Her solo show at K Contemporary is a must-see right now
Suchitra Mattai is having a well-deserved moment. The prolific Denver artist is fresh off two career-making appearances in internationally-watched exhibitions and, right now, she’s the focus of a one-person show at Lower Downtown’s K Contemporary gallery.
Mattai’s art has a striking visual appeal, tapping recycled materials inspired by her family’s history of continent-crossing migration, which stretches from India to Guyana to the United States. She combines colorful saris, rugs, fabrics, furniture, feathers and prints into layered works that are finished off by her own hand through embroidery, crochet and, of course, paint.
She transforms those elements into pieces that tell personal stories, while highlighting the difficult, overlooked journeys of migrants as they cross — not always by choice — from one place and culture and to another, and perhaps another. “I am interested in giving voice to people whose voices were historically quieted,” she says.
We checked in with Mattai, following her recent showings at the respected Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates and the State of the Art 2020 group exhibition at the renowned Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark., where her show-stopping “Exodus” — a 40-foot-long,15-foot-tall piece made from woven, used saris — was purchased by the museum for its permanent collection.
Suchitra Mattai’s “We Are Rainbows, We Are Shadows” uses hair curlers, jute, saris, a shawl and neon. (Photo by Daniel Tseng, Special to The Denver Post)
Q: Congratulations on the K Contemporary exhibition. It’s a large and impressive show — 30 pieces all from this year. How do you produce so much art?
A: Hmm. There is no one answer to this question.
One, a spirit of experimentation that keeps me excited; two, hours and hours of work (my body trying to keep up with ideas and visions); and three, some occasional mania.
Q: I’ve been thinking a lot about the title, “Innocence and Everything After.” I love the idea of contemplating innocence in a moment of extreme, collective guilt, when so many people are reckoning with wrongs committed over centuries. I’m talking, of course, about the mass consciousness raised among white people by the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
How do you want us to think about innocence right now? Is it doomed?
A: Over the past few months we have witnessed a collective loss of innocence, but powerful knowledge has been gained. I hope that from these ashes we can find commonalities, build meaningful connections between us, rectify wrongs and forge a better future together.
In my show, I propose a second-order innocence — in other words, a return to the state of innocence, one that transports us back to our collective childhood. I suggest that tapping into this deep and universal experience of “innocence” can help us re-imagine a new “normal,” one that makes space for unheard voices, environmental reforms and racial and economic justice.
Q. So the “everything after” — it’s promising.
A: Perhaps it’s the very latent Hindu inside of me that sees everything as cyclical, but I am an optimist and I think that with lots of introspection, political and social reforms and compassion, we can find hope.
Q: So many of the objects that you make connect to your personal narrative and the story of your family.
A: I was born in Georgetown, Guyana, a tiny country next to Venezuela and Brazil that was a British colony until 1966. Two generations back, my family members lived in northeast India and were brought to Guyana as indentured laborers to work on sugar plantations. I am interested in the ideas of “belonging” and “home” because of my family’s many migrations during such a short period of time.
Q: You repeat their stories of migration in your art, both physical and cultural. What’s the motivation?
A: I hope that my work and research can speak to larger issues of migration and displacement. I make work about what is close to me but with the goal that it speaks to broader contemporary issues surrounding race, gender, labor, etc.
Q: The thing that surprises me the most about your work is your openness to using new materials. Fabrics, tapestries, paper, lace and then rope, yarn, thread. And paint. One piece in the current exhibit incorporates a fencing mask, another has an entire carpet that’s almost 6-feet-long. First, where do you find these things?
A: Most often I find objects in thrift and vintage stores. The potential of the search keeps me going. Other times I seek out something particular (a Colonial print from the 19th century, saris, or a baroque rug). My favorite objects are those that are given to me by friends, family and even strangers.
Q: Second, what draws you in? What makes you think: “This is an interesting object”?
A: I am interested in the aura and history of the objects I find (both mythical and real). I am drawn to objects because of their intrinsic spirit but also because of how they fit into the broader narrative of my practice. While my conceptual goals anchor my work, I allow myself to be intuitive.
Sometimes I know exactly why an object is essential and other times it reveals its place in my practice over time. I always think about the original makers — of the craft-based work in particular — and feel that I am in some way collaborating with them.
Q: I want to ask, in particular, about all those vintage saris that you weave together.
A: Saris are worn by women of South Asian descent all over the world. The weavings, especially on a large scale, as in “Breathing Room,” unites them. It’s as though I am creating a topography out of the tattered remains of intimate cloth.
This work connects diasporic communities of South Asians across the globe, and gives voice to generations of women while also probing questions of displacement resulting from European colonization.
Many South Asians left India in the 19th and early 20th centuries to work as indentured laborers around the world, including the Caribbean, South America, Fiji, Mauritius, etc. Focusing on this period is both a means of tracing my family’s history in Guyana and of fostering discussion around contemporary issues surrounding labor and gender.
It’s important for me to note that the saris I use are not “fancy.” They are of the “everyday.”
Q: I would — maybe — describe your work as feminist.
A: Yes, my work is feminist. I grew up crocheting, sewing, etc. I bring those practices into my work to honor them as “art-making.” In many of the works in my show, “Calypso Queen” and “Caribbean Queen” in particular, I integrate these practices. The women in the works control what is revealed and what is concealed from the viewer. They return the gaze through traditionally domestic practices like embroidery and fight the invisibility that so many people of color feel.
Q: I have to say, I do see hopefulness in several objects in this exhibit. There’s a natural optimism to some of the floral patterns that hang in the background of your pieces. And people seem to be emerging from … something?
A: The children and women in this exhibition have the power. They are “knowing.” They are galloping toward a more equitable future through an acceptance of the beauty within us.
Q: There’s a self-portrait in the show and I can never resist asking artists about self-portraits. I recognize your face in it, but you have layered other materials over it. And why did you paint yourself blue?
A: My self-portrait is a psychological one that combines placemats, an Aum pendant, and a veil of pattern. I depict myself as blue to enact a play between myth, reality and the irrational. In Hindu religious myths, deities are often depicted as blue. I wanted to find the divine in the very fallible human.