Local Artist Spotlight: Hemu Venkatraman
When she first got to Columbus, illustrator, architect, designer, and artist Hemalatha “Hemu” Venkatraman used art to make sense of her new surroundings.
Born in Madras, South India (now known as Chennai), Venkatraman enjoyed art from a very young age. From Indian saris, lorries, and other cultural items and traditions, her connection to art was essentially ubiquitous.
But as a graduate student at The Ohio State University, and in a city that was unfamiliar to her, she used art as a way to gain an understanding of the city’s social fabric, something that comes naturally to people in the states.
“The kind of interactions you have in each [neighborhood]…that’s how you learn cities,” she says. “It’s more sensemaking of the city itself.”
Though her work on freelance projects pushed her to create on larger canvases, she has also explored creating art on a much smaller scale. When she first began experimenting with teabags, specifically, the medium itself didn’t mean much. But over time she began attributing meaning to it. The fabric of teabags, for instance, can easily be torn and manipulated for added effect.
“I tend to be obsessed with details when I draw,” she says. “So when you do something like, where you can tear in order to make a statement and have that deliver a message, I kind of enjoy.”
Venkatraman says, “I like making sense of a place by drawing a place. Say you’re feeling absolutely enthralled at having that connection with people who are coming up to you and talking to you, it kind of reflects in the way you draw a particular piece.”
Her experience in places like the Short North, for example, has been very different than her experience in neighborhoods like King-Lincoln Bronzeville.
Venkatraman talks about how some of her interactions in the neighborhood allowed her to understand American social spaces, and how she related them back to life in India. In one story, she sat on a woman’s lawn, unaware it would be considered trespassing and frowned upon. The woman came out to interrogate her, but once she realized she was drawing, she told her to stay and even offered her water. The same thing happened in a barbershop—a man asked her to come in, inquired about what she was drawing, and offered her a glass of water.
“I think the closest that I actually came to feeling at home was in King Lincoln,” Venkatraman says. “In my culture, offering somebody water or food is the most basic of all-inclusivity. It was a similar and an open kind of culture.”
Venkatraman says she not only likes having these personal, social spaces understood through drawing, but also understanding the architecture and history behind a space.
That’s why, early in the summer of 2019, she was inspired to create pieces based on now-demolished murals in Olde Towne East. She says she was inspired by all of the artists and creatives in mourning and recognized immediately how the murals fed the community.
Venkatraman made reference to the destruction by tearing the fabric of a teabag. It’s a tangible modification that’s far more visceral in meaning.
“It’s not with activism or is it anything of that sort, just as an observation of what is,” she says. “We can tear [apart] and the destruction can actually be manifested in a very tangible way.”
As for the murals themselves, Venkatraman says she didn’t know how much they meant to people. She’s not from here, she says, so she didn’t have proper context at the time. Eventually, though, she saw them as a piece of fabric, a part of the identity of the neighborhood and its residents.
That’s something that can only be understood by being here.
“When I first came here, I didn’t expect to grow into this community or grow with this community,” Venkatraman says. “But when I did become a part of it, it really means a lot to me now. And I think I’m really grateful for that.”
For more on Hemu, visit hemudesigns.com.