Vibrant vintage saris, antique patterned fabrics, ghungroo bells, 3D-printed copies of historical artifacts, and a wide array of family heirlooms are some of the countless objects Suchitra Mattai uses to create vivacious artworks that convey the unspeakable.
Born in Guyana, the artist of Indo-Caribbean descent has dedicated her practice to examining the violent colonial history her family has had to endure, and honoring the forgotten voices of women from the Indian diaspora. Though Mattai’s family is originally from India, her ancestors were lured to work as indentured laborers on sugar plantations in Guyana due to British colonialism. “I tell my family’s stories because these are the stories of people you wouldn’t hear otherwise,” she told Artsy in a recent interview.
This year is set to be the artist’s biggest yet. In January, Unit London mounted her exhibition “Monster,” which draws on memory and mythology to discuss the prejudices against immigration and mental health. It is Mattai’s first solo show with the London-based gallery, and remains on view through February 12th. And opening February 10th at Hollis Taggart in New York, her solo exhibition “Herself as Another” will explore how diverse populations are often Othered. Towards the end of the year, Mattai will have yet another solo show, this time at Kavi Gupta in Chicago, set to open on November 12th.
In A Small Place, A Vast World (after Jamaica Kincaid) (2020), Mattai beautifully demonstrates her talent of breathing new life into a difficult past. For the work, she reappropriated powder-blue French toile with repeated 18th- and 19th-century scenes of, as Matti described, “European pastoral bliss.” Isolating two women in the original pattern, she embroidered their skin using brown thread. Above the figures—the only people of color in the scene—hangs her grandfather’s bright orange vintage scarf, which he wore during a family trip visiting India for the very first time at the age of 83. “I put a rainbow over them, because there’s an irony. Bliss is not really what’s going on,” Mattai explained. “Then, I bring my grandfather’s longing for his past into that story. A past that was ruptured by indentured labor.”
Mattai—who is currently based in Denver, Colorado—has an MA in South Asian art and an MFA in painting and drawing from the University of Pennsylvania. Reflecting on her burgeoning career, she said she’s always wanted to be an artist. “The other day, I was looking through a baby journal my parents have, and in it, my father wrote: ‘All she wants to do is draw.’ This was when I was like two or three,” Mattai shared, laughing.
Still, it was only approximately six years ago that her practice had “a sort of rebirth,” as the artist put it. “I’ve always been making art. Even when I had young children, I would stay up at night and make art,” Mattai recalled. “So it wasn’t like my practice was dormant, but I wasn’t actively exhibiting.” In 2016, when Mattai finished an art residency at Denver’s RedLine Contemporary Art Center, her career truly began to change. Over the following years, aside from participating in numerous group shows, Mattai gained gallery representation from K Contemporary, Unit London, and Hollis Taggart. She also created a significant commission for the Sharjah Biennial in 2019, and in 2021, she landed a major solo show at the Boise Art Museum.
When asked about what led to the revival of her practice, Mattai said, “I decided I was going to make everything from intuition. If I find an object that is interesting to me, I make something with it. I have the conceptual framework of what I want to do, but the freedom makes it so much more exciting.”
The intention to elevate Indian folklore and the voices of women from the South Asian diaspora is palpable in many of Mattai’s creations, especially A joy so fierce (2021) and An Alien Spirit with a Breathtaking View (2022). For both works, she weaved harlequin vintage saris sourced from all around the world and, more often than not, from friends and family. “To me, using these saris is like weaving the stories of women of the Indian diaspora,” the artist said.
A similar intention appears in one of Mattai’s most striking works, Sweet Surrender (2020). The large composition features two Brown women standing proud with their backs turned away from each other. Their thick, black braids cascade to the bottom of the painting, where they unite as one cherry-colored snake meant to represent a naga. Mattai described the mythological serpent in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism as “a poisonous and dangerous creature that also has the ability to help.” While the piece was completed last year and exhibited by K Contemporary at Untitled Art in Miami Beach, it was prophetic of a novel theme Mattai had never openly discussed until now.
In both “Monster” and “Herself as Another,” Mattai peels back an additional layer of personal experience to delve into the subject of mental health. “It’s a really big deal for me to admit publicly that I have a mental illness. I’m bipolar. I’ve held that secret for all my life, and I’m 49 years old as of next week,” Mattai said in late January. “So to be able to celebrate it, or to mark it with these two exhibitions, felt monumental to me and hopefully [will be] helpful to others.”
The pieces exhibited in both shows continue to reflect Mattai’s tendency to make artworks inspired by her own immigrant family. To create many of the works, the artist said she strongly considered the parallels between the treatment of immigrants and those who are mentally ill. “They become monsters to us. We think of them as different, as Others,” Mattai said. “And because I belong to both [groups], I wanted to do a kind of joint exhibition that spoke to those parallels and really thought about this word ‘monster.’”
Despite the many challenging subjects Mattai addresses in her soulful artworks, somehow, joy often manages to shine through. Speaking about this undeniable aspect of her work, she said, “My art practice brings me a lot of joy, a kind of spiritual joy and also stability. I don’t know how else to put it, but it’s really exciting to do the thing that you want to do—the thing you’re meant to do.”