Artist of the Month: Neena Buxani

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Neena Buxani is a prolific painter and certified gemologist from the South Texas border, who is now based in Austin, Texas.

Neena’s work speaks to her upbringings and outlooks at the intersection of American, Indian, and Mexican cultures and through her unique perspective as a woman. I met with Neena in her studio at Canopy on a Sunday afternoon. We talked about immigration, our connections to the city of Tucson, and her experience of raising her two sons.

Jason: Do you encourage your kids to get into art?

Neena: For sure, but I don’t really need to encourage them to get into it. Especially my older son, he’s just always getting into something, whether it’s clay or drawing. I take them to a lot of art shows as well – museums and things like that. I think they get inspired because right after we get home, they start working. I make sure that they always have materials at the house! (laughs)

J: Were your parents like that for you?

N: Not really! (laughs) I grew up in South Texas, my parents migrated from India. They’re kind of old school so when they had time and I could convince them, they would take me to an art store. Also, there weren’t that many art stores at the time, where I grew up. So it was kind of hard to even find materials, Target wasn’t even there, it was just very minimal. You would almost have to go an hour away. Now, you can find stuff [in South Texas] but then, you couldn’t really.

J: So you would drive, or your parents would drive?

N: Yeah, or if we happened to be visiting family. “Oh look, there’s a store over here, Michael’s! Oh my God!” (laughs)

I have an older sister and a younger brother. They’re all about following your heart. I always wanted to go to art school, it was sort of a dream. I asked my parents if I could do that and they said that wasn’t something they were going to invest in. I don’t want to bash them, but that’s the mentality. It’s very difficult to make a living creating art and selling it. They wanted me to be more practical. Now I’m old enough to where I can say “Okay, I’m going to do it anyways!” (laughs)

J: Is all your family still in South Texas?

N: My parents are in South Texas…my brother is in South Texas… actually all my aunts and uncles live in Texas as well. My sister lives in San Francisco.

J: I presume there probably weren’t too many Indian families in South Texas?

N: You would be surprised!

J: Really?

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N: Yes! Well, when we first moved there, there weren’t. My family is in import/export. My aunt came to Laredo, which is also on the border, and opened up a store and started exporting to Mexico. My parents came here with very little, so they were kind of traveling… I was born in Michigan, my sister was born in LA, they were just trying to find their way. They ended up making their way [to South Texas] and opened up a jewelry store, and then brought more uncles and more aunts. More and more Indians started coming, so now there is a decent amount. In school, I was probably one of like two or three. (laughs) It was a big school!

J: Did you find there were cultural differences to navigate?

N: We all go through difficulties growing up, but my parents were old school. They believed in arranged marriage, it was to that point. You know, “girls don’t go out”. It was very restrictive, we couldn’t really do some of the things that we wanted to do, and so it made it difficult to really meet friends. It was actually pretty difficult growing up like that.

But I was immersed in the Mexican-American culture. Anywhere you go there, they’ll speak Spanish to you, not English. Now there’s more English, but growing up, you needed to know Spanish.

And of course I’ve got my family, and when you have tons of family that lives close to each other, they tend to keep the culture going – they tend to keep the same way as they were when they came. There is a term for that, I just don’t remember what it is. And then you’ve got the American culture!

J: So do you speak fluent Spanish?

N: I wish I spoke fluent Spanish. I should speak fluent Spanish, my siblings do. I didn’t practice it when I moved here. I just kind of lost a lot of it. But because of that, I have my kids attending an international school that is Spanish immersion. My older son is fluent in Spanish (laughs)

J: Did you experience a culture shock when you came to Austin?

N: When I went to UT, I was shocked at the amount of Indians there were. I feel like it happens a lot when people go to college – that they try to find where they are from, or their cultural background. They try to research more into it and that’s what I did. I think I embraced more of my Indian background when I came here, you’re just trying to figure things out when you are growing up.

J: What have you learned from embracing your background?

N: India has so many different states and there are so many different languages. I’ve definitely learned more about the different cultures within India. I took a Hinduism class in school and got to learn more about my religion. When I would ask my parents “Hey, why do we do this?”, they would say “Oh we just do it.” In college, I was able to learn why!

J: Do you pass some of that on to your kids now?

N: I do, I do what I can. I take them to religion class, I try to embrace the culture, celebrate traditional days and things like that.

J: And some of that culture definitely shows up in your work, I was just looking at a painting you did of a Hindu goddess, and another piece of Frida Kahlo. How much does identity inform the work that you do?

N: I think a lot of it is subconscious. Painting Frida Kahlo, or Indian goddesses, I think that’s very obvious, but I think a lot of it is the colors I use. They are very vibrant and bold and I think that’s really strong in both the Indian and Mexican cultures. I think the textures and the patterns influence my art as well.

J: How about for your more abstract works?

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N: The abstract work - I call it my jewel collection. Each piece is named after a gemstone or a mineral. My family was in the jewelry industry and I grew up working [in the jewel industry]. I’m actually a certified gemologist as well. All of those things kind of combined, colors and textures, just make me feel like “Whoo!” (laughs) So when I started creating these, I just really loved it. It’s a way for me to be free. Some of my more representational work is a little bit tighter, so I like to go back and forth. I like that fluidity.

J: Have you ever been to the Tucson Gem Show?

N: I haven’t! That’s actually one of the things that I have been wanting to do. I used to go to all the mineral shows and gemstone shows in Texas. But Tucson, I hear, it’s amazing. Have you been to that one?

J: I used to live in Tucson, so when the show was going on I would always just go to the free exhibits around town.

Okay so when did you move from South Texas?

N: I went to UT and I’ve been in Austin since. Well, I went to Tucson for a little bit right after I got married!

J: Oh no way!

N: He got a job there, but we both wanted to come back here. Austin was where we met, all our friends were here, and our family is close by. Yeah. I’ve been here, probably about…. and this is going to age me, but probably about 20 years!

J: I never would have guessed!

N: (laughs) Yeah, Austin has a little bit of everything. It’s always surprising you. I think the art scene here is really growing. There are a lot of organizations working along with the city to improve that and I think that’s great. I wish there was more of a gallery situation – like a district. I feel like that’s coming around, it’s starting. Everyone here is just so friendly and welcoming and that’s not necessarily the case everywhere. I also like the independent way of thinking!

J: I read that you don’t really have formal art training, and that you are mostly self-taught! Can you say more about that?

N: I’ve taken some classes at Laguna Gloria – I think it’s now called the Contemporary Art School? I’ve taken some classes over there but I haven’t gone to college for [art].  And hey, YouTube! (laughs) And looking at other art, appreciating other art at museums and galleries when I can go. I think you can kind of teach yourself in that sense, and I think that is what I have done. I experimented with different mediums when I was just teaching myself -  I’ve done oil, I’ve done ink, watercolor – I tried a lot of different mediums to find the ones that work best with the way that I want to paint.

When I didn’t pursue art in college, I was hopping all over the place trying to figure out what would fulfill me. Once you find it, you don’t want to do anything else!

J: Do you think that there are pros and/or cons to teaching yourself?

N: The pros would be that you get to explore wherever you want to go. If something interests me, I can follow it because I’m not restricted by some assignment that is due. Unless I have a commission, then I have to work on my commission, so there’s that. (laughs) I’ve spoken with people who have gone to art school and they have said to me “You’re lucky you didn’t go!” and that surprised me quite a bit. They say that art school frames you to think a certain way. But I do think that there are a lot of things learned in art school that I would have loved to learn. Like how to write an artist statement, things like that. Basic things that artists who are professionals just know, and I don’t. Also, I think that the formal training would have definitely helped my technique, rather than me trying to figure it out myself. So, I think there are definitely pros and cons to it.

A couple of years ago, I actually was thinking about getting a degree but I couldn’t really fit it into my life at that time. It just wasn’t something that could fit you know? I had two kids, I was working, it wasn’t something that was really an option. I didn’t see it as something that would allow me to paint what I wanted to paint. That’s when I decided I was just going to keep doing what I was doing.

J: Well that seems to have worked for you!

N: Thanks!

J: If you weren’t doing art, what do you think you would be doing?

N: I’ve done a lot of stuff and this is all I have ever wanted to do, to be honest. When I didn’t pursue art in college, I was hopping all over the place trying to figure out what would fulfill me. Once you find it, you don’t want to do anything else!

Neena Buxani is a prolific painter and certified gemologist from the South Texas border, who is now based in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Instagram, @neenasart

Jason Ikpatt