by Zohra KhanAug 31, 2023
A treasure trove of textiles! This was my initial response when I first interacted with the Indo-Caribbean multidisciplinary artist Suchitra Mattai’s solo exhibition housed in Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. The curation indeed transformed this white cube into a playground with vibrant soft, miniaturised embroidered tapestries, and abstract woven landscapes. Amidst this rich foliage of culture, textures, colours, and tangible dimensionality, there are some intangible sensitive narratives that await to be de-layered by the beholder.
These narratives go back to Mattai’s very ancestral roots. Born in Guyana to Indian parents, Mattai allows her craft to trace back to her familial history. Mattai’s great-grandparents were brought from the state of Uttar Pradesh in India to Guyana, South America as indentured labourers under British colonial rule. Now on foreign lands, she narrates her ancestral colonial past under the title In the Absence of Power. In the Presence of Love. “I wanted to create a space where we could imagine a world without hierarchies, colonialism, and patriarchy. I have always considered my process to be one of re-imagining colonial histories and making space for the narratives of people whose voices haven’t been heard,” shares the artist. Thus, she presents a body of works that nurtures a future space of equity, empathy, and healing for women.
With every stitch and strip, the artist meditates on the lives of her maternal lineage. She pays an ode to her inherited heirloom of embroidery and sewing techniques. Mattai’s takes me down nostalgic memory lane as she speaks about the significant role her mother and grandmother played in creating the woman she is today. “I learned sewing, embroidery, crochet, (and many such techniques) from them. Thus, I centre my practice around my learnings from them. My sisters studied Bharatnatyam and Odissi dance. In one of my works, I use one of their skirts as a part of the artwork composition,” Mattai adds.
In fact, there is an evident use of saris as a medium in the curated artworks. “Many of the saris in my work come from India, but some also come from communities here in the United States, in Guyana/ the Caribbean island, or around the world,” Mattai shares. Mostly adorned by South Asian women, this very act metaphorically unites people of the South Asian diaspora on a global scale.
While the choice of artistic medium certainly adds to Mattai’s commentary on society, she particularly aims at referencing familiar canonical visuals with her very own contemporary take that she categorically calls a “brown reclamation”. History has been a testament to this patriarchal convention of glorifying heroes/ gods with halos and adorned thrones. Mattai’s female portraits challenge this long-established convention. This conscious effort evidently comes across in her textile art titled Future, perfect. The protagonist— adorned in evocative fine embroidery, beading, and found objects—symbolises a sublime brown heroine reflecting on a “perfect future".
Suspended pendulous shaped soft sculpture art forms the heart of this curatorial display. This represents the fruit or Phala (in Hindi), embodying femininity and fertility. Compositionally rather quiet, this larger-than-life textile installation conveys a strong focus element that binds this show together. “I wanted them to convey a sense of abundance. They are emblems of fertility, life, and prosperity but the word phala also means 'the fruit of one’s actions'. Imagine a celebration of the fruit of thousands of years’ worth of women’s domestic labour!,” she shares.
The experience leaves behind very powerful but introspective thoughts. It adds a very strong voice to many relevant and ongoing conversations of equality and rightfulness. This world "in the absence of power and presence of love" acknowledges the past and envisions a joyful future space for women and marginalised people. Thus, Mattai’s art leaves one with a sense of liberation, empowerment and empathy for all as we reflect on the past and head toward a bright future!
'In the Absence of Power. In the Presence of Love' is on view from June 15 to August 26, 2023, at the Robert Projects at 442 South La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, California 90036.