Aside from my mother, I can’t remember having any Indian role models during my Edmonton childhood. Most of my Indian peers were committed to living out the dreams of their immigrant parents by planning on having some kind of prestigious, brag-worthy, high-salaried profession. Conversely, in my mid-teens, I had begun writing songs, and gradually friends were encouraging me to be a musician. This idea was so foreign and bizarre, singing as a profession, that I needed it to be repeatedly explained to me. At the time (and even sometimes now) the thought of being an artist felt not only frivolous and something only white people did, but also like a betrayal to everything my parents had been toiling in Canada for—to facilitate (their idea of) a better life for their children. Being an artist, and not a life-saving doctor, was the ultimate selfish act.
Trying my best to be a good son, I compromised by going to university. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts which, to my parents (and their friends, whose opinion heavily mattered), was basically a trivial degree in finger painting, Looking back, I wish I had majored in finger painting (or rather Fine Arts) or music, an area I was passionate about, instead of trying to please my parents and ultimately failing all of us.
Soon after graduating, I moved out of my parents’ home (another betrayal as a good Indian son will stay at home until he gets married) to pursue music career in Toronto. Perhaps one of the richest rewards of this move has been finally meeting other South Asian artists and hustlers, artists like Meera Sethi.
The first time I encountered Meera’s work, it was her An Ideal Boy poster. It’s a humourous, queer revision of a traditional Indian poster (which I now proudly own). Since then, I have had the good fortune of seeing Meera’s work exhibited at the Gladstone Hotel (as part of That’s So Gay 2013: Say It To My Face), on Church Street (which we discuss in this feature) and also approached Meera to design a poster for a Queer Diwali event in 2012.
Knowing South Asian artists like Meera has helped to give me a sense of validation to my own artistry, and for this I am very grateful. More importantly, her work is dazzling, kaleidoscopic and thought-provoking. Meet Meera!
Your art (including Firangi Rang Barangi and Foreign Returned) often features subjects dressed in striking clothing, and draws a connection between attire and identity. Can you speak more about why this connection resonates for you personally and as an artist?
I’ve always been interested in clothing, fashion and style. Here’s my first self-portrait, at age 5.
I grew up travelling between New Delhi and Toronto, navigating cultures. This showed up in the way I dressed in school, bringing loud, bright colours into a toned down clothing culture. Of course, I was bullied. I remember this one time in grade 7 when I wore floral pants patterned with bright fucshia, orange and purple flowers. The kids were all like, “What happened, did you fall in your mother’s flower garden?” It was painful and yet, I persisted with my love of colour and for bridging the cultures I considered my own.
When, one evening in 2009 after my 9-5, I picked up a set of liquid acrylics and a large sheet of paper and began painting what turned out to be “Jaan” from Firangi Rang Barangi, I realized that these were images I had been carrying with me for many years.
Personal style comes up again in your new project Upping The Aunty. Can you speak more about the inspiration behind this project?
There is a trend towards street fashion photography, to capture (stylish) folk out and about in their everyday wear. I began this project as a way of challenging how we understand street fashion and, through this, honouring the role of our aunties, particularly in the South Asian diaspora.
I am interested in the way fashion is translated by those who are not the “cool and sexy” subjects of this kind of street photography.
At the same time, my project is about celebrating the elders in our communities, and their role in passing on social and cultural knowledge. Growing up, I was surrounded by my aunties: at family parties, dinners, pujas and weddings. They were a constant and important presence in my life. My aunties were there with endless (inappropriate!) jokes, teachings on tradition, the occasional admonition or intrusive question, and of course, plenty of food! Upping the Aunty is inspired by my own aunties and their fabulousness.
With this project, I am curious to know what motivates the clothing choices our aunties make, and how this shifts across borders and life histories. I carry my camera with me and shoot if I see someone I find interesting. On occasion, I will go out to a location specifically looking for aunties to photograph. I did a lot of this in Mumbai, particularly at the Gateway of India on Sunday afternoons, where aunties would come all dressed up for a day out. Mumbai being such a cosmopolitan and busy city, there were aunties from all over India, both travellers or locals. I am currently in the process of photographing aunties in Toronto.
Pingal Aunty, Mumbai
What has been the response from participants in the project, particularly you own aunties?
I always ask for permission before photographing. I also tell them that I am an artist working on a new project that focuses on “aunty” style. I show them some of my earlier work so they can see that I am not just making this up. I will approach an aunty telling her that I like what she is wearing. Most women have been flattered, some have even given me a hug! Those are really wonderful moments. I think most have also been completely surprised that someone was admiring them. Aunties are not used to being told that their style is appreciated or that they are the centre of attention. Some aunties have been suspicious and refuse to have their photos taken. Other times it can be their husbands, brothers or sons who act as gatekeepers, who give or don’t give permission. My experience in Mumbai was that most aunties didn’t have too much time and so didn’t want an extended discussion about my project.
My own aunties have mostly enjoyed their moment in the spotlight! It’s been interesting that they haven’t asked too many questions about what I’m going to do with the images…. There is a level of trust there.
This project embodies the idea of chosen family, as “aunties” aren’t always people we are related to (sidenote: I even had to call my mom’s white friends aunty!). The notion of chosen family is also often tied to queerness and much of your work features a queer subtext. How important and deliberate is this for you?
I love this question. You are right to say that, “chosen family” is a concept critical to both LGBTQ and South Asian diasporic communities, as a matter of survival and beyond. The queer subtext of my work is important, yet only somewhat intentional. To the extent that my art tries to make sense of my life, my own queerness often shines through. I am proud of this and hope that the fact that I’m doing what I love – making art – as a queer, South Asian woman is an inspiration to those who need it. At the same time, my art isn’t all identity-based. While this might be an entry point for my work, my individual identities are not all or sometimes even any part of the story.
I make art to build bridges, further into myself, between ourselves and out towards unknown others.
The Church Street Mural is such a wonderful gift to the Toronto gay village which is often criticized for being dominated by whiteness. Can you explain the thought process and considerations behind the mural?
My experience of the “gay village” in Toronto has mostly been facilitated by LGBTQ South Asian community events. From the very early days of Besharam parties on a tiny dancefloor on the top of a restuarant, to the larger Funkasia and now Brown/OUT stages during Pride, to the community protest against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code this past winter… I have found my place in the gay village through these experiences. It is from this place – one of celebration, activism and community – that I have created the mural.
I wanted to give a very strong visual voice to our LGBTQ histories in Toronto. It is a gesture of taking up space and inviting others into those histories (and present struggles).
As an abstract work, there are no literal references to community and cultural organizations such as ASAAP, Salaam, Dost, Funkasia, Besharam, Desh Pardesh and others. There is however a gesture to the spirit of their work and diversity of identities, politics and histories of the communities that make up these organizations, represented by the various bands of colour intersecting from divergent angles, much like woven fabric. The inspiration for this creative direction has come from the significance of textiles across the vastness of South Asian cultures. You need the warp and weft to create a cohesive expression.
You were born in India and now live in Toronto. How have these locations and migration affected your work?
I migrated to Canada when I was just over two years old. I have lived in Toronto most of my life, however have spent several periods of 2-3 months at a time back in Delhi nearly each year since. I understand this journeying, of going back and forth repeatedly, as one that has really shaped my work. The somatic experiences – of alternating between extreme cold to extreme heat, from relative quiet to constant noise, from an environment made up of muted tones to one full of rich colour, from the smell of processed chesse sandwiches on white bread and Jo Louis to hot halwah while the first monsoon downpour mingles with the dry clay earth – gave me a strong felt sense of difference. These shifts were compounded by the racism with which I was mostly recieved in school here, to the pedastal I was given as a “foreigner” when in India.
These experiences and others left with a strong sense of belonging or unbelonging in both places, Toronto and Delhi. My work, both as a graphic designer and now as an artist has been a way for me to heal my fragmented identities and create a “third space” that is my own.
Who are other South Asian artists, local or international, that inspire you?
I love the delicate work of Shahzia Sikander, the minimalism of late Nasreen Mohamedi, the brilliant millinery of Little Shilpa, the modern simplicity of fashion designer Rashmi Varma, the graphic slick of Aakash Nihalani, the writing of the multi-talented Vivek Shraya, the subtlety and politics of the art of Andil Gosine, the meticulousness of the work of Nep Sidhu, the important archival and documentation work of HandpaintedType and BorderandFall… I could go on!
What can we expect from Meera in the next six months?
Lots! After a couple years of wandering between Australia, India and Canada, I’m back in Toronto laying down roots. I’ve got a new series of acrylic paintings I’m currently working on called On the Margins of the Divine prompted by Mughal miniature albums; ongoing photo documentation of South Asian aunties for Upping the Aunty, a series of mixed-media paintings; and a performance-based, collaborative international project called Unstitched, that takes a sari and creates a line of community and continuity between 108 people.
Guest Editor & Photographer: Vivek Shraya.