10 Questions with Suchitra Mattai

Suchitra Mattai, image courtesy of the artist
Suchitra Mattai's larger-than-life works, stuns. With imposing wall to ceiling sculptures, multi-coloured, intricately woven saris, even a boat suspended in a gravity defying installation, Suchitra proves herself a multi disciplinary virtuoso in symbology. Some works combine haunting silhouettes of herself as a child and some as an adult, layered within vintage found objects, and fervent embroidery, collaged into profoundly moving stories about Caribbean migration in all its contemporary and historical contexts. She relentlessly investigates colonialism, imploring us to question the roles of our pasts and presents. 
1) “Life-line” 2) “Shelter (girl with doll)” and 3) “We are Rainbows, We are Shadows” source: Instagram @suchitramattaiart 
Suchitra is no doubt an exciting member of the LES ÎLES group of participating artists. Already tasting success, she was the first artist to join our new, ambitious, Caribbean Art platform. With growing visibility of her work in the United States and internationally, including an important acquisition of her work by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art pictured below, we were eager to speak with Suchitra to highlight her journey to success, her relationship with the Caribbean, and her advice to emerging artists from the region. 

'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

10 Questions:

Caribbean Community and Influence

  • You were the first artist to agree to offer your work via our platform. Even though you were represented at the time, you offered a wonderful selection of previous works. What factored into your decision to participate with a new platform dedicated to Contemporary Caribbean Art?
  • 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.  

  • Can you speak about your inspiration on your Caribbean heritage that often shows up in your works?
  •  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.

  • Your work covers the topic of displaced identity. We know that in your artistic journey, you travelled to India for training. Was going back to the 'Motherland' something that played a significant role in your journey? Do you have any advice for Caribbean people who are seeking out identity through their heritage, and may also be considering going back to the respective Motherlands?
  • 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 

  • What prompted you to start using different materials in your works - found objects, embroidery, vintage sarees and how has this differentiated you as an artist?
  • 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.

  • What were the greatest challenges with respect to building your practice and getting recognition for it? How did you overcome them? 
  • 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

  • Your work has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, you've participated in many solo and group shows, and your work can be found in various publications. Can you tell us about the people who collect your work? Where do they come from and what do you think they appreciate the most in your work? 
  • 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. 

  • How did the acquisition of your vintage sari installation ' Exodus' to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art come to be and what does it mean to you? 
  • 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. 

  • What would you say are success factors that brought you to where you are today?
  • 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

  • What's next for you?
  • 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.

  •  What advice do you think is most useful for emerging artists from the Caribbean to build their practice and succeed in the art world?
  • 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