the house. They can take care of the husband. They can take care of relationships. They can do everything. They can look beautiful. So they are compared with Indian goddesses who do a lot of tasks at once.”
She has restlessly experimented with painting, bronze sculpture, mobiles, quilts, video, woodwork and more, often mixing two or more mediums together. Many of her works don’t fit into a neat box, stylistically or in terms of shape.
“She moves from medium to medium, and she makes each medium her own,” says Donna Gustafson, chief curator of the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, in the film. “So, working in bronze, she’s looking for ways to create movement and dynamism. Working in wood, she is incorporating painting and sculpture, and using a sort of collage aesthetic.
“So she’s taking different things and putting them together, and creating juxtapositions that are sometimes unnerving, or disturbing, but are moments of, sort of, clarity in the confusion of life.”
“Breaking Boundaries” is the right title for this film. Through choice or circumstance, Ela Shah has had to break through the boundaries that were imposed on her, in her life. The fact that she has been able to express this in her art in such a striking way makes her a good subject for a documentary; I can’t imagine anyone who is interested in visual art not enjoying this one.
“Ela — Breaking Boundaries” will be shown at 7 p.m. Sept. 26 at Voorhees Hall at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, and also be available to be streamed online that day.
For information on this film and other festival offerings, visit njfilmfest.com.
Here is an interview with Shah by New Jersey Film Festival executive director and curator Al Nigrin:
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