This work is part of the June 2023 Tracing Roots exhibition at LES ÎLES Amsterdam. It is a body of work that rescripts and re-signifies colonial portraits of Indian women during a period of 19th-century indentureship in Trinidad and Tobago. Over a million Indians were sent to the British colonies to continue the work of sugar production after slavery had ended. Within the population of indentured laborers, women comprised roughly 25 percent. This shortage of women also eventually led to jealousy and intimate partner violence.
A French photographer named Felix Morin took these historical colonial photos. Morin had a studio in the capital of Port of Spain prominently situated, so it was easy to find. The images of these women called "Coolie Belles" were part of a thriving photographic postcard industry that marketed the Caribbean as an exotic holiday destination for Western tourists. Upon closer inspection of these images, Renluka realized the women were wearing similarly styled clothing and jewelry, which suggested a manipulation or staging by the photographer to create a "brand" for consumption. These photographic postcards exist in the archive as a reminder of a colonial narrative that inflicted violence on the indentured workforce.
Her choice to resurface these photographs in a new body of work is to acknowledge the colonial history in Trinidad and Tobago and resist the cultural and political work that these images continue to engender. She want to present them with dignity and respect and bestow upon them a sense of agency, however distant in time they are from me. Being an Indian woman from Trinidad, Renluka feel vindicated in how she represents them and how the photographic archives continue to represent women like herself more broadly. Her decision to paint and create "environments" or backgrounds is a way to decolonize Morin's photographs. As a photographer, she knows there is always a give and take with the "sitter," but in this case, she's left to wonder if they had any choice at all? Most certainly don't look pleased! Most of all, she felt the utmost importance to respect and celebrate these beautiful souls. In trying to figure out titles, she decided to name these women after her family members, for they represent all those that came before and after.
Where possible, she has not entirely erased the original backgrounds. However, the traces of the original photographs serve as a reminder of the colonial history in which the photographs emerged and the power of colonial representations in continuing to shape ideas of South Asian women today. Because of this, she believes proper representation matters, and taking hold of your narrative is a matter of survival, for we must tell our own stories.