10 Questions with Suchitra Mattai
Suchitra Mattai, image courtesy of the artist
1) “Life-line” 2) “Shelter (girl with doll)” and 3) “We are Rainbows, We are Shadows” source: Instagram @suchitramattaiart
'Exodus', 2020, Suchitra Mattai, vintage saris and rope net, acquired by The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Source: artist's website www.suchitramattai.com
Caribbean Community and Influence
I am so excited to learn this. I was intrigued by your platform and wanted to participate in a dialogue where I felt it would resonate. I was curious to see what other Caribbean artists were making and thinking about and wanted to begin new conversations. I wanted to connect to a community that was, for me, both familiar and distant.
I grew up with my nuclear and extended Guyanese family as the core. In Nova Scotia, we found a Caribbean community but it wasn’t until we landed in New Jersey that I reconnected with many of my cousins and other family. So many Caribbean and Indian people live in NYC and NJ. I wanted to bring all of the stories, experiences, and diversity of the Caribbean into my work. I think that art is most effective when it comes from the personal but reflects on the universal. In a way, telling these stories of my past makes them more tangible and therefore makes me more connected to my original birthplace (Georgetown, Guyana). I am also interested in reimagining colonial histories and including the voices of the slaves and laborers who were omitted in those narratives. So my allusions to Guyana are personal, but are anchored in an overarching project to shed light on the trials and joys of my Caribbean and Indian ancestors.
In my early twenties I wanted so much to find my “home.” I looked to India and even went to graduate school to study South Asian art. I travelled to India many times. On my first trip, I wept as the plane landed, feeling with all of my heart that I had found the “home” I had been searching for. India was magical, mysterious and slightly tragic for me. I didn’t find the home I was seeking, for I was too “westernized” and foreign to fit in. I also lacked the language skills to communicate in the way that I wanted to. That being said, it was the amazing journey that was important and I would recommend a trip to whatever “Motherland” beckons you.
Building a Practice
I grew up sewing, crocheting, etc. One of my grandmothers was a professional seamstress and my other grandmother sewed her own clothes. I always wanted to bring these practices into my own work. Bringing the domestic into my work helps me to connect back to the powerful women in my life. The weaving of the saris allows me to connect women from all over the South Asian diaspora. The found objects inspire me and allow for a call and response approach to art-making. Not only am I recycling, but I am communicating with the original makers of the objects.
When I was young, I wanted to be an artist but had no mentors or figures from my community who were artists. I initially studied statistics to please my parents but I never worked as a statistician. My path to being a professional artist was a long and windy one. Finally, while I was in a PhD program for South Asian art history at UPenn, I jumped ship and applied to MFA programs. After so many years I am now making art in full force, making up for all of the lost time and trying to see all of the ideas that I’ve been storing come into fruition.
Factors for Success
I have a variety of collectors and they range from local collectors who have supported my work and practice for years in Denver where I live, to people all over the US and the world who I don’t know. I feel that in our current climate (one marked by crisis) in the USA, some people are open and willing to listen to stories of immigrants in a way that they weren’t before. In addition, many of my collectors tell me that my work feels intimate and personal to them and it makes me happy to think that after all of these years the small Guyanese girl inside of me is able to share her stories and some people are willing to look.
Lauren Haynes and the other curators at Crystal Bridges and The Momentary travelled the US seeking out artists for “State of the Art 2020.” I was so honored to be a part of it. I never imagined that they would collect my 45’ x 15’ sari installation but it was an amazing moment. It means a lot to me that a museum dedicated to American art found a place for a huge sari installation by an Indo-Caribbean American artist.
I have a wonderful family. My husband, mother and sisters have encouraged me for years. My father has come around to loving art. I couldn’t have accomplished anything without them. I have also worked with many wonderful (women) curators who have given me amazing opportunities like Lauren Haynes, Prof. Grace Aneiza Ali at NYU and Claire Tancons, who invited me to be in the Sharjah Biennial. I am also stubborn and never stopped fighting to be the artist I wanted to be.
Outlook and Future
I have a beautiful new studio that is subsidized by an amazing arts organization in Denver called RedLine Art Center. I can now make more of the large-scale work that I have been dreaming of. I have some exhibitions lined up but I am waiting to see what Covid 19 will permit. As I wait, I continue to make art and mostly shelter in place with my husband and two sons.
The art world is relentless so you have to build a practice that is too. You have to be true to yourself and make the work that you want to see in art spaces and Museums. And don’t be afraid to reach out to people who you think might be interested in your work. There’s always someone out there who wants to give you a chance.
Remarks from LES ÎLES
There is a likely paradox in Suchitra's work. Despite creating in such an acutely personal way, she is also speaking for so many of us and our ancestors. Suchitra gives voice to centuries of migrants across the diasporas, relating to the first people who bore the transitions, and everyone who has voyaged since. Her success can be attributed to her dedication and focus on this theme of displaced identity, and her own emotional journey travelled. Assimilating into life in both Eastern and Western surroundings, seeking out that connection with her Guyanese and Indian origins, resulting in a blurring of belonging that so many of us from the Caribbean diaspora understand first hand.
Suchitra humbly acknowledges her family, and the people and organizations that have played a part in allowing her artwork to be seen and heard. Her advice to emerging artists is resounding; to persist, and be true to yourself. And that is precisely what draws us to this remarkable visionary; how much of herself, and as a result, ourselves, we see in her art.
To view a selection of Suchitra's works on LES ÎLES: https://www.lesiles.com/collections/suchitra-mattai