The Avatars of Vishnu

Matsya the Fish

Back in January I was asked by the Brooklyn Museum to create a set of 11 iconic Vishnu avatars for an exhibit they’re planning in June. They didn’t offer a whole lot of money – an “honorarium,” they called it – but said the images could be under a Free license (they said CC-BY-SA was fine). I chose to do it because it was a cool gig, right up my alley; and I love the Brooklyn Museum and was excited to have my art be part of one of their exhibits. It turned out to be more work than I expected, but I was very pleased with the results.

Thus began a comedy of errors, the climax of which may have yet to be reached.

Kurma the Tortoise

First they wanted revisions. Creating is fun, but revisions are not. For what they were paying, revisions weren’t part of the deal. We hadn’t signed a contract; they hadn’t even mentioned a contract. It was just an oral agreement for a modest sum of money (“honorarium”) and because the work would be CopyLeft they could do whatever they wanted with it, including revise and modify.

Varaha the Boar

I hadn’t freelanced in years. Sita Sings the Blues took up nearly all my time between 2005 and 2011. I had gained a lot of self confidence during that time and was out of my old freelancer habits. Instead of doing whatever they asked and resenting them for it, I did something I’d never done before: I said no. I made sure to be polite. I consulted trusted friends, examined my motives, and was willing to accept any consequences, including being “fired.”

Narasimha the Lion-Man

The worst case scenario would be that they wouldn’t use the art and wouldn’t pay me. I was more concerned about the art than the money. I like money too, of course; the best-case scenario would be that they would use the art and pay me. But if they didn’t pay me, I planned to release the art myself, so anyone could use it, including them. They would be free to use the art even if they didn’t pay me.

The happy fact is that once I realized saying “no” was an option, any budding resentment at their requests evaporated. They were just trying to get what they want, which is what everyone does. It fell on me to set boundaries. It’s not wrong to try to get what you want; it’s also not wrong to say no.

Vamana thye Dwarf

After I said no, they produced a contract – one that I never would have signed, even if they’d ever shown it to me before, which they hadn’t. The contract granted them unlimited revisions.  Time passed, I politely stated and re-stated that the work was Free, and already completed; they could do whatever they wanted with it, and weren’t even legally bound to pay me.

Parashurama the Axe-Wielding Brahmin

Finally they removed the revisions clause – but added a new non-compete clause. This would make my work Free for everyone in the entire world to use, except me. I told them I couldn’t sign it, and they assured me it didn’t apply to the drawings I’d done, but anything I might do that would be “similar.”  They said the non-compete language absolutely had to stay in. I again pointed out the work was done, they had all the image files, and they could do whatever they wanted with it, without a contract and without even paying me.

Rama the King

I understand why contracts can be useful: the producer wants assurance of payment, and the payer wants assurance of production. If either party fails to live up to their obligation, the other party can punitively refuse theirs. But I had already done the work. I didn’t need a contract to incentivize it. Of course I wanted to be paid, and I thought paying me would be the decent thing to do; but the work was done, and I placed no restrictions on it.

Krishna the Cowherd Prince

I don’t like contracts. They are overused and unnecessary in most cases. Often it takes more time to negotiate a contract than it does to execute the work itself. I agree it is uncool and wrong to promise money and not deliver, but I hope to never work with anyone who can’t be trusted to live up to such a simple promise. If they don’t, a contract is unlikely to make it better. I’d have to “go legal” on them to enforce it, and unless it’s a really huge amount of money they reneged on, I’d have to spend more money and time on the legal enforcement. Art and Law should stay as far away from each other as possible. I manage to get plenty of work done without contracts, and I manage to take in money as well.

Balarama the Brother of Krishna

Throughout all of this I refrained from releasing the images myself, so the Brooklyn Museum could have first use. First use bestows such a competitive advantage that copyright is irrelevant. If the Museum rolled out merchandise first, any potential competitors would be unlikely to catch up. The work would immediately be associated with the Museum, before any competitor could associate it with anything else. Any sane contract would have obligated me to grant them first use, but that wasn’t in their contract at all, even though the Free license was. Their contract was built on the assumption of copyright, just with a CC-BY-SA license inserted into it. (Law students take note: most lawyers have no clue about the implications of Free licenses. Please try to fix this.) The non-compete clause was pointless, but a first use provision would have been essential for them.

Buddha the Preacher

Anyway, time continued to pass, and they finally let me strike out the non-compete clause so I’d just sign the damn contract and make the project digestible to their bureaucracy. So I did, and they paid me! Slightly more than the initially specified “honorarium” too. This was back in March. I’ve been looking forward to the Vishnu exhibit ever since, eager to finally have my illustrations see the light of day in the glorious setting of the Brooklyn Museum.

The exhibit is set to open in June. It should be really cool! But it won’t include my illustrations, because today (May 5) they informed me their director wants to “take it in another direction.” Yep, they dropped my art, with just a few weeks to go.

I’m really glad that I specified a Free license from the very beginning. If I had granted them a restrictive copyright, then when they axed the art, no one would be able to use it. So here’s yet another benefit to Free Culture: a client can’t kill it.

Kalki the Avatar of the Future

Addendum: As Terry Hancock wrote in the comments below: “in the end, the museum subsidized an enrichment of the commons, for which I am grateful to them.” Me too!

All images CC-BY-SA. Click for 640-pixel-square PNGs with transparent backgrounds. High resolution PNGs here. SVG files here.



Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

106 thoughts on “The Avatars of Vishnu”

  1. Nina,

    Absolutely gorgeous renditions of Avataar’s of Vishnu. Paused me dead on my tracks on a Mon morning here (in Bangalore, India). We were looking for a Dashavataar mural in our living room for a couple of years, never got convinced of anything, but your version just changed my mind. I will look for a local artist (maybe from the Chitrakala parishad)who can render this on a suitable material … Will definitely send you some pics once we complete it.

    BTW if you know anyone in Bangalore who can paint this for us, drop me a line thru email.


  2. Wow. Thanks for publishing the beautiful art – you do more with black and white than many do with a complete palette. And thanks for the equally contrasting ugliness of the legalism and bureaucracy. Their exhibit will be poorer for their decision.

  3. Love the art slightly more than I love the story about how they came to be. Thank you for sticking up for what’s right, and for being a very talented artist.

  4. Came for the story, but stayed for the art – this is really wonderful work, and I’m glad it can now see the light of day!

  5. : :

    very interesting narrative! wonderfull proposal, to talk about it! i loved the pictures as much as the writing work!

  6. Awesome story.
    With the comments here, I surely hope it benefits you further down the road in life with good karma. The art was pretty decent also.

  7. How wonderful to stumble upon your exquisite rendition of Das Avatar. I’ve been a fan of ancient and modern popular Hindu iconography for nearly 40 years, and consider myself a bit of a connoisseur. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover your talent and ability to be able to create such evocative and powerful images with such original graphic simplicity. Something about them reminds me of the Nandalal Bose drawings I’ve seen.

    Peace & Love
    Mathura das

  8. So nice! I’ve appreciated your work since I first saw it when you released the short of Sita Sings the Blues.

    I’m friends with Ram Prasad in LA who I believe you’re in touch with about a possible use of your art in publishing a new translation of the Ramayaman based on an ancient manuscript found by Rohini Kumar.

    There is one special avatara mentioned in the Vedas who only appears in special cases in Kali Yuga instead of Kalki Avatara; Sri Krishna Caitanya Mahaprabhu.

    If you are so inclined or inspired, please consider also illustrating a depiction of the Pancha Tattva, the five incarnations of Lord Caitanya, Lord Nityananda, Advaita Acharya and Srivasa Pandit.

    See here for more info:

    And for some nice reference material google image search: “Caitanya” or msg me and I can hook you up! 😉

    All glories to your awesomeness!

  9. Forgive me for gushing, but I’m proud merely to be your fan. I’m so pleased to see you continue to explore this line of design out of Sita Sings the Blues, including the quiltwork. The fact that you’re becoming a dharma powerhouse on art and society takes all that to another level.

  10. Unbelievable how much time and effort is wasted on things that don’t even matter in the slightest. Plus it’s got to feel nice to just say “no”; sometimes I forget that it isn’t my job to tuck the client in at night and make sure they’re snug and well-pampered. It’s business for both ends.

  11. Dear Nina,
    Thank you for all your efforts- Eric was right on the money when he made his small contribution at the beginning of your work on Sita…

    If I may I would like to use your story as an example of the value of the Creative Commons Copyright and as an example of the difference between Justice and Law on my blog.

  12. Nina! Que bom voce optou por deixar aberto, o verdadeiro artista tras na alma o censo de liberdade! estranho seria não ter sido feito assim, deus abençoa teu trabalho! jaya!!!!!

  13. Not sure about the art, but the dealing with the publishing part is helpful. I wrote a book and signed a contract with a revisions clause (The author will revise when we tell him to. If he doesn’t we can essentially steal the work form him.) Sure enough, the book sold well and they said, OK, its time to revise. AND they added a no compete clause. So now, if they stole the book I could never write a book about the same subject again (the only subject I know anything about, BTW). So I refused to revise unless the previous revisions clause was taken out and the non-compete was taken out. I had the editor on the phone for an hour. There were arguments. There were tears. There was yelling and rudeness. It was bad. But you know what? The publishing industry knows its dying. Its a cliche at this point, but its just like the music industry was a few years ago. You can publish yourself, get wide distribution and make more $ at the end of the day. Lets hope this helps publishers do the right thing. As for me, the editor now has to deal with “the board”. I’m not optimistic.

  14. Dear Mrs. Paley,
    It is a pleasure to write you and congratulate you about your work. We admire the social consciousness you are sharing to the world with your art and statements. We are two musicians, who have always gave our music for free. We just love to play and share. Now we will release our new album, (it is yoga music style) and we would love to include two of your Visnu Avatars Icons, one about Krishna and the other one about Nrishimha. But we are unsure if you would like us to do it, if we are able to do it, or even if we can even play a little bit with the original design to match our Album design. We are unemployed at the moment, we could not afford your work, but if there is the possibility to use them for free, we would not only give the credits to you , but even we can include in the CD info your webpage, or any other information you consider we should. So, thank you and we hope you can get in touch with us soon. Greetings, Jorge and Maria

  15. Amazing.Love them>My 9 year old was floored by your beautiful vista narratives of vishnu.well done, you’re soulful!

  16. Amazing.Love them>My 9 year old was floored by your beautiful visual narratives of vishnu.
    well done, you’re soulful!

  17. Hey Nina, This work is just so beautiful.. I love this contemporary look you have given to an ancient notion. and you know what.. you are my Creative Icon.. something soo leftwise right about you.
    Shine on!!

  18. Nina,

    Great work. I wanted to get your permission to use the Krishna artwork displayed here for our “Krishna Lounge” Logo. I am one of the founding members of ISKCON of Las Vegas. Your artwork may be used on business cards, pamphlets and banners. We will post a link back to your site where applicable. Thank you in advance


  19. Hi hello ms nina paley your work with avatars of vishnu is amazing
    As a hindu I want to use all avatars as a single picture on my car for my devotion can I

  20. Hi,

    Your krishna avatar is just awesome, can i use it print on T-Shirts??

  21. i saw many logos,tags on t-shirts but these r best i saw till.thanks 4 giving a deep knowledge.good luck for ur bright future.shine onnnn!

  22. Hello,
    Very beautiful work. Thanks for kindheartedly sharing it! Appreciate all the more for it.

  23. My husband Barney Edwards and I were searching for an interesting avatar for our Photography Meetup in London. He came across your art. when I saw it, I simply felt love. Your art is remarkably beautiful.
    Ruby G Edwards Photography Colourist.

  24. hi ninapaley
    was searching for creative art work collection to be printed for gifts.
    by accident came across ur works.superb!!! u deserve to be appriciated honoured.
    congrats!!! great creative thinking artist!!what a wonderful imagination!!! u have given life to great avatars.look for more from wishes & blessings for ur contributions to the art loving people.

  25. Have you considered engraving your work in wood or stone? I redraw medieval fiber designs and other designs to engrave in wood, acrylic, glass or stone. The design requirements for the laser software to do it’s job right are already incorporated into your current design aesthetic. Just an idea. Beautiful work. Krishna is my personal fave. Keep up the good work.


  26. Hello Nina, thank you for your beautiful art. I’ve been asked by my local Hindu temple to create a T-shirt for the kids in their Sunday school program depicting the 10 avatars of Krishna. May I use your art? I will give credit and can put your name on the artwork. Please let me know if that is ok as far as giving credit. Thank you!

  27. Hi Nina, Your art is truly inspiring…as vishnu’s many avatars..I hope this art will take many avatars in people’s mind…Thank You.

  28. Fantastic art. Iam writing a book by the namae “72 Melakartha Ambiences ” a musical book with my compositions. I need a help .Can I use dashavathara art of you publish in my book? Kindly respond. Thank you.

  29. Hello Nina, I love your depiction of the dasavatar. I made a papercutting version of your artwork for personal use but would like to make it for friends and charge for it. Please let me know if this is fine with you and I will make sure to credit you for your original artwork. Thank you.

  30. Hello from Austria, congratulation to your great artwork and your attitude!
    I am writing a book about Kalki Avatar and wanted to ask for your permission to use the Parshuram and Kalki artwork. Of course, I will write your name as the originator of the artwork. Send you greetings and thank you in advance for your reply. Eddie Aichbauer, Graz-Austria

  31. Nina!
    This is brilliant. I am so glad that i stumbled upon this and even happier that this is free. My new excitement in life is to now recreate these for my living room. Will keep you posted on how it goes! Cheers! and more power to artists like you. Loved reading your post and the way you broke it down is awesome! 🙂

  32. Hello Nina
    I am really impressed with your renditions of Vishnu dasavtars. I would like to make my polymer clay art pieces based on these renditions for my friends and customers. Please let me know if I may use them. I will make sure to give credit to original artwork in my art pieces.

    Adesh Srivastava

  33. 🙏🙏Jay Shree Krishna 🙏🙏
    All New and old

  34. These are amazing. A beautiful way of depiction of the avatars. I have been inspired to make a rangoli series. Thank you

  35. Awesome work. I have made this as vinyl stickers for my Puja (Prayer Hall). Thank you so much, they are so exquisite.

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