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The Cyber Aunty from Bombay

Innovating her way through mediums of contemporary digital art, Sam Madhu offers a vast collection of pieces that are themed in cyberpunk aesthetics. Often reflecting on women’s importance as futuristic entities, Sam’s creative expressions regularly feature women’s portrayal as goddess-like beings. She explores the connection of her South Asian roots with feminism and futurism, to form the basis of her visions. 

Sam has navigated the digital art realm quite extensively. As a global citizen, Sam recently relocated from New York to Bombay, India. This allowed her to expand in opportunities and resources and thus exercise the breadth of her talents. Despite working alongside brands such as Adidas, Google, Reebok and Yoji Yamamoto, Sam has continued to uplift her community by co-founding the collective, Project Asura. The group consists of Sam and her two friends, who frequently call upon their networks, to put together spectacular displays of digital and physical art and media. 

We sat down with Sam to further discuss the work and her journey up until now. We touch on how Sam has stayed productive in the last year and the importance of periodically going offline. 

In your TedTalk, you refer to yourself as a contemporary digital artist. What mediums do you work with, and how do you integrate each of them? 

I used that term to describe myself because I don’t think of myself as just a graphic designer, or 3D artist or illustrator. I kind of like… do everything. I used that umbrella term to just be like – I mess around with lots of these different mediums, which I feel everyone is doing today. So, I think it goes without saying that we’re all a part of that culture. 

When I started, it was all about illustration. Digital illustration for me became something that I just needed to know to help me do everyday pieces. It was something that I could challenge myself with every day, and that’s kind of how I built my platform, just forcing myself to draw something each day. 

Now that I have more time and more resources, I’m really trying to switch to 3D artwork entirely. I think 3D is like the new hot thing to do, you know, like the renaissance of right now. That, to me, is something that I’m really investing my time in. The only problem with 3D is that you have to have a giant PC. So, I’m kind of anchored to one place, and I’m not as nomadic as I would like to be. I like to live in many cities, and I feel the technical aspect is the one drawback. 

I was lucky enough to move to Bombay and meet some really cool people, and so we started this collective together called Project Asura. The collective merge the physical with the digital and integrates a lot of the work that I do. We do immersive installations, set design, music videos and visuals for raves and stuff – all the things which I couldn’t have really done all on my own. Collaborating with people is such an amazing way to expand and collectivise your skills. 

Some of your designs conceptualise women in a futuristic goddess, portrayal. Where do you draw inspiration from for these pieces?

I’ve always been really interested in science fiction and futurism. I think those fields of cyberpunk and the future’s conceptualisation in general, are so heavily dominated by straight white men. If you look at anything that talks about the future, in a lot of ways, Asian women are fetishised. 

Now our culture is so inspired by future aesthetics, everything from fashion to art is so inspired by that. I just feel the key people who have formed these visions of the future have been straight white men. There’s been a lot of objectification of Asian women. So as a south Asian woman, where I’m from, we are still developing our infrastructure so we haven’t really been represented in these spaces of futurism. That is why I wanted to, as a woman, to represent a South Asian futuristic entity as a goddess because it is such a big part of our culture. It just coincides with the two worlds of futurism and feminism. That’s why I came up with this cyborg, goddess vibe. 

You’ve previously spoken about notions of productivity and validation. How do you approach situations where you are challenged in your productivity?

Living in this social media world where this endless stream of inspiration comes from everywhere, can really turn into something negative. We’re constantly being shown other people’s achievements, which makes it really difficult to be productive. Sometimes I think, no matter how much I do or how far I go, there always seems to be someone better than me. So, living in a world where you constantly compare yourself to others can really dampen your productivity and send you on a goose-chase for endless validation. 

That’s why it’s really important to consider that we live in a system that’s continuously setting us up. I think measuring your progress for yourself, helps you realise it’s not about how far everyone else is going, it’s about recognising your own potential and your own capabilities.  

For me, the best way to make my mental health better, especially throughout 2020, was to go off social media for some time. That was difficult for a creative person like me, who heavily relies on platforms because that’s where I get my clients and showcase my work. So, distancing myself from that was difficult, but giving myself that space was so good for my productivity. 

Social media is not meant to be something that brings you down; it’s supposed to be used as a tool. If it’s not helping you with that, then you need to step away and get back into creating without it. 

You briefly touched on the group that you’re a part of, called @project.asura. This unit is described as “a creative collective specialising in immersive visual experiments”. Let’s talk more about the group and the work that you do. 

The name Asura in Indian mythology is this evil demon thing, which is kind of like those Japanese demon masks. Project Asura is a creative collective that my friends and I in Bombay, founded together. It was a way that we could combine our skills and take on really dope projects together. Right now it’s my friends; Lavanya, who is a set designer and does these really beautiful installations, and my other friend Sonia, who is a creative producer and puts together all the vendors. We’re just floating freelances who assemble when we need work to be done. 

So far, it’s been really awesome working with them. One time we built a 15-foot goddess for a rave in Goa. We have also done music videos and just really trippy stuff in general. I don’t think any of us could’ve done that individually, so as someone who likes to operate alone, this has been awesome, working on cool things with my friends. 

What is your vision for Project Asura in the future?

My vision for this is to keep making cool shit with my friends. If I can make visuals and installations for raves, music festivals and stuff like that around the world, with my friends, that would be amazing. The idea is to keep making stuff wherever we are. 

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