By Vasuki Shanmuganathan
During February 2022, I had the privilege of interviewing emerging artists Vijay Saravanamuthu and Dhiviya Prabaharan about their recent exhibit titled No Vacancy in Scarborough, produced in collaboration with Emily Peltier from Scarborough Arts – on view in Scarborough’s Tamil barbershop SR Beauty Salon, Nov – Feb 2022.
The exhibition theme contests representations tied to Tamil arrivals (refugees, immigrants, undocumented people, and migrants) as temporary or ahistorical Canada. Re-interpreting these notions, the exhibit centers on narratives of Tamil people bringing with them deep histories and traditions of arts and crafts practices to Turtle Island. No Vacancy in Scarborough invited artists to consider which practices have survived, been inherited, or revived through their families despite forced migration.
The works of Scarborough textile artist Dhiviya Prabaharan titled Shanmugadevi and digital artist Vijay Saravanamuthu titled Two Seedlings highlight cultural production practices passed down through their grandmothers. They continuously explore complex and revelatory narratives about Tamil art forms that have taken root in local neighbourhoods as a result of migration and displacement. Scarborough’s lack of exhibition spaces does not quell the rich heritage of artists in the area nor, as Vijay describes, “how artful living is infused in how we move, our everyday living.” Historically, the area has been sidelined by Toronto’s concentration of galleries, not to mention the class, race, and economic access barriers visible within the city’s art landscape.
The exhibit took place in a hair salon which is part of a strip mall long occupied by Tamil shop owners but slowly dissipating with transit expansions, gentrification, the rising cost of living, and the impacts of the pandemic. I visited the shop owner, Yoga, who was willing to host the exhibit in the Scarborough neighbourhood of Brimley and Eglinton. He had arrived as a refugee less than a decade ago with his family. In response to the proposed partnership, he shared his belief that Tamil art deserves the kind of recognition that matches its rich history.
No Vacancy in Scarborough urgently daylights the challenges of charting the survival of Tamil creative practices, familial warmth, and diasporic continuities through revisiting lineages of art and crafts.
To talk about a queer Tamil lineage of art, one must contend with the trauma of conflict and displacement, and the inheritance of practices long lost to time, genocide, and war. Both artists emphasize this common history as significant to understanding their work during our interview. No Vacancy in Scarborough urgently daylights the challenges of charting the survival of Tamil creative practices, familial warmth, and diasporic continuities through revisiting lineages of art and crafts. When the most recent genocide in 2009 took place, old and new generations alike felt deep grief. Displacement means losing connection to the island of Sri Lanka. Displacement has also meant losing knowledge of Tamil art histories and developments. Yet Tamil art in Canada is finding revival of older practices as witnessed by new artists’ lineages and collectives who incorporate these practices in their artworks.
Dhiviya Prabaharan’s Shanmugadevi approaches intergenerational relations through an honoring of ancestral creative practices and reclamation of queer connectedness to culture and family. Their batik panels embody a craft-based process of calling in and grieving — repeating the labour-intensive rituals of the past by turning raw cotton fabric into images and patterns tied to natural elements. The exhibit showcased six 15 x 20 batik-resist panels. Prabaharan explains, “This series of work was co-created with the spirit of my ancestor, my late paternal grandmother Shanmugadevi, through the elements of fire and water and its interactions with the batik process. My grandmother was a batik designer, garment worker, and artist. However, because she had passed before I was born, and for many reasons including the war and migration, many of her designs were lost. I grieved this loss deeply, and in feeling and moving it, an opportunity to learn her art was born. This experience has reminded me that I am truly held by my ancestors, the power of trusting in divine timing, and believing that the right people show up at the right time.”
In contrast, Vijay Saravanamuthu’s short film Two Seedlings seeks to document family histories and art practices between himself and his paati (grandmother) Ranganayaki Chinna Thirucottyappa with visual storytelling using pen and ink drawings and black and white photographs collected on a recent trip back home to Sri Lanka. His paati taught herself how to draw despite the lack of art classes accessible to her on the island by taking remote learning classes using a mail-in critique system in India. Vijay’s work is marked by a sense of visual mourning which forecloses on the totality of loss. Two Seedlings features voiceover and digital weaving as a means to reclaim, “treasured remnants of a life once lived with peace and dignity in pre-1983 Ceylon.” His relationship to the arts has been influenced by the familial network in initially recording and digitizing existing practices and then adding his digital visual journey which makes use of panning wide sun-filled landscape shots, animated photographs, and voice narration. A second artwork is already in the works as he seeks to turn his intergenerational and collaborative exchange into a durational commentary on the nature of writing one’s history.
He says, “Displaced by the Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka, Two Seedlings explores my relationship with my paati and my homeland, knowing both ancestral mothers only through photographs, phone calls, and short visits. Growing up in a family of storytellers, I often listened to old tales and imagined what my grandmother might have looked like as a child, what her childhood on the island might have been like, and how war and displacement have impacted her. Lacking access to paati in ways that many of my peers accessed their grandparents – exchanging gifts at holiday dinners, as cherished keepers of childhood secrets, or as warm hands tucking you into bed – my relationship with paati lived mostly in my imagination.”
The intent behind the No Vacancy in Scarborough series was to bring together arts organizations, small businesses, and creatives in suburban neighbourhoods who had been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Vijay and Dhiviya are part of a growing group of Tamil artists who seek to contribute to this arts landscape by honoring lived experiences and inherited histories from back home. Given the success of this exhibit, another call for Tamil artists has already been launched for the Golden Mile district of Scarborough. What can be learned from centering queer Tamil artists and their contributions? A process of looking at older practices critically as they too come from histories tied to caste, Indigeneity, gender, and location but without losing the tender ties that carried them through the generations. This approach invites artists to draw on new and existing intimacies through art entwined to local neighbourhoods.
A few months after the closing of this exhibit, Queer Tamil Collective held the first ever Scarborough Pride Event for Tamils which was a historical moment for the community. There has also been a proliferation of Tamil artists and collectives exhibiting work in the past two years such as most recently Jeyolyn Christi’s thoduvanam (Contact Photography Festival, May 2022), Whyishnave Suthagar’s Life Cycles (CDCC Gallery, May 2022), Josh Vettivelu’s prayers for a word (Visual Arts Centre of Clarington, February – March 2022), for all, I care (Lakeshore Arts, October – December 2021), and Tamil aavana kaappaka tittam (The Public Gallery, March – June 2021). Perhaps it is farsighted to conclude these recent exhibits as an indication of a growing Tamil art movement, but consideration of this possibility is long overdue in Canadian art criticism.
You can also find this review in the second print issue of Femme Art Review on the theme of Queer and Feminist Collaboration.
 Vijay Saravanamuthu, interview by Vasuki Shanmuganathan, online, 17 February 2022.
 Yoga Palaniyandy, interview by Vasuki Shanmuganathan, Scarborough, 23 November 2022.
 Dhiviya Prabaharan, interview by Vasuki Shanmuganathan, online, 14 February 2022.
 Vijay Saravanamuthu, interview by Vasuki Shanmuganathan, online, 17 February 2022.
 “All that is Golden: Call for Artists,” Scarborough Arts, 25 July 2022, accessed 26 July 2022, https://www.scarborougharts.com/news/call-for-submissions-all-that-is-golden.
 Adler, Mike, “Scarborough Pride Toronto event first one ever in Canada for Tamils,” The Toronto Star, 17 June 2022, https://www.thestar.com/local-toronto-scarborough/entertainment/2022/06/17/scarborough-pride-toronto-event-first-one-ever-in-canada-for-tamils.html?utm_source=share-bar&utm_medium=user&utm_campaign=user-share.
 “Jeyolyn Christi: thoduvanam,” Contact Photography Festival, accessed 20 July 2022, scotiabankcontactphoto.com/2022/open-call/jeyolyn-christi-thoduvanam.
 “Life Cycles: Live Performance by Whyishnave Suthagar,” Critical Distance, accessed 20 July 2022, https://criticaldistance.ca/event/life-cycles-live-performance-by-whyishnave-suthagar.
 “for all, I care,” Aarati Akkapeddi, Luxvna Uthayakumar, Krish Dineshkumar, Vasuki Shanmuganathan. Accessed 20 June 2022, https://forallicare.ca.; queer Telegu-American artist Aarati Akkapeddi was part of this exhibit comprised of Tamil artists. The group of artists had found affinities in how two related racialized communities on Turtle Island shared similar care practices amidst the pandemic.
 Tamil Archive Project, “tamil aavana kaappaka tittam,” The Public Gallery, March 2021, https://thepublicstudio.ca/gallery/tamil-aavana-kaappaka-tittam-தமிழ்-ஆர்கைவ்-ப்ரொஜெக்ட்.