‘Tall Cotton’ at the Pamela Walsh Gallery explores a cash crop’s troubling history.
The blank canvas is a daunting challenge for most artists: where to begin, and what to paint? For Anna Sidana, whose work is currently on display at the Pamela Walsh Gallery, the answer came by looking back at her childhood. Memories of time spent at her family’s farm in Rajasthan, India, inspired her large-scale botanical oil paintings that are lush evocations of what she calls “an oasis in the desert.” The exhibition, titled “Tall Cotton,” is on view through July 8.
This is Sidana’s first solo exhibition and reflects her circuitous route to becoming a full-time artist. Born and raised in New Delhi, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the British Computer Society and embarked upon a career in technology that would take her to Europe and eventually to California. The next 30 years would find her working for some of the biggest names in the tech world (including Netscape and PayPal) before pausing to take a step back when her two children left for college.
“It was time to think about all that has happened and what I was doing,” Sidana said. After taking a painting class in San Francisco, and then another, she found herself asking, “What if this could be my next chapter?”
It would be a huge pivot for Sidana, as she moved from Palo Alto to San Francisco and enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute. Although she loved her studies, she realized that, after years in marketing, “I didn’t even speak the same language – it was a huge learning curve.” She persevered because, “School was amazing; I just wanted to be the best artist I could be.”
She graduated with a master’s degree in fine arts in 2020, just in time for pandemic lockdowns. The bright side was that there was plenty of time to focus on her work. Realizing that she felt a sense of “disconnection” from her roots in India (most of her family lives here, and she has only returned to India for brief visits) she began to remember the happiest times of her childhood: playing freely with cousins among the mango and pomegranate trees and cotton plants on the family farm.
Sidana has depicted this tropical flora with bold, bright colors and sinewy lines that conjure energy and movement. They are not landscapes; Sidana said that she avoids a horizon line, but the works are too big and powerful to be considered still life. Lush, ripe pomegranates appear ready to burst open while fluffy, white cotton buds portend their future bounty. Standing before the canvases it is impossible not to feel a sense of immersion into this abundant environment. Everything is growing, heavily laden with fruit and deliciously fertile. But there is a backstory to all this beauty that Sidana also wants the viewer to know and understand.
Cotton has a checkered history here in the United States as the crop most closely associated with slavery and as one of the underlying economic factors of the Civil War. As the gallery press release notes, “Anna’s paintings depict cotton not only as a beautiful flower, but also as a crop with a deep history tainted by colonialism and human oppression.” The title of the show, “Tall Cotton,” refers to a phrase from the antebellum South that refers to “bountiful crops, soaring prices and thriving prosperity,” according to the press release.
Sidana also was aware that in India, the cash crop had its own problematic history as a resource that was exploited by British colonialism over several centuries. Today, India is the second largest producer of cotton, providing livelihood to six million farmers. So how does she bridge the dichotomy between the bleak history and the beauty she remembers from her childhood?
“I think that it is messy,” she stated, adding, “I want to create an enchanting world, a fantastical place. I want to draw people into the storyline and to be aware of the underbelly, the role cotton has played in the persecution of humanity.”
How important is it to her that people are aware of the underlying message? “It is quite important,” she stressed, “Art is one of the few bastions where you can speak the truth. I want them to understand the story – they don’t have to like it.”
“Great paintings reveal their secrets slowly. They do not need to hit you over the head with bold statements. They pull you in with sensual brushstrokes and sophisticated, jewel-toned palettes,” said Pamela Walsh. “It is so satisfying when an artist has depth to their work that goes beyond making a nice painting. These pictures are her heart songs and I am proud to share art in my gallery that has gravitas.”
Sidana’s oil-on-canvas paintings transport the viewer through the seasons and life cycles of the plants as though you are in their midst. Branches, leaves and blossoms create a dense jungle of forms that seem impassable and yet the valuable fruit is there for the taking. Some of the plants are rendered with great precision and accuracy, as in “Cotton for the Gods” but there is also a choice to allow free-flowing drips to remain on the canvas. In “Falling Apart, Silently,” for example, the blood-red tendrils of paint add to the feeling of the slow decline of the fully open flower and allude, perhaps, to the temporal nature of all living things. Sidana explained, “The drips are a final step; they are not mistakes, they are just part of the flow.”
After a career in technology where, as she said, “You are in your own lane running as fast as you can, all the time,” Sidana seems happy and energized about her new direction. She has had several pieces of her work accepted in prestigious competitions like the De Young Open and the London Art Biennale. In addition, she has been selected to attend numerous artist residency programs where, she said with a smile, “You don’t have to worry about a thing, all you have to do is your work.”
How would she like visitors to regard the paintings in this show? “I would like people to enjoy and engage with the art and ask, a step deeper, ‘Why would someone paint like this?’ Perhaps they might walk away with an ‘aha’ moment,” Sidana said.
“Tall Cotton” is on view through July 8 at Pamela Walsh Gallery, located at 540 Ramona St., Palo Alto.