Your art is centered around portraits of women and girls and many of them have text on them. Can you share why and what message are you hoping to convey to your audience?
My art is very female centered because I experience the world from this perspective.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I had to stop painting because of the toxicity of my painting materials so I took up scrapbooking. I loved the way I could use text to tell a story in a very visceral way. I loved the combination of words and images to tell deeper and multiple stories and so, when I did start painting again, it carried over into my art.
As for what message I am trying to convey to my audience…I think that when a person views a piece of art, they brings their own stories, their own selves to the experience. Therefore…each person may interpret my art in entirely different ways. I strive to honor my own truth by bringing everything to the canvas and then it’s up to each individual as to how they want to experience it. Are they more interested in the words, the colors and rhythm, the history and stories they can’t see or the whole?
Did you face any discrimination growing up? How did you handle it?
I grew up under apartheid so discrimination was not only a way of life, it was the law. As a child growing up in this situation, you pretty much accept it as “normal” because it’s all you’ve ever known. There really was no way to “handle it”…it was a matter of survival and living in a perpetual state of fear and disempowerment.
You are a survivor of childhood abuse and violence? But that did not stop you from taking charge of your life and becoming an empowered woman. How did you get to where you are today?
It’s a never ending journey. In retrospect I can see how I grew up under an abusive and dysfunctional family system that mirrored the larger political system of apartheid is many ways. So…my early years were ones of utter disempowerment on many different levels. When we moved to Canada I still experienced abuse and violence within my family structure but my entire world opened up now that I was living in a democratic country. I had access to books, an education that wasn’t distorted and I came into contact with people of different races and cultures. I think having experienced such extremes gave me a sense of gratitude and privilege that I certainly didn’t take for granted.
Basically I made a series of conscious choices, even as a child, that I wanted my life to be different than the one I had been forced to live. There were many things within the South African Indian community I strongly disagreed with (the status of women, the inherent racism, the hypocrisy) and throughout my teens and well into my twenties, I struggled with my identity. When I looked around to my family and community, I didn’t see anyone I could emulate or mirror myself upon; I was seriously lacking any role models or mentors. This turned out to be a gift in disguise for me because I started reading books and adopting mentors in the wider world that gave me a stronger sense of self and empowered me. So my mentors were the very best! Nelson Mandela, Toni Morrison, Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Alice Walker…on and on. These books, writings and life philosophies became my lifeline to a different world and sense of self. I left home in my late teens, put myself through University, travelled and built up a sense of self; of who I wanted to be..not who I was supposed to be. Not that there haven’t been major setbacks and failures and periods in my life when things came crashing down or I took a very bad turn. Not that mistakes haven’t been made or that I haven’t fallen back into bad patterns and engaged in very dysfunctional behaviors. I have come to the conclusion that empowerment/healing is a process…a journey. There are no easy answers or quick fixes…it all began with the decision that I wanted to live differently and then the commitment that, no matter what, I was going to move toward that. Empowerment starts with us making our own decisions (even though they may not be the “right” ones) rather than allowing someone else to make those decisions for us.
Some years ago you organized an exhibition titled ‘SHAKTI’ in Edmonton, Canada where the theme was violence against Indian women. Can you share why you chose this name for the exhibition and why you chose to focus on domestic violence?
I chose to focus on all sorts of violence that women face in Indian communities worldwide (sex selective abortions, Dowry death, female infanticide, domestic violence etc) because it’s an issue close to my heart. It’s an issue that really needs to be acknowledged and talked about in Indian communities. There is such a watertight shroud of denial, shame, blame and outright lies about the level of violence that girls and women are subjected to in our very own families and communities. I know from experience that our silence does not protect us.
I chose the name Shakti because it literally means feminine empowerment. My art exhibition focused on violence against women as well as avenues for empowerment and change. I feel that the arts (music, art, literature) are a way we can transform our selves, our lives and our access to power.
Did you face any flak from the Indian community in Canada for highlighting domestic violence?
I didn’t experience any direct confrontations…it was more muted. A strong sense of denial, lack of support and ignorance was what I faced.
How can survivors of domestic violence break their silence and seek help?
I think this depends on the individual and their circumstances as well as their access to resources. I am very unfamiliar with laws and societal structures in India; for example…I have no idea if there are even domestic violence shelters there. In a country like the U.S. or Canada I feel that these are safe places to be if a woman is in a violent situation. In can be as simple (though not easy) as planning ahead of time, packing a bag and picking up the phone.
Also, it’s imperative to break the silence by speaking to safe people; this places the shame squarely on the abuser and not on the victim. So often, our shame keeps us silent and this not only depletes us of our power but it empowers the abuser. I think it all has begins with us believing that we are worthy. And we have to be prepared for being shamed and ostracized by our communities because so often, that is what happens.
What is your perception of the Indian community Canada – is there a strong preference for sons as there is in India? Is there any difference in the mindset of Indians in this country?
I think the first thing to acknowledge is that within the Indo-Canadian community, there are various sub-sets of Indians that have very different experiences. For example there are Indian immigrants from India, British Guyana, Fiji, South Africa etc as well as first generation Indians from these respective groups. And while there are commonalities amongst these groups, there are also strong differences; they are not a homogenous group. I think there is a preference for sons but some communities tend to be more misogynistic than others. In very general terms I find the Indo-Sikh community in Canada to have the strongest instances of violence against women as well as male gender preference.
As for the United States I am unable to make any sort of generalizations because I haven’t had any exposure to these communities.
What do we need to do to change the mindset of Indians, both in North America and India, to value their daughters, respect women?
I’m not sure how one would go about changing the Indian mindset…I think it all has to begin with how we treat ourselves, what we are willing to tolerate in the name of religion, culture, status etc. That being said…I think a multidisciplinary approach has to include access to resources (education, health care, women shelters) as well as laws that have to be in place and enforced.
What message do you have for your own daughter? What are your hope and dreams for her?
I hope to instill in my daughter a sense of unconditional love and acceptance, a sense of her individuality and identity. My deepest hopes and dreams for her is that she is the architect of her very own dreams!
What are three things you like about India?
I love the art and classical music. I love the temples and architecture of India…it veritably sings to the deepest parts of who I am. I love Indian food! And, for sure, I appreciate the diversity of India in terms of religion, ethnicity and culture.
What is your favorite quote?
There are so many…it would be difficult to pick just one. This quote by artist Aaron Douglas is what I hope I can bring to my work:“ Let’s bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth materials crude, rough, neglected. Then let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it.”
And I adore this quote by Marianne Williamson :
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”