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Queer Brown Magic: Pothik Chatterjee at Highlandtown Gallery

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Pothik Chatterjee’s global upbringing—he was born in Kolkata, India, and raised in Dubai, Paris, Abu Dhabi, and Jakarta—is abundantly clear in his abstract art. His calm and meditative acrylic paintings are accented with the gold iconography of Hindu goddesses.

The Impressionism of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies is alive in how he plays with light and shade. Chatterjee, whose first solo show opens at Highlandtown Gallery this evening, also emulates the vibrant tints and tones of Balinese dance costumes. 

“I see my paintings as a global fusion,” he says. “There was something really beautiful in every place that I grew up in that ultimately influenced me.”

While Chatterjee is confident in who he is today, he didn’t feel this way as a child or adolescent. It was confusing growing up somewhere other than where he was born, but he felt grounded in visits with his grandmother in Kolkata and picking flowers from her garden for her evening prayer. The shapes and colors of hibiscus, jasmine, and marigold show up in his work today. He has also painted over incense sticks from his own ritual practice.

 

Pothik Chatterjee stands with installation at Highlandtown Gallery

These visits also helped Chatterjee accept his sexual orientation, though he never came out to his grandmother. Coming of age where being LGBTQ is illegal, and in a conservative family, was a struggle. “There was a time when I thought I was the only gay person in the whole world,” he said. That changed when he came to the United States to study international economics at Georgetown University. There, he met fellow queer people and learned that the community wasn’t only white, as watching Will & Grace had led him to believe, but Black and Brown too.

At Georgetown, he also took a studio art class. Art had been a hobby since childhood, but afterward he put down the paintbrush. As an immigrant, he’d been encouraged to pursue a line of work that would ensure financial security. And so, Chatterjee earned an MA in economics from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and an MBA from Harvard Business School, and built his career in economics and business.

But his definition of success changed when the pandemic struck. He moved, with his husband, from Fells Point to Middle River and rediscovered the joy of holding a brush two decades later. “It was like a fountain unleashed, a fountain of boundless creativity,” he says. “The pandemic changed me profoundly as a person: social consciousness, humanitarianism, age of Aquarius, global awakening around human rights, LGBTQ equality, and advocacy work—all of that was building to a point where I felt confident and ready to own my light and creativity and express that on the canvas.”

It was “like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon,” he adds, “a transformation from a caterpillar into brilliant colorful wings.”

 

Pothik Chatterjee, You Make My Heart Flutter
Pothik Chatterjee, Shanti Flow
Butterflies are a motif in his work, representing his vision of safety, peace, and economic opportunity for everyone in Baltimore.
Rudy Malcom

This idea of a vibrant butterfly is central to Chatterjee’s upcoming show, titled “Black Butterfly: Queer Brown Magic.” The second part of the name comes from his identity as a South Asian gay artist, and the first from Morgan State University professor Lawrence Brown’s term for describing how Black neighborhoods in Baltimore form the shape of a butterfly. They are structurally disadvantaged to white ones due to decades of disinvestment, fueled by racist housing practices like redlining and blockbusting.

Now “is a renaissance moment for Baltimore,” says Chatterjee, who serves as chief economic officer of the Greater Baltimore Committee, which aims to fuel economic growth in the region. He recently played a leading role in securing hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to make Baltimore a federally designated tech hub. 

Nationwide, more remote jobs mean more vacant office spaces, meaning that the concept of downtown is changing—posing an opportunity to revitalize cities. One way of doing that: investing in Black and Brown artists. “Baltimore is really talented and blessed to have diverse artists that are operating at a really high caliber nationally and globally,” Chatterjee says.

“What if that Black Butterfly started to thrive and soar,” he asks, “not just stay down and have its wings clipped, but actually took flight?”

Butterflies are a motif in his work, representing his vision of safety, peace, and economic opportunity for everyone in Baltimore. “That’s the underlying message of my art: dismantling white supremacy and patriarchy,” he says, “and showing how people of all colors deserve a chance at the American dream.”

In that vein, Chatterjee feels “quite American.” As a gay man, he is grateful to be married and to pursue surrogacy (their baby is 8 months along).

 

Pothik Chatterjee, Taqat Strength
Pothik Chatterjee, Lotus Chakra Open
There is something really mysterious, spiritual, and magical that happens during the creative process. 
Pothik Chatterjee

Chatterjee’s identity is global, and of course, so is his creative process. When he paints between five and seven layers of acrylic paint per painting and then refines the details of the composition over the course of three or four weeks, he is channeling the Hindu concept of maya—that the physical world is an illusion concealing the spiritual reality. His paintings show the maya, often drawing inspiration from landscapes and seascapes, but also “the deeper cosmos where we are all connected and where we are all affecting each other,” he describes. “There is something really mysterious, spiritual, and magical that happens during the creative process,” Chatterjee says. 

He’ll paint intuitively and later discover hummingbirds, butterflies, birds, clouds, and waterfalls; draw those details out further; and edit down other parts of the painting to create a sense of serenity. He compares his process to Michelangelo chiseling away at slabs of marble until they were lifelike sculptures.

“The way I know a painting is complete is when it looks and feels very organic—like I didn’t actually paint it, or a human hand didn’t actually create it,” he says.

His paintings don’t paint themselves though. The way that he works, with many layers and types of marks and brushstrokes, requires effort. But Chatterjee, who opened up his art business in the fall of 2022 and paints multiple days per week, also finds art very therapeutic. His painting rituals include listening to Indian classical music, doing a Hindu prayer, or lighting incense (he has experimented with mixed media by pouring candle wax onto the canvas, creating a soft, dreamy texture). “Art for me is very healing,” he says.

And perhaps Chatterjee’s work can heal not just himself but those who behold it. Felicia Zannino-Baker, Highlandtown Gallery’s owner and director, said in an email that the gallery looks forward to Chatterjee’s show, which runs December 1 through 23.

“Defying this complex world full of hatred and intolerance,” she wrote, “Pothik’s abstract compositions compel us to experience positivity and possibilities.”

 

Images courtesy of the artist and gallery

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