Suchitra Mattai

Suchitra Mattai (b.1973 Georgetown, Guyana) is a multi-disciplinary artist of Indo-Caribbean descent. Suchitra received an MFA in painting and drawing, and an MA in South Asian art from the University of Pennsylvania. Recent projects include group exhibitions at the MCA Chicago, Crystal Bridges Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and the Sharjah Biennial 14; and solo exhibitions at the Boise Museum of Art and Kavi Gupta Gallery. Her works are represented in collections which include Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, the Tampa Museum of Art, and the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
February 20, 2023
Tell us about your practice.
I am a multi-disciplinary artist who uses a mixed-media approach to explore how memory and myth can be used to unravel and re-imagine historical narratives. My primary pursuit is to give voice to people whose voices were once quieted. Using both my own family’s ocean migrations and research on the period of colonial indentured labor during the 19th Century, I am trying to expand our sense of “history” to make visible the struggles and perseverance of those who lived it. I often focus on the experiences of women and employ practices and materials associated with the domestic sphere such as embroidery, weaving, various fiber elements, etc. I want to give agency to the heroines in my work by privileging oral traditions, folklore, myth, and memory. I re-imagine vintage and found materials that have a rich past as a way of navigating my family narrative and creating a dialogue with the original makers and the periods in which they were once cherished. Vintage saris and other clothing play a significant role in my work and allow me to connect women of the South Asian diaspora from around the world. Thinking about colonization in Guyana and India is a way of tracing my family’s history and fostering discussion around contemporary issues surrounding gender and labor.
Your practice oscillates between many different forms – from tapestries of textiles with family heirlooms to figurative paintings to sculptures. How do you determine what form a body of work will take?
Although I work within a conceptual framework, my practice is guided by intuition. It is often narrative and I feel as though there are many ways (and mediums) that can be used to tell a single story. I am most excited when the various mediums converse with one another. While painting is at the heart of my practice, I am open to using many different materials and to teaching myself new mediums. In the Caribbean and India, and the domestic sphere, there is a do-it-yourself approach to making. One can use any material to tell a story. Because I am using oral traditions and privileging the hand-made, vintage clothing and other found materials seem like natural options for me since they already have an aura or history. I combine these with my hand to create an open-ended conversation. I am interested in making work that is grounded in specificity but that hopefully resonates universally.
It’s mentioned that your work collides at the intersection of memory, myth, and fantasy. Can you elaborate on how that manifests? What are your reference points and how do you utilize them in your work?
I combine stories that my Grandparents told me with stories from mythology and folktales, both in a South Asian context and a Caribbean context. The heroines and new “mythologies” and “folklore” offer a space for re-imagining “history” for marginalized communities. I want to create a space for joy. I feel like I need to face a dark history to emerge with resilient characters and hopeful stories.
You’ve described your practice as “giving voice to people who were once quieted”, particularly that of Indo-Caribbean people and women. What has been the reaction from the community in bringing these perspectives to the forefront?
I am so incredibly touched by the outpouring of support. Women (family, friends, and strangers alike) have sent me their saris, heirlooms, etc. so that I can use them to create. They have written me that they never thought they would see depictions of themselves in spaces that were once off-limits. While I am overwhelmed with the beautiful responses, I am also fully aware that this work of making space has only just begun.
Your practice draws directly from a personal space by referencing familial experiences and even physical materials from family and friends. What has been most surprising in investigating your personal history through your work?
My family never spoke about their history as indentured laborers so learning of this past has been heart-wrenching. I grew up with layered cultural experiences, as many of us do as a Hindu, eating Indian food, wearing South Asian dress for rituals and parties, etc. but also as a North American, first Canadian and then American. There was a way of existing in the home that was very different than my existence in the outer world. But we never spoke about the past. It wasn’t until I started looking at the archives of photos and documents and asking questions that I came to understand this dimension of my past. I have also learned about the depth of emotions that come from revealing what was once concealed. 
What has been inspiring you lately?
I recently moved to LA and I am loving the light, the community, and the physical and cultural landscape. There’s a kind of freedom here that aligns with my spirit.  I am also inspired by a short film my husband, Adam Graves, recently made in Delhi. It’s been a family affair with my sons helping to do initial edits and make the musical score. I am also reading a book that I love, “What we feed to the Manticore” by Talia Lakshmi Kolluri who creates new folklore. All of the stories are told from animals’ perspectives and I feel that the stories collapse time.

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