What can monsters illuminate about the experience that many immigrants face in new nations? Indo-Caribbean mixed-media artist Suchitra Mattai explores this question in Herself as Another, her first solo exhibition at Hollis Taggart in Chelsea. Building on her recent exhibition at Unit London, titled Monster (January 11 to February 12, 2022), Mattai incorporates found objects, textiles, painting, and drawing in artworks that probe the cultural perceptions of immigrants in the Global North.
Born in Guyana and now based in Denver, Mattai inhabits the liminal space between these two worlds. As her great grandparents worked as indentured servants on sugar plantations in Guyana during British occupation, her art speaks vividly of both her Indo-Caribbean heritage and the familial and social complications of migration. She focuses acutely on women and their domestic labor, employing practices like weaving, stitching, and embroidery — long refused consideration as fine art because of their perceived domesticity and femininity — to create colorful, multidimensional tapestries that evoke the aesthetics and history of her South Asian heritage. “An Alien Spirit With a Breathtaking View” (2022) is composed of vintage saris, ghungroo bells, and garland, resulting in a visually arresting rainbow. By using traditional South Asian garb in her art, Mattai honors the talent, beauty, and centuries-old artisanal techniques of her forebears.
Beneath the sheen of technical mastery lies a deeper, more sober intent. As the show’s title suggests, Herself as Another is a meditation on alienation, the dissociative feeling of being labeled as Other by the society you inhabit. Mattai drew inspiration from Asa Simon Mittman and Peter Dendle’s book The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous, which argues that monsters aren’t just the diversions of myth and fiction but are representations of society’s darkest fears. Monsters are not born but rather created, and people who fail to conform to Western norms are made into demons. Accordingly, monsters serve in her art as a metaphor for how cultural, linguistic, and religious differences in a new country often render immigrants alien to those around them.
In a key work, “The Theater of Joy” (2021), Mattai combines embroidery floss, beads, faux gems, fabrics, and a theater mask found in India into a Frankensteinian collage to depict the bifurcated nature of immigrant identity. On the right side of the canvas is a Bhima mask worn by Kathakali dance performers that resemble deities and heroes from Indian folklore. The figure’s skin is sickly green. Its blood-red eyes stare at the observer with furrowed eyebrows and a sinister grin. Next to the mask is a brown-skinned woman seen in profile, dressed in a multicolored top and bright pink, fringed skirt. A mesh fabric covers the woman but not the mask, her humanity eclipsed by her perceived monstrousness. She is not a woman, but an exotic mythological force that simultaneously repels and captures the curiosity of those around her. Her placelessness breeds a life of its own.
The sculpture “Fitting In” (2022) approaches this anxiety more abstractly. A blue lock-line hose, bent and contorted into the shape of a collapsing roller coaster or a ravenous serpent, sits atop a round wood table. Golden glitter ribbons tied to the hose hang limply, seemingly struggling to find their place. It’s an odd, gangly work that appears to want to be something it’s not, a testament to the conundrum of immigrant self-actualization, to futile attempts at assimilation. As the name suggests, fitting in becomes an impossible feat.
An intentional inconsistency of form is apparent throughout the gallery — an amalgamation of surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, collage, and fiber arts. Through stylized depictions of cultural hybridity, Herself as Another is a searing indictment of the manufactured monstrosity of immigrant identity deeply embedded in the Western imagination.
Suchitra Mattai: Herself as Another continues at Hollis Taggart (521 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 12.
Editor’s Note, 3/9/2022, 6:59 pm EST: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the artist’s parents worked as indentured servants.