Sixth Annual IAAC 2009 Erasing Borders Exhibition of Contemporary
Indian Art of the Diaspora

Indira Freitas Johnson

Indira Johnson Indira Freitas Johnson

Artist Statement

My work continues to deal with the same issues that have preoccupied me for the last two decades – the growth towards a spiritual existence as an individual and as part of the human continuum. Recent work reflects my interest in finding the pertinent questions that reflect the anxiety of our time and asking those questions in a way that provokes thinking from a different point of view. In the search for a personal truth one discovers universal truths that connect us to each other and to past and future generations.

I am inspired by the way traditional societies combine the metaphorical and spiritual in ritual expression as a means to discover and interpret the meaning of life. Ritual can transform materials or objects and make them function spiritually as well as physically. Common found objects when re-introduced into society, and presented in a ritualistic format, are once again energized and the idea of the sacredness of everyday life is confirmed.

Hands and feet, symbols that appear in practically every culture since the dawn of civilization, are of special significance to me and thus continue to dominate my work. Hands are the principal way that work is accomplished and signify the action of karma. Feet ground us to the earth and guide us towards spiritual growth and identity. Throughout my work, I have tried to evolve a vocabulary of signs to express the human relationship to the universe


"The ideas and images of her art resonate with responses to her native India as a major intellectual and emotional inspiration for her creativity. Johnson's abstracted figurative works present a unique synthesis of two cultures and evoke growth and spirituality that transcends any earth bound locale." Gregory G. Knight, Director of Visual Arts, Department of Cultural Affairs, Chicago.

Born in Mumbai, India, Indira Freitas Johnson received undergraduate degrees; from Sir J.J. Institute of Applied Art, and the University of Bombay, 1965, and a M F A from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1967. She has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards including the 1997 Governor's Award for the Arts, 1993 Arts International Traveling Fellowship and 1992 Kohler Company, Arts and Industry Grant.

Johnson's work is represented in many major public collections including Chicago MCA, Asian American Arts Centre, NY, State of Illinois Building Chicago and the High Museum of Art. Atlanta, GA. She has exhibited widely nationally and internationally and is currently working on a major Public Art project for he City of Evanston, IL

Influenced by an artist father and a mother who was a social activist, Johnson believes strongly that art and activism are a powerful combination for social change. In 1993 in response to the rise of ethnic violence the world over, she founded Shanti Foundation for Peace, which uses the processes of art to help people understand that their individual action can go a long way to forge lasting peace.

In Johnson's quest for spiritual growth there is an inextricable link between her life and work. She says, "The path towards spiritual growth is not linear. Instead life's daily occurrences exert their own push and pull, challenging us at different levels. How we deal with these challenges helps us accumulate various strengths and energies. Each successful encounter brings transformation and with it the reality of our connectedness to the earth and the universe.


  • 1970-72 Folk Universitet, Lund, Sweden.
  • 1965-67 Masters of Fine Art. School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago, IL.
  • 1960-64 Sir J.J. Institute of Applied Art. Bombay, India.
  • 1960-64 Bachelor of Arts. University of Bombay. Bombay, India..

Solo Exhibitions

  • 2007 (Upcoming) Life Time Offer, Dimensions Variable, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, IL
    Sky Meets Water, Chicago River, Chicago, IL
  • 2006 Truth; Patterns and Progressions, Contemporary Art Center, Peoria, IL
  • 2004 Transforming Materials; Uniting the Physical and the Spiritual.
    Illinois Weslyan University, Bloomington, IL
  • 2003 Enough; Indira Freitas Johnson and Voices from around the World,
    Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL.
  • 2001 FREENOTFREE, Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, RI
  • 2000 Process of Karma, Indianapolis Art Center Indianapolis IN.
  • 1997 Indira Freitas Johnson, Death and Rebirth, Ann Nathan Gallery, Chicago,
  • 1995 Indira Freitas Johnson, Process of Karma, MC Gallery, Minneapolis, MN
  • 1994 Indira Freitas Johnson, New Work" Clarion University of Pennsylvania, PA.
  • 1993 Vehicles of Transformation; Art Works by Indira Freitas Johnson" Chicago
    Cultural Center. Chicago, IL.
  • 1992 "Indira Freitas Johnson: Storm Shelters and Other Works": Evanston Arts Center, Evanston, IL.

Group Exhibitions

  • 2006 Living It Large, Kentucky Museum of Art, Louisville, KY
  • 2005 Fatal Love, The Queens Museum, Queens, New York.
    Particles and Passion:the Art of Clay. Academy Art Museum, Easton, MD
    Body Perfect, Walsh Gallery, Chicago IL
  • 2004 Honoring Tradition, Perceptions of Three Asian American Artists. Ball State Museum, Muncie, IN
    Masala, Diversity and Democracy in South Asian Art. William Benton Museum of Art, University of Conecticut, Storrs.
  • 2003 Women Alive! A legacy of Social Justice, Archeworks, Chicago, IL
  • 2002 Uniting the Community for Peace; temporary installation, Field Museum of Chicago
    The Virginia A. Groot Foundation Exhibition, SOFA, Navy Pier, Chicago, IL.
    Made From Scratch, The Chicago Athaneum, Chicago, IL
  • 2001 Pedagogy: Beyond Reeling, Writhing, Uglification and Derision. Columbia College Center for Book and Paper Arts, Chicago, IL.
    Voices of Shakti;, DePaul University, Chicago, IL
  • 2000 Art of the Spirit, Society for Contemporary Craft, Pittsburg, PA.
  • 1999 Voices of Shakti, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, College of St.Catherine,St. Paul.
    Poetic and Narrative Expressions, Lakeview Museum, Peoria, IL
    Looking In the Mirror: Aspects of Figurative Ceramics, Riley Hawk Gallery, Columbus,OH
    Spiritual Passports/Transformative Journeys, State of Illinois Art Gallery, Chicago, IL.
  • 1998 Politically Direct, Mclean County Arts Center, Bloomington, IL
    Text and Territory: Navigating through Immigration and Dislocation, University Galleries, Illinois State University, Normal, IL.
  • 1997 Five Perspectives-Clay, The Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston, MA.
    Viewpoint: Art as Message, Craft Alliance Gallery, St. Louis, MO.
  • 1996 Art in Chicago; 1945-1995, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL.
    Labor of Love. New Museum of Art, New York, New York.
    Voices of Shakti; Pain Struggle, Courage, Collaboration between women from Apna Ghar (Shelter for Abused Women) and Indira Johnson. Artemisia Gallery and Beacon Street Gallery, Chicago, Weslyan University, Bloomington,IL. Cast of Character, John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheyboygan, WI.
  • 1995 Exploring A Movement: Feminist Visions in Clay. LaBand Art Gallery, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA.
  • 1994 "Valuable Offer" Installation at SOFA (Sculpture and Functional Objects) Sponsored by Esther Saks Fine Art Ltd. Chicago, IL.
    NCECA Invitational Exhibition-Émigrés: Cultural References in Contemporary Clay" New Orleans Museum of Contemporary Art, New Orleans, LA.
  • 1993 "Material Departures; Tradition and Change" State of Illinois Gallery, Chicago IL.
    "Double Vision" Collaborative exhibition with S.H.A.R.E. (Support the Handicappeds' Rehabilitation Effort), Cooraswami Gallery, Prince of Wales Museum, Bombay, India.
  • 1992 Ceramic Sculpture: Form + Figure, Society for Art in Crafts. Pittsburgh, PA.
    "Women's' Work: Visual Language in Transition" Esther Saks Gallery, Chicago.
  • 1991 Indira Freitas Johnson, New Sculpture. MC Gallery. Minneapolis, MN.


  • 2001 Illinois Arts Council Visual Arts Award
  • 1997 Visual Artist, Governor's Award for the Arts
  • 1993 Arts International Travelling Fellowship.
  • 1992 Kohler Company, Arts and Industry Grant, Sheboygan, WI.
  • 1991/92 Illinois Arts Council. Visual Arts Award.
  • 1990 Virginia Groot Foundation
  • 1989/90 Arts Midwest Visual Artists Award
  • 1988/89 Illinois Arts Council Visual Arts Award

Public Collections

  • Peace Museum, Chicago, IL
  • College of Dupage. Dupage, IL.
  • Arkansas Arts Center, Decorative Arts Museum. Little Rock, AR.
  • University of Illinois Law School. Carbondale, IL.
  • High Museum of Art. Atlanta, GA.
  • Air India Corporation. Bombay, India.
  • ohler Company, Sheboygan, WI.
  • Garden/Varelli, Bombay India.


  • 1998-04, SHARE (Support the Handicapped's Rehabilitation Effort), Golibar, India,
  • 2001 Visiting Teaching Artist, Rhode Island School of Design
  • 1997/00 Visiting Teaching Artist, Anderson Ranch, Snowmass, CO
  • 1994 SEWA Milthila, Bihar, India
  • 1992 Kohler Factory, Kohler, WI.
  • 1989 Lakeside Studio, Lakeside, MI.

Selected Lectures/ Panel Discussions

  • 2005 Art and Nonviolence, Christian Brothers University, Memphis TN
  • 2004 Keynote speaker, School of Continuing Studies, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
  • 2003 Art and Social Justice, Pioneers for Social Justice, Archeworks, Chicago, IL
  • 2002 The Artist in the Community, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI
  • 2001 FREENOTFREE, Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, RI
  • 1998 New Dimensions; Five Views, SOFA Exposition, Navy Pier, Chicago, IL.
  • 1997 Affirming Feminist Identity Through Art and Religion, Panel Discussion, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
    Face To Face: Portraits of the Self by Women Artists, The Art Institute of Chicago.
  • 1996 Keynote speaker, "Drawing Art Together," Sponsored by Getty Center for Education.
  • 1992 "Daughters of Revolution: Gender, Ethnicity, Art": Cincinnati Art Museum. Cincinnati, OH.

Related Experience:

  • 2005, 2006 Arts In Education Panel, Illinois Arts Council
  • 2002 Visiting Artist Gallery 37, Chicago, IL.
  • 1998/00, 91-93 Visual Arts Panel, Illinois Arts Council
  • 1993- Founder/ Director Shanti: Foundation for Peace
  • 1993-00 Exhibitions Committee: Evanston Art Center. Evanston, IL.
  • 1987- Founding Member, Marketplace; Handwork of India.
  • 1995, 96 Visiting Teaching Artist; School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Public Art & Collaborative Projects:
Ongoing Projects: Travelling site specific installations that keep evolving at each site.

Enough; Indira Freitas Johnson and Voices from Around the World This rich and thought provoking installation explores the concept of "enough" by considering the universal questions of what we want and what we need for ourselves, our families, and our communities. Voices from around the world were gathered together and incorporated into various forms of artistic and cultural expression, using such media as ceramics, textile and text. The exhibit provides compelling testimony to the universality of all our hopes and dreams and the potential for us to find mutual respect and understanding.

20001- FREENOTFREE; A Community Celebration that Brings Together the Spiritual and Material Dimensions of Life. Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence Rhode Island.
The FREENOTFREE project questions the nature of "free" labor and investigates the basic transference of energy which is present in every form of exchange whether, physical, emotional, economic or psychic. It celebrates acts that are both mundane and extraordinary, that give comfort and love, that express some of the deepest expressions of human emotion and defy absorption or control by the boundaries of a market society.

2001/02/03 Community Blessings, the Rangoli Project designed to unite the diverse communities together in a spirit of hope and friendship. Providence RI, Evanston, IL, Milwaukee, WI
Rangoli is a South Asian folk art tradition, where a woman inaugurates the day by painting a pattern on the threshold of her home so as to bring protection and well being for her family. This traditional ritual has its origin in the need to locate the individual within a larger universe and has been adapted to include the larger community. One of the goals of this project is to discover through dialog, art and ritual the commonality of our human experience, and the spiritual potential inherent in all of us.

1995/96/99 Voices of Shakti; Pain, Struggle, Courage
Artemesia Gallery, Chicago IL (1996); Beach St. Gallery, Chicago IL (1996); Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington IL (1997); Harvard University, Cambridge MA (1999); College of St. Catherine, St. Paul MN (1999) Voices of Shakti; Pain, Struggle, Courage, was the result of a series of individual and collective discussions, observations and interactions that developed over a period of five months between women from Apna Ghar (Our Home) Inc., a Chicago shelter for South Asian women who are victims of domestic violence and artist Indira Freitas Johnson. Using ritual, myth and cultural artifacts to bring the issue of domestic violence, to the foreground, Voices of Shakti demonstrates the cultural dimension of domestic violence and the courage and strength required to start a new life. Accompanying community discussions are both stimulating and provocative, educating and empowering viewers, especially South Asians, who have not had many opportunities to question the hierarchies that influence their lives.

1994-2000 Process of Karma MC Gallery, Minneapolis MN (1995); Indianapolis Art Center, Indianapolis IN (2000)
The Process of Karma installation occupies the space between tradition and the evolution of that tradition with new and varied experiences. It combines the age-old practice, observed by women from India who make ritual drawings on floors and walls of their homes, with the experience of life lived in the US. Process of Karma explores the rituals and processes that connect us to the cyclical rhythm of birth, growth, death and re-birth.

1991/93- 2000. Double Vision
Prince of Wales Museum, Bombay India (1993); College of St. Catherine, St. Paul MN (1995); Brunner Art Museum, Iowa State University, Ames IO (1997); Northwestern University, Evanston IL (2003) Double Vision: Collaborative project with SHARE (Support the Handicapped's Rehabilitation Effort), Bombay, India. Women from SHARE were sent full-scale pencil drawings dealings with issues that were established through previous discussions: the dowry system, female infanticide, woman's worth, etc. The SHARE women translated these drawings into picture quilts, making their own choices regarding color and pattern. We see here a unique blend of the trained and untrained eye.

Other Selected Projects:

1998/99. Spiritual Passports; Transformative Journeys, State of Illinois Gallery, Chicago. Mentor to middle school students to help them create pieces for an accompanying exhibit.

1997. Crossing Borders: Cultural Traditions in Chicago Neighborhoods, Chicago Historical Society. Through the use of ordinary found objects participants created Rangoli (traditional floor patterns) and symbols that communicate a universal language.

1996. "MA" Community project, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston, IL. "MA" draws on age old ritual expressions of South Asia as a means to pay tribute to and remember our mothers, those who gave birth to us and those who through their service and caring have devoted their lives to our well-being and the well-being of future generations.

1993. Our Own Vision, Collaborative Health Education Project with Western Railway, Maharashtra Lokahita Seva Mandal, and SHARE (Support the Handicapped's Rehabilitation Effort), Bombay, India. The project involved working with a group of children who had been touched by leprosy in one form or another. Over a period of six months students participated in after school activities that helped them express their feelings about this disease. These drawings were later painted on a Western Railway commuter train that traveled between down town Bombay and the far suburbs.

1993- present, Founder, Executive Director Shanti Foundation for Peace; Teaching Nonviolence through the Arts, was established in Chicago in 1993 to foster greater peace between cultures through education, the arts, and grass roots community development. The Foundation accomplishes its mission by promoting educational peace initiatives through the arts that show people how their individual efforts can help forge lasting peace.

1987-Present, Founding Board Member MarketPlace: Handwork of India is a not for profit organization benefiting under-served women in India. The organization promotes economic development and personal empowerment through the sale of handmade products through a catalog in the U.S. Design blocks for fabrics and conduct yearly design workshops for artisans and producer group leaders in Mumbai, to help them explore their individual creative potential.


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