Child in Trinidad, Renluka Maharaj dreamed of playing. Meanwhile, about 400 miles away in Guyana, Suchitra Mattai began to draw. Now the women live just half an hour apart in Colorado, two of the region’s few Indo-Caribbean female artists. They support full-time mixed-media arts practices that dig into their not-so-sweet personal and shared stories – which begin with sugar.
More than a century ago, the ancestors of Maharaj and Mattai left British-colonized eastern India to work on sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean as indentured labourers, filling a manual labor void that followed the abolition of slavery. While the South Asian diaspora is one of the largest and most dispersed in the world, the Indo-Caribbean community is often overlooked and excluded from discussions of South Asian art.
Through their growing visibility as artists, amplified through social media, Mattai and Maharaj promote a renewed sense of Indian diasporic identity.
“When you’re young, you feel so isolated. I thought if I could share this feeling out loud, there might be other young South Asian immigrants I could connect with. I now feel a responsibility to share this work,” Mattai asserted in a Zoom call, with palpable conviction.
“I want to raise awareness of this history so that our community is seen and heard through the stories we share,” Maharaj explained over the phone. I nodded in fervent agreement.
Both women invoke the major energy of Shakti – the divine feminine power of creation – in their works, while their multidisciplinary experimentation reflects the intersectionality of their syncretic identities.
Despite their similar migratory journeys, each artist has a particular practice. While Maharaj works with photography, Mattai focuses on textiles. In their own way, the two artists situate female subjects, based on ancestors, living relatives and deities.
I first discovered Maharaj’s work on Instagram in 2019. Seeing saree-clad women who looked like my Nani (maternal grandmother) striking regal poses in vibrantly embellished photographs inspired me to click on its website. I discovered stories that weren’t included in my history lessons in the southern suburbs of Jersey.
“Where are these women? I mused, studying the unfamiliar frame.
While searching for information about her little-known ancestral past, Maharaj came across the archives of Félix Morin, a 19th-century French photographer. Morin’s black and white photographs of Indian women in Trinidad have been used as postcards to promote tourism to this lush island. Several of the images referred to the women as “coolie beauties”; coolie was an ethnic slur used to refer to migrant workers. `
“As soon as I discovered the images of these women, it made my heart ache. These women could have been my relatives,” Maharaj told me. “These women left their homes, suffered on the ships and worked in grueling conditions.I felt it was my responsibility to show them in a new light, “eliminating” the influence of the photographer’s white colonial gaze and replacing it with my own.
With the utmost reverence, Maharaj applies color to set the mood of the works. She envelops her subjects in opulent hues and gold jewelry, moving them into settings resplendent with abundant flora. She further connects with women by naming them after members of her own family.
According to researcher Joy Mahabir, these women actively participated in plantation strikes, in stark contrast to the docile nature that Morin portrayed in his photographs.
Maharaj’s portrayal of the female figure is at the forefront of his imagery. His subjects almost always assume a position of power, whether standing or seated, and stare directly at the viewer. For a recent series, she stepped behind the camera lens herself to portray modern women, including her own daughter, reimagined as deities of Hindu mythology and Trinidadian folklore known for their protection of the earth and its resources.
Maharaj’s upcoming solo exhibition at Rules Gallery in Marfa, Texas will coincide with the MARFA Invitational in Spring 2022.
In response to Maharaj’s work, which he discovered on Facebook, poet Khal Tourbally wrote, “Art liberates what archives erase.” Torabully is the author of the anthology coolnessa term reevaluating post-commitment identity.
As Maharaj frees the gaze through photography, a short distance down the highway, Mattai unveils history through his mixed media and textile installations.
Mattai’s knowledge of his ancestry comes from the valuable stories of his grandparents, great aunts and great uncles, supplemented by his own research. The craft traditions she employs in her work have also been passed down from her elders.
I first saw Mattai’s works in person at the UNTITLED Art Fair in Miami in December 2021. It was a much-needed breath of air as I scoured the booths to find someone – anyone. who – who looked like me. “Sweet Surrender” made me do a double take.
“These braids,” I thought. “They look like Dadi (paternal grandmother).” My Kashmiri grandmother, Sajida, attached threads to her long braids as she grew older. The characters’ trailing braids transform into Nagini, the Hindu serpent goddess. I admired the twin 3D printed sculptures of yakshi, a divine nature spirit, and Mattai’s subtle commentary on replication and authenticity. My mind was immediately calmed in that moment. My ancestors were here.
Mattai, who trained as a painter, told me that over the past six years she has approached her process with increased abandon. “I decided to have a more intuitive practice,” she shared.
If intuition guides her, her ingenuity leads her to skilfully mix found objects like statues, brooches, curlers, dolls, snowshoes and even a life-size boat with vintage prints, fabrics and videos. The sarees are delicately draped and pleated, like along the bodice. They are bundled and tied into ropes or aggregated into woven forms that resemble Pangea.
As author Selene Wendt wrote about Mattai’s application of Baroque sensibility in her recent book, Beyond the Door of No Return: Confronting Hidden Colonial Histories through Contemporary Art“She combines references to colonial history and recent history in visually captivating collages and installations, often implementing needle and thread in ways that emphasize the decolonial message.”
Using fabrics that belonged to her family members, Mattai merges nostalgia with experimentation, evoking the omnipresence of women. It honors the source of the materials while transforming their composition. (Even learning how to put on a sari correctly — much like the multiple ways to tie a tie — is region-specific and often passed down from mother to daughter.)
Mattai recognizes the loss and resurgence of Shakti in matriarchs, homeland and mother tongues. “We must surrender to our past to fully understand our present and our future,” she said with wise resignation. For example, in “Mother tongue” (2020), she laments the disappearance of the mother tongue of her ancestors. Guyana is the only country in South America where English is the official language.
Mattai and Maharaj’s work celebrates the immeasurable power of sharing stories through the lens of women. These are the coolest of coolness, delineating an international cultural identity that connects the descendants of the periphery to the center. As artists look to their ancestors for inspiration and guidance, their common intention – to increase the visibility of their stories and to endow the women in those stories with a renewed sense of agency – is embraced in the world of art. art. Their exhibition slates for 2022 are full, with solo and group exhibitions focusing on specific themes across the global, South Asia and Caribbean.
To readers, Maharaj issues a personal invitation: “Come with an open mind and open eyes. Really pay attention to work.
You can just learn something new.
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Editor’s Note: This article is part of a special edition of Hyperallergic dedicated to under-recognized art histories.