As a child in Trinidad, Renluka Maharaj dreamed of acting. Meanwhile, about 400 miles away, in Guyana, Suchitra Mattai was beginning to draw. Now, the women live just half an hour from each other in Colorado, two of the few Indo-Caribbean female artists in the region. They sustain full-time mixed media arts practices that excavate their personal and not-so-sweet shared histories — which start with sugar.
Over a century ago, Maharaj’s and Mattai’s ancestors sailed from British-colonized East India to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean as indentured laborers, filling in a manual labor vacuum that followed the abolition of slavery. While the South Asian diaspora is one of the largest and most widely dispersed in the world, the Indo-Caribbean community is often overlooked and excluded from discussions of South Asian art.
Through their increasing visibility as artists, amplified by social media, Mattai and Maharaj are promoting 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 could be other young South Asians immigrants that I could connect with. I feel a responsibility now to share that work,” Mattai asserted in a Zoom call, with palpable conviction.
“I want to bring awareness to this history so that our community is seen and heard through stories shared by us,” explained Maharaj over the phone. I nodded in fervent agreement.
The two women invoke major Shakti energy — the divine female power of creation — in their works, while their multidisciplinary experimentation mirrors the intersectionality of their syncretic identities.
Despite their similar migrational pathways, each artist has a distinctive practice. While Maharaj works with photography, Mattai focuses on textiles. In their own ways, both artists situate female subjects, based on ancestors, living kin, and deities.
I first came across Maharaj’s work on Instagram in 2019. The sight of sari-clad women who resembled my Nani (maternal grandmother) striking regal poses in vibrantly embellished photographs inspired me to click into her website. I discovered stories that were not included in my history classes in suburban South Jersey.
“Where are these women?,” I pondered, studying the unfamiliar setting.
While searching for information about her little-known ancestral past, Maharaj came across the archives of Felix Morin, a 19th-century French photographer. Morin’s black and white photographs of Indian women in Trinidad were used as postcards promoting tourism to the lush island. Several of the images labeled the women “coolie belles”; coolie was an ethnic slur used to refer to the migrant laborers. `
“As soon as I discovered the images of these women, it hurt my core. These women could have been my relatives,” Maharaj told me. “These women left their homes, suffered on ships, and labored under grueling conditions. I felt it was my responsibility to show them in a new light, ‘removing’ the influence of the photographer’s white colonial gaze and replacing it with mine.”
With the utmost reverence, Maharaj applies color to set the mood of the works. She shrouds her subjects in opulent hues and gold jewelry, relocating them to resplendent settings with abundant flora. She further connects with the women by naming them after her own family members.
According to scholar Joy Mahabir, these women actively participated in labor strikes on plantations, in stark contrast to the docile nature Morin portrayed in his photographs.
Maharaj’s portrayal of the female figure is at the forefront of her imagery. Her subjects almost always assume a power stance, whether standing or seated, and gaze directly at the viewer. For a recent series, she got behind the camera lens herself to portray modern women, including her own daughter, reimagined as deities from Hindu mythology and Trinidadian folklore known for their protection of the land and its resources.
Maharaj’s upcoming solo exhibition at Rule Gallery in Marfa, Texas, will coincide with the MARFA invitational in spring of 2022.
In response to Maharaj’s work, which he discovered on Facebook, poet Khal Tourbally writes, “Art liberates what the archives obliterate.” Torabully is the author of the anthology Coolitude, a term reappraising post-indentured identity.
While Maharaj is liberating the gaze through photography, a short distance down the highway Mattai unravels history through her mixed media and textile installations.
Mattai’s knowledge of her ancestry comes from the precious stories of her grandparents, great aunts, and great uncles, supplemented by her own research. The craft traditions that she employs in her work were also passed along from her elders.
I first saw Mattai’s artwork in person at the UNTITLED Art Fair in Miami in December 2021. It was a gulp of much-needed air as I browsed the booths to find someone — anyone — who looked like me. “Sweet Surrender” had me do a double-take.
“Those braids,” I thought. “They look like Dadi’s (paternal grandmother).” My Kashmiri grandmother, Sajida, tied yarns into her long braids as she aged. The figures’ trailing braids morph 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 spirit was immediately soothed in this moment. My ancestors were here.
Mattai, who was trained as a painter, told me that in the last six years she has approached her process with increased abandon. “I decided to have a more intuitive practice,” she shared.
If it is intuition that guides her, her ingenuity leads her to deftly blend found objects like statues, brooches, hair curlers, dolls, snowshoes, and even a full-sized boat with vintage print materials, fabrics, and video. Saris are delicately draped and pleated, as if along the bodice. They are bunched and knotted into ropes or aggregated into woven shapes that look like 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.”
By using fabrics that belonged to her family members, Mattai merges nostalgia with experimentation, evoking the omnipresence of women. She honors the source of the materials while transforming their composition. (Even learning how to properly put on a sari — much like the multiple ways to knot a tie — is region specific and often passed down from mother to daughter.)
Mattai acknowledges the loss and resurgence of shakti in matriarchs, motherland, and mother tongues. “We have to surrender to our past to fully understand our present and future,” she said with wise resignation. For example, in “Mother Tongue” (2020), she laments the disappearance of her ancestors’ native language. Guyana is the only South American country where English is the official language.
Mattai’s current solo exhibition at UNIT London, Monster, and upcoming exhibition at Hollis Taggart in February 2022 will explore the intersections of mental health and migrant identity.
Mattai’s and Maharaj’s work celebrates the immeasurable power of sharing stories through the lens of women. They are the coolest of coolitude, demarcating an international cultural identity that connects descendants from the periphery to the core. As the artists look to their ancestors for inspiration and guidance, their shared intent — to increase visibility of their histories and endow the women of these stories with a renewed sense of agency — is being embraced in the art world. Their exhibition rosters for 2022 are full, with solo and group shows focused on global, South Asian, and Caribbean-specific themes.
To readers, Maharaj extends a personal invitation: “Come with an open mind and open eyes. Really pay attention to the work.”
You may just learn something new.
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Editor’s Note: This article is part of a special edition of Hyperallergic devoted to under-recognized art histories.