BY Harley Wong in Profiles | 24 AUG 23

Suchitra Mattai’s European Pastorals Make Brown Women the Main Character

The artist’s first large-scale hanging works accompany embroidered tableaux that reimagine scenes of 18th- and 19th-century opulence

BY Harley Wong in Profiles | 24 AUG 23

At Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, the fruits of colonialism are on full display. Hanging from the ceiling are plump globes of braided fabric that resemble larger-than-life peach stones. From some, cascading blue strands burst outwards and fall towards the floor. Titled phala (fruit) (2023), the sculptural installation is named after a Sanskrit term that, in Hinduism and Buddhism, refers to the consequences of one’s actions.

Mounted on the gallery walls, reworked tableaux depict 18th- and 19th-century opulence: tapestries capturing lives of worry-free leisure and material excess. Often absent from these idyllic scenes are the grisly means by which such luxurious lifestyles were achieved and sustained. For the transgressors, karmic repercussions are not realized in this lifetime.

Portrait of Suchitra Mattai
Portrait of Suchitra Mattai beside show pony (2023). Courtesy: the artist

In Suchitra Mattai’s solo exhibition ‘In the absence of power. In the presence of love’ (2023), the Indo-Caribbean artist plumbs the colonial past to imagine a world in which the historically exploited experience some of the comforts previously stolen from them. With pastel ribbons embellishing scenes of young Brown women in luxurious ballgowns, Mattai evokes today’s trend for making people of colour central characters in Regency-era entertainment, represented by popular stage musicals like Hamilton (2015–ongoing) and television shows such as Bridgerton (2020–ongoing).

While embroidering on vintage needlepoint reproductions of European paintings to reinterpret the original white subjects as Brown, Mattai also incorporates personal heirlooms: vintage saris, jewellery, ghungroo bells and more. ‘I think of them as a Brown reclamation,’ Mattai told me the morning after the exhibition opening last month. Her artistic interventions seek to restore some of the marginalized histories left outside the frames of idealized European pastoral landscapes and Rococo paintings, including her own family history.

Suchitra Mattai future perfect, 2023 Embroidery floss, found objects, freshwater pearls and trim on vintage needlepoint 25 x 19 in (63.5 x 48.3 cm) unframed
Suchitra Mattai, future perfect, 2023, embroidery floss, found objects, freshwater pearls, trim on vintage needlepoint, 63.5 × 48.3 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

Mattai’s great-grandparents were recruited to leave Uttar Pradesh in British-ruled India to work in Guyana, where they toiled under gruesome conditions as indentured labourers on colonial sugar plantations. Mattai, who was born in Guyana in 1973, is one of the hundreds of thousands of Indo-Caribbeans who inherit this ancestral history. 

In her previous works, Mattai has disrupted deceptively serene scenes from British art history to expose the exploitative horrors that lie beyond. Take, for example, Intruder (2020), in which a swarm of black zip ties penetrate the burnt gash of a found painting of a picturesque forest. Mattai shatters the nationalistic and patriotic tradition of British landscapes with an abstract darkness that recalls the violence of British colonial power. In Girl Beast (2022), however, this violence takes shape as a shadowy figure. Blemishing a European needlepoint from the Romantic era depicting a young couple in a loving embrace, an enigmatic silhouette is rendered in long brown stitches, with peach-coloured threads shooting out from its eyes like lasers.  

Girl Beast, 2022
Suchitra Mattai, Girl Beast, 2022, embroidery floss on vintage needlepoint, 50 × 40 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Neither beast nor intruder, the girls of ‘In the absence of power. In the presence of love’ are exalted as heroines. As exemplified by the unveiling (2023), a young Brown woman wearing a corseted ballgown rises above her white male peers. The crosshatched threads that once erased Brown girls like her, as seen in Portrait of a girl in a garden in thought (2021), now obscure their European counterparts like bands of interference on a television screen.

The unveiling feels celebratory, in both its dramatic aesthetics and its rich materials. The bright pink fabric that frames the scene like stage curtains, revealing the embroidered needlepoint image, is taken from the first Bollywood dance costume worn by Mattai’s sister, who grew up to become a classical Indian dancer specializing in the Bharatanatyam style. Here, the artist transforms a sentimental object attesting to a significant moment in her sibling’s adolescence, deploying domestic craft techniques passed down to her through generations of women. ‘When I embroider or crochet,’ Mattai told me, ‘it’s an honouring of those practices from the past that I learned from my grandmothers. It’s important to me to maintain them and to have that be a big part of my practice.’

The Unveiling, 2023
Suchitra Mattai, the unveiling, 2023, embroidery floss, vintage needlepoint, dance costume, sari and architectural fragment, 1.2 × 0.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

Employing the methods and materials evocative of the domestic work that Mattai’s ancestors performed as indentured labourers in the Caribbean, the artist weaves an intergenerational tapestry that speaks to personal histories of colonial migration in the aftermath of slavery. Stories that the trauma of colonialism would otherwise fracture, are tied together again, much like the vintage saris that Mattai receives from family, friends and even strangers for use in her work. ‘I remember someone I didn’t know wrote me to say she’s moving and has all these saris, and if I’d like them, she’ll leave them on my doorstep,’ Mattai recalled. ‘There’s this sense of expanded community, which my work is also about. It’s bringing diaspora together. Having these different moments of connection with people that I know and don’t know enriches it for me.’

Bridging temporal and geographical divides, Mattai’s oeuvre offers an expanded view of history – one that causes her frames to bulge and fracture under the weight of all they contain, as seen in her previous work Bodies and souls (2021), which features a patchwork of clothes from her family, friends and community. At Roberts Projects, the elaborate frames in the unveiling and show pony (2023) are incomplete – uninterested in even attempting to confine history into something that’s fixed and definitive.

Suchitra Mattai phala (fruit), 2023 15 components comprised of vintage saris, rope and chain Dimensions variable
Suchitra Mattai, phala (fruit), 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

‘I feel like I’m at a point of expansion,’ said Mattai, who has upcoming solo exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco, Socrates Sculpture Park in New York, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and Tampa Museum of Art. 'I kind of worked in obscurity or in isolation for most of my life and it wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I went full force in my art practice.’

‘In the absence of power. In the presence of love’ attests to, and justifies, her confidence and serves as a teaser for the artist’s growing attention to sculptural installations where she will continue to explore the monumental in new mediums and with new materials. ‘Because I’ve come to it later in life,’ she continued, ‘in the sense of timing and purpose, it’s like now or never.’

Suchitra Mattai's 'In the absence of power. In the presence of love' is on at Roberts Projects, Los Angeles until 26 August. 

Main image: Suchitra Mattai, 'In the absence of power. In the presence of love', 2023, exhibition view, Roberts Projects, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Roberts Projects. 

Harley Wong is an arts writer and editor based between New York and San Francisco.