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How I Know I’m Still Here: Visual Diary by Priyanka Kumar

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It is April, it is a year ago, and a version of me is hovering in and out of a hollow sleep. It has been three weeks since my university canceled our MFA thesis show. Five weeks since my cohort was mostly shrugging off this possibility, even as classmates from China started wearing masks around our shared studio. Go back yet another week, and you’d find me cruising that hollow sleep again, panicking about finishing the silkscreen prints I have planned for my thesis show.

I don’t fully register when the anxieties of one reality morph into ten other kinds in this new reality, but April is where it is, in my head. I can probably trace it to the moment I order a bottle of melatonin online along with canned beans and hand cream. This might even be the same evening I finish clearing out my studio and force everything it once held into a complicated tetris-like situation in my closet at home.

 

 

In the way that patterns only make themselves known after a length of time has passed, this reflection is several weeks in the making because of all the double-takes I did while looking through the photos I took during this past year. There are things I can spot now that my April 2020 self doesn’t register: around the same time that words like “nest,” “cocoon,” “bubble,” and “pod” enter our everyday lexicon, there’s a meme going around about the quarantine hellzone. My flatmates and I start using it casually to check in on each other: “You in the hellzone today or no?”

My early quarantine hellzone involves longer, nicer days mocking me as I try to graduate and write a paper for my critical studies concentration. The weirdness of this is that my previously preferred form of self-discipline involved banishing myself to my room till I got it all done. Now I go on long walks on deserted streets and make audio recordings, trying to out-argue my arguments. Having no one around to see me muttering to myself somehow makes things even more dire—but now, a year later, I see signs of listening in the photos from this time: silent missives from other walks, other walkers speaking through their hellzones.

 

 

At times when our hellzones harmonize, my roommates and I have Moments: a battered sweet potato from the before-times becomes our quarantine pet, and we call him Shrimpy. He mostly sits on a kitchen ledge, stubbornly sprouting stems with no sunlight, water, or attention. In another Moment, I carry Shrimpy out to my roof and we have a little photoshoot.

 

 

Shrimpy lives for seven more months till I move out to live by myself in the fall and ritually butcher him in my new apartment. I send my former housemates solemn updates about this: another Moment. 

 

 

The grandiose meals and baking frenzies of early quarantine in a shared household see a dramatic dip the moment my single-person household comes into existence. I mostly eat crackers, I mostly feel like cheese. I start tupperware meal exchanges with friends and lose a lot of tupperware in the process. I acquire a lover briefly towards the end of the year, and it’s nice to have someone to cook a meal for. But this is not what I’m thinking of when I make a little drawing about a future lover back in May. 

 

 

Back in May, I’m thinking about this new city hum and the anticipation of a forbidden summer. As it turns out, so much of the outdoors encompasses parks and protests in the summer of 2020. I’m constantly reminded of how much of a privilege it is for me to be able to sit and listen and to be invited in. I spend a lot of my time outside sweaty, overwhelmed, and reading up on things I should have ages ago. The sunsets get more dazzling, I somehow manage to finish that paper and speak at commencement, and while I’m dawdling at parks and protests, unemployed and waiting for a visa to come through, I see the walls change a bit more frequently.

 

 

As per tradition, it rains on my birthday in July. Back home in India, the monsoon is raging. A few weeks earlier, or later, I swim with pod-friends in a warm grey misty river enveloped by a greyer sky, experiencing a moment of transcendental quietness—the quietest my head has been this year. I revisit this moment many times for months until I decide to sign myself up at a local swimming pool, and it is still the best gift I have given myself during the pandemic.

 

 

By the time fall comes around I am also a pandemic professor. It feels peculiar to start teaching art in 2020 when so much of what I am creating feels thwarted or half-hearted. My artistic output can be measured in accidental misprints that I’m too attached to throw away, and repetitive self-soothing through marks, smudges, and blots. I spend an entire afternoon spray-painting odd bits of cardboard and chipboard I have lying around, and then I can’t bring myself to throw away the scrap paper everything was resting on. 

 

 

Three months later in the peak of winter, I find that I don’t care anymore about holding on to what I’m making because ten months of everyone saying “What is time?” as both a standard rhetorical question and ice-breaker will do that to you. All I create in January 2021 is this tiny snow-person with a shoelace for a scarf, and several soups.

 

 

January also marks six months since I began a studio fellowship at the Bromo Seltzer Tower. I populate my walls with many half-finished pieces of something or the other, and spend my time critiquing student work while staring vacantly at mine. Like everyone else this quarantine, I devote most of my hours to fussing over newly acquired plants, but I never end up drawing them. The art I make for myself now is less finished work and more play. Mostly I swim harder than ever.

 

 

My new neighborhood offers new sights of the city—even on the dullest of days I find a way to distract myself with odd tricks of the light, sitting out on my fire escape. Winter slows down my walks to set routes, but I always encounter a new voice every time I pass down the same road. Winter is also when my parents in India get Covid and make it out fine. My grandmother does not, and being continents away during a death in the family means I spend most of my time glued to my phone, staring out at the street outside, mentally and physically in several stages of limbo. 

By February 2021 it feels like I’ve spent the whole month watching piss-cold rain hover in the air, driving me closer to rearranging things at home daily and wanting to punch the sky. I start writing this piece at a time when everyone slowly disappears off emails and texts. Every Zoom-screen face I see looks more sullen and withdrawn. This sketchbook I started in late 2019 to chronicle life in Baltimore is throwing up cagier, gloomier versions of the city now. It’s suddenly everywhere, the burnout.

 

 

During the end-of-year housekeeping that everyone seemed to do during New Year’s, a friend told me that their biggest accomplishment of the past year was taking some fire nudes. No lies here: Like others, my selfie game shot up exponentially this past year. Most of my 2020 phone gallery is devoted to documenting my body in fretful, diligent, ecstatic detail. 

In early March I take a photo of myself in front of Club 1722. Last March’s offerings are still up on the board outside. Later, I find another photo from June: summer day, short hair, budding plants. The hair and plants have grown several inches since, and I guess that is how I know I am still here, and I’m glad you are too. 

 

 

 

Priyanka Kumar is an illustrator and muralist from Kolkata, India. She graduated from the Illustration Practice MFA program at MICA in 2020. In the past she has studied literature and art history, worked with art education, and drawn short graphic narratives for multiple Indian comics anthologies. @priyankakay is where she does everyday drawings.

 

 

Header illustration by Priyanka Kumar

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