By Nadia Kurd
“I came to making art through a circuitous route,” says Canadian artist Meera Sethi. As a self-taught graphic designer, Sethi felt that her transition to a full-time visual artist was a gradual one. Despite earning a BFA (1998) and MA in Interdisciplinary Studies at York University (2001), it was only after graduation that Sethi began experimenting with acrylic paints and became more confident working directly with various materials in her studio. As Sethi reflects, “I sometimes wonder if it was because there were no clearly defined role models for me to follow as an emerging visual artist.”
Her experimentations with paint eventually led to figurative paintings that explored her interests in South Asian identities and place. Painting series such as Firangi Rang Barangi (Colourful Stranger, 2009-2012), Foreign Returned (2013) and Upping the Aunty (2016) combine her graphic design and painterly sensibilities. These vivid and highly graphic paintings and drawings examine the hybridity and evolution of South Asian clothing, gendered norms and societal expectations. Most often portraits, these works emphasize the individuality of her subjects and provide insights [into] the diversity of South Asian culture.
For example, in her three-part series Upping the Aunty, Sethi presents portraits of middle-aged South Asian women who are informally referred to as ‘aunties’. Though not always a biological relation, these women are part of the larger South Asian community, who Sethi points out, are “neither our mothers nor part of our peer group, aunties may be trusted confidantes or gatekeepers of social decorum.” Along with these painted portraits, Sethi includes street-style photography and a colouring book. The playfulness and broad appeal of these illustrative works humorously highlight at the misconceptions about the personal lives of South Asian women.
Moreover, the work of established artists such as Mona Hatoum, Doris Salcedo, and Louise Bourgeois have been important to Sethi for understanding how to foreground the feminist body and the ways in which these artists have linked personal histories to larger social and political events. However, it is ultimately the stories and histories of communities that she is connected to such as queer people of colour and her family relations that she is most invested in. For Sethi, it is the stories from these communities, particularly histories of migration, the global flow of capital and colonization that exposes the current, complex lived experiences of people today.
Sethi develops her work organically as her process involves preliminary drawings, reading, and written reflection. More recently, Sethi has shifted from working in a stationary, graphic design manner to one that is much more mindful and body-focused in nature. “When I work in a studio environment, I spend a lot of time sourcing material and understanding its visual and material language” observes Sethi, “I sit with objects and give them time to speak to me, trying not to force an outcome, if during the process I feel stuck, I get up and move.”
In her current textile-based works, Outerwhere (2019), Sethi stitches together second-hand winter coats and various embellishments such as food wrappers, plastic flowers, fabric ribbons, and mirrors. As it develops, this project seeks to study “the binaries of inside/outside, personal/public, past/present as they relate to material culture and the migratory experiences of South Asian-Canadians.” More importantly, the work reveals the intersections of textile, lived experiences, and objects through an everyday, protective garment.
As she continues to evolve her work, Sethi has moved away from her past design practice to a more experimental, and time-sensitive approach—one that utilizes her history and memories in a more personal way. On this change in her artwork, she notes that “I find myself curious about new mediums such as durational sculpture, textile, and performance and I am also interested in exploring moments of transition and being in-between places, identities, and locations in a way that opens up questions rather than provide answers.”
In 2018, the Melissa Levin Emerging Artist Award through the Textile Museum of Canada recognized Sethi’s work (alongside Indigenous artist Catherine Blackburn). For her, the move from her graphic design to a more visual arts practice has allowed her to move towards a deeper reflection on the world around her. “My work is about the undoing of myself,” says Sethi, “through working with the materials I know best and my own life, I am able to draw connections that make world-making possible.”
 Meera Sethi, interview by author, Edmonton, AB, June 12, 2019.
 Meera Sethi, interview by author.
 Artist website.
 Meera Sethi, interview by author.