Profiles on Practice: Meera Sethi

NK: Hello, my name is Nadia Kurd and I’m the host of Profiles on Practice, a podcast that examines the life and work of women artists of colour in Canada.

MS: My name is Meera Sethi and I’m an interdisciplinary visual artist living and working in Toronto. I work with a variety of different mediums. I’ve, in the past, worked a lot with painting and also with graphic design. My creative history is as a graphic designer, but now I work with a variety of other mediums. I’ve been doing a lot of drawing. I work with fibre and material and I do hand sewing. I also do some performance and some installation, it just depends on the project.

NK: You began in your arts practice as a graphic designer, and more recently have shifted towards exploring textiles and patterning. What led you to this focus on fabrics?

MS: I’m actually a self-taught graphic designer and I had quite a meandering sort of route to what I do now, to being an artist. I do have a BFA from York University, and that was more in theory and art theory. And then I went on to do an MA in Critical Thought and Interdisciplinary studies that was not practice-based. And then, through that period I was a self-taught graphic designer working with private clients and working as an apprentice at a print shop, which is where I learned a lot of the technical software and tools. And so graphic design was something (or is something) I really enjoy.

I enjoy looking at the sort of relationship between objects and space, thinking about orientation and about the organization of a two-dimensional space, so sort of blank space and then how to animate that space. I was looking at a lot of graphic design, creating a lot of graphic design, thinking about the relationship between text and image, a lot of looking at line and form and color and solid areas of space.

And I began to sort of, as I shifted, I did some undergrad work as a student artist ahead, a few exhibitions here and there. And then I went on to focus on critical theory. But when I left grad school, I started to work as a graphic designer and I was missing sort of this hands-on experience of making art that wasn’t digitally mediated, that wasn’t through a screen.

And I picked up some art materials, some acrylic paint, and started to sort of play around with it. And that history as a graphic designer led to the creation of sort of very graphically oriented paintings, graphically oriented arts. So, it was almost like a graphic painting, with very hard edges, very strong colors.

And I did that for a number of years and I really enjoyed that thinking about I guess where I was in my life at the time, exploring my own identity, my own sense of self out in the world, my own relationship to my body and sort of the external world. And through that, I got to explore a lot about pattern and specifically patterns that I was familiar with, patterns from where I grew up with, South Asian and Indian textiles, on Indian clothing. I was also looking at a lot of street signage and in India when I would go and travel there, as well as here. And bringing that all together into the paintings I was doing, which were primarily imagined portraits of our portraits of imagined people focusing on a sense of fashion or sense of style and combining that with identity exploration.

I did that for a long time and I really enjoyed that. And I think more recently about a handful of years ago, I sort of broke that open. I was curious about what artwork would look like outside of a structure of creating a form and then filling that form in. And that led me to think about the textiles and the fabrics themselves that I was painting. I was painting textiles, I was painting fabric, I was painting clothing, and it led me to actually think about those things as objects in themselves. I think that for me, my graphic design history led me down this path in the sense of really looking at the relationship between objects and looking at the relationship on a 2D space, negative space, and sort of design elements.

Actually, about a year and a half ago, I applied and was accepted to a residency. It was a thematic residency called “Distributed Identities” with a handful of other artists from across Canada and international artists as well. It was a five-week residency over the months of February and March of 2019, and it was a real turning point for me. It was the first time I had done sort of a proper residency where everything was sort of taken care of. And we were given a studio and we were given, you know, this complete freedom to work on and create. We didn’t even have to come up with a final project, just explore whatever we wanted. And it was, you know, away from home, it was in a completely new landscape for me. I had never been to Banff or Alberta. And so, it was a real turning point because I didn’t go there to paint. I went there to explore this idea of creating temporary structures, using fabric.

And so, I had taken my fabric with me, which was actually saris that I had sort of created and had made. And when I got there, you know, through the course of the aspiration, I realized that I was just playing around, and it was really, really cold for the first few weeks. It was in the minus twenties and thirties. And I was playing around with these and there were snow and ice everywhere outside. And I decided to go out into the cold and work with my fabric. And I noticed that there was a lot of steps near my studio and there were metal steps and I decided to just sort of seeing what if I could just create a structure with just the snow or the ice and the fabric and not using anything else that led me down a path to think about the impermanence of structures and the way fabric can mold around objects and spaces and a very light, thin fabric, like a sari, you know, how does that hold up in a new environment? So, coming from an environment or a climate or hot temperature, like Indian summers to the middle of winter in Alberta, how does this fabric hold up? And then what does that say? You know, does that say something about larger ideas and larger questions around resiliency, around survival, around adaptation, around migration?

So those are the things that started to play with. And I think Banff really opened up a whole bunch of new possibilities, which I’m still working within our previous discussions.

NK: You talked about your process as one where quote, “When I work in a studio environment, I spend a lot of time sourcing material and understanding its visual and material language. 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 I move.” Can you elaborate on this?

MS: Yeah. When I started to shift away from primarily painting to more fibre-based work, I was working with a lot of materials and objects that were found in my own space, in my parents’ basement through travels that I had done back and forth from India, and other places in second-hand shops, things that were given to me by other people and I was working a lot with objects for the first time almost, but many of these things were quite old and had been with me or been with someone for a very long time. So it was this sort of process of trying to understand. The relationship between objects, but not in a 2D sense, was more of an exploration than trying to come to a final sort of consideration of these things.

And so, it became really important. Or I realized that I can’t just pick something up and use it right away. It may not. It’s interesting to me, for some reason I’ve collected it for some reason, such as, you know, uh, a piece of fabric or a poster that I picked up when I was an old Delhi in India, that was a children’s poster with children’s images, teaching kids language, you know, I may not know what to do with it right away, but I had picked it up because it spoke to me somehow at the time. And I think that it’s important or it’s important in my own process to allow these things, to speak to me rather than me sort of force a language onto them or force a story onto them. And because I want to transform these objects, I don’t want to use them as is. I want to sort of cut them, mend them, fold them, break them, recombine them. It’s important that I have some kind of ongoing relationship with them. One of the things that I love about being an artist is the sense of freedom. And I feel like it’s one of few professions, I guess, where you can just do what you want.

There’s a real benefit and a real joy to being able to create the time and space and the means to do whatever you want for a sort of fixed period of time. And I think in that sense of freedom there, it’s really nice to, for me to be able to just imagine new ways for objects and new ways for things that I’ve collected that they weren’t meant to do.

And in terms of when I feel stuck, I guess what I meant by that was feeling a creative stuckness feeling. Like I don’t understand what is the purpose of this thing that I picked up? What am I supposed to do with this? It doesn’t make sense, but I like it. And I, you know, [was] feeling this stuckness and the sense of telling a story in my project called Outerwear, which is a series of embellished, winter coats, sort of a soft sculpture or fiber installation.

They’re very much about the body. And they’re very much about the stories that the body has to tell, um, through what is worn and, and even prior to that, and the paintings that I have done, they’re also very much about the body. They’re about the self and the way the body moves and shows up in the world in a visual sense.

And so for me, the body is really central. And if I feel stuck, I started to notice that, you know, if I would get up and move around, go for a walk, dance, my studio, just a stretch to sort of be outside of that zone of creation and be in another space that would open things up and, and get things to flow again, which I think is probably something that a lot of artists do.

And I think coming from a design background and doing design commercially it’s very you and your computer it’s very desk-based. Traditionally, it wasn’t like that. It was very hands-on prior to computers it was a lot of scissors and knives and rulers and pens and pencils.

And, but I think when things shifted to computer-based design, it became quite a static practice and so your body’s quite fixed. Your eyes are moving around on a screen, you know, your hand is moving, but that relationships sort of shifted. And I think when I started to move away from design into painting and then painting into more fiber-based works, my body starts getting increasingly involved.

So even when I went from design on a computer to painting one of the things that I loved most about painting, because I would do this fairly large scale. So sort of human body size or larger. What I loved about it was being able to move across the canvas. Like I would have to move around the canvas to reach different parts and shift my body into different positions in order to reach those parts or contort my hands in a different way to get to a specific area. And I really enjoyed that physical practice of it. And then again, when I moved from painting to fiber-based work where I was teaching myself, how to sew by hand for the first time or how to felt. It was again, a very body-based practice that tied thematically very well to the project as well.

And I think part of it is, was this process of reclaiming my own relationship to my body as a woman, as a person of color, as a queer person, you know, as someone who left one home and moved to another home was sort of reclaiming my body through all of this, through my artwork. So, there’s a real connection. It’s sort of an intuitive connection there for me.

NK: And your time observing the garments and textiles of India. What are some of the trends that you’ve noticed? What has changed? Does this have any resonance to the current social and political shifts in India?

MS: I guess I am a casual part-time observer of Indian fashion and its trends. I don’t follow it too closely, but I follow it as someone who’s curious, but not someone who has a professional interest in a sense. I follow it more through the eyes of an artist rather than through the eyes of a designer and someone in the industry. And so, my comments really come from that place.

I have been doing that since I was an early teenager. I was reading a lot of Indian fashion magazines at the time, and I continued to do that. I think I sort of got to see this movement from the eighties through the nineties, into the two-thousands, but my own lens has shifted a lot. So, whereas my lens before was more coming at it through thinking about editorial photography and creating scenes, thinking about, or just looking at that, it’s now more focused on thinking about the relationship between across people and consumers or thinking about the relationship between here and there and how these objects travel around the world and how the stories connected to the objects travel around the world. And what’s the role and the place of very ancient, very complex, very technically strong practices of different craft making practices and the labour involved in that. The artistic labour, the physical labour.

How a story develops around that and how that gets rewarded or exploited by, you know, different actors. And I think that’s what’s interesting to me. And I think that’s the shift that I have noticed is that there are a lot more conversations happening now around the relationship of craft to fashion or craft to commercialism and what is being lost often is the livelihoods that the livelihoods of craftspeople whether they are, you know, working with different mediums or weavers or painters or woodworkers metal workers, et cetera. And so, I think that’s a great conversation that’s happening among people who are concerned about the loss of either craft technique or the loss of livelihood. But I think that conversation’s probably happening just in a small community of people globally and within South Asia. I think nationally India is in a very tense place right now, and situation where the extreme right government, the Hindu fundamentalist government has a very different take on these things and is very market-driven, very market-oriented. And that sort of matches up, I think often with large, multinational corporations, large corporations that profit off of cheap labour and ancient craft traditions. But I think that there is this sort of oppositional trend that is happening, that speaks back to that in small ways.

And that’s the trend that is, I think also being picked up by people outside of the country who are looking at building sustainable craft practices, looking, thinking about fair trade, thinking about the environment.

NK: Yeah, I mean, one of those things I take comfort in is that there seems to be anyways, or I’m more aware of it, is that trend for fair trade textiles across South Asia, the series of things that have happened. Like I think of in Bangladesh with the Rana building, that there is a greater awareness now for people to know the conditions of those who work in these factories. Much like our food, much like everything else, living in North America, we’re so disconnected from that, seeing that are being closely connected to that I think it informs your worldview anyways.

MS: Yeah, definitely. I agree. I think there’s a lot more awareness now and I think a lot of that has to do with media literacy and social media as well. And people working to connect people who have vastly different lives, you know, places that are very far apart.

And so, we hear about horrible incidents, like the Rana Plaza factory collapse, or, you know, other losses of lives and livelihoods. And we don’t make those connections like you said, between what we were here and what’s happened over there.

And I think that there is an increasing interest in understanding these systems of power that sort of loop around the entire world, especially in clothing and garment and fashion. We’ve seen that in terms of the aesthetics and the visuality of fashion. We see fashion designers for decades have been borrowing. Sometimes it’s borrowing, sometimes it’s appropriating, sometimes it’s inspired and sometimes it’s more of a power grab around imagery from other parts of the world. But the parallel conversation about where are these things made and how are they made in what conditions? This is just one example.

There are many other examples that parallel conversation hasn’t really happened in a public way. And I think it’s been picking up steam lately partly through the environmental movement, partly through people working [on a] smaller scale, smaller-scale producers and small ethically based companies and individuals in that stream are trying to make these links that I think are eye-opening for a lot of people.

India, as India exists now, is really in the process of retelling its history through a very false lens. And that retelling involves a Hinduization of the country of centering and marginalizing and sometimes completely deleting traditions and fashion, traditions, and voices that have existed there for ages and, and centering it.

A particular narrative like a saffronization, sort of centering that colour, even, in fact, making that the colour that’s associated with an Indian identity. And so, we see that happening. I mean, it was, you know, it’s happening in the textbooks in school textbooks, it’s happening in curriculum, it’s happening on the highest levels of politics in the country.

So even, you know, what Modi, the current prime minister of India wears, he’s very image oriented. And that image that he’s created is very much a Hindu image using particular garments that he is sort of refashioned about him. Whether it’s the Modi jacket or the colour saffron, or the use of particular kinds of turbans.

And I think that’s filtering down into the rest of the country. It’s sort of forcing a real division in what has been a very syncretic history. And I think that is well, it’s deeply troubling and deeply problematic. And for example, the sari has been worn by lots of different communities, but I think now it’s increasingly thought of as Hindu garments and people specifically, it has this religious tone or this racialized, not racialized, but this religious tone that it perhaps didn’t originally have. Obviously, there’s politics in clothing, not just in its production, but also how it’s worn. And these can be thought of through regional lenses, through religious lenses of caste and class. Yeah.

NK: Maybe you could talk a little bit more in detail about the paintings and the painting series, that way it would sort of help situate the process a little bit. 

MS: Sure. Over 10 years ago, probably 10 or 12 or 14, 10 or 12 years ago. Yeah, it was called Firangi Rang Barangi which translates into “colorful stranger.” And that was a series of acrylic and hand pencil paintings on paper, large size paper. And they were sort of about the hybrid self about, I guess, in a sense, how I felt going back to India. I would go back to India every year, every two years to visit family in the summers, I grew up that way.

So this was sort of about exploring this sense of hybrid identity. That was sort of more, I mean, now we’re quite familiar with hybridity. It’s almost boring to have this exploration of a dual sense of identity. But I think back when I was doing that, it was slightly [newer], and it was slightly more interesting, and it was also very personal to me. So, I was looking at this through clothing. I was imagining outfits for what I was painting in a way that I didn’t see existed, actually on the street and in my life. And so, there was a real freedom and real fun and a real joy to bring together different accessories and different patterns and different items of clothing and just sort of like have a great deal of fun with that.

So that was from Firangi Rang Barangi. And I think it resonated a lot with people in the diaspora and people back home. This resonated with a group of people I think, who were struggling with understanding and accepting themselves along these lines, and people also who traveled a lot back and forth between these places.

After that, I did a series called Upping the Aunty, and Upping the Aunty was again an exploration of identity and clothing, but from a highlighting, this figure of the aunty, this figure of the older South Asian woman who may not necessarily be a blood relative, may not necessarily be someone close to the family, might even be a stranger, but is this figure that is embodied by lots of different women, lots of different older women.

And I was looking at what they wear and how what they wear is perceived and how it’s structured and how it’s denigrated. And I wanted to respond to that in a positive lens, I was quite interested and intrigued by certain combinations of sneakers with a shalwar or a baseball cap with a sari or, you know, another small sort of variations, high hybridity again, but not from the perspective of someone who’s young and has traveled back and forth. But someone from the perspective of someone who has had to very quickly adjust and adapt their lives and the way they dress to different climates to a migration journey, to motherhood, to you know, a different language and a culture. And again, I had a lot of fun with that. I first took photographs of women on the street in India and Canada.

And I called for people to send in their photographs as well. And I just worked with things that I saw repeatedly coming up and had a lot of fun. And I think that resonated again with a lot of people because it was the first time that aunties had seen themselves celebrated on canvas. It was really speaking back and changing this conversation about fashion and what’s fashionable and who gets to decide that, how does that get decided? You know, and why some people perpetually are outside of the fashion canon, or maybe struggle with self-identity and self-image because of the messages that are received externally. I wanted to work with that, and I had a lot of fun with the colours and, you know, exploring and learning, growing my own, my own eye when it came to combining textures and colours and patterns and postures.

After Upping the Aunty, I sort of continued down that same path with another series called Begum and Begum is a Hindi or the Urdu word for queen. And in Begum, I was inspired by a number of my queer male-identified friends, thinking about femme identity on male bodies and thinking about expression in the fashion of that, of looking at, celebrating, a femme-ness on male bodies, celebrating non-binary identities and celebrating drag identities and the flamboyance and the fun and the freedom of that. Again, that isn’t an expression that’s safe on the streets. Is not an expression that is safe in most environments. So, I created a safe space for this expression of that. And I really wanted to, again, bring together different elements, bring together the sense of hybridity that also exists in this series. So that was a, yeah, that was also, spoke again to a different group of people. And I think it really spoke to a need for queer Brown bodies to see ourselves reflected back to us in beautiful ways, in ways that were of our own choosing and of our own desire and, and exploring, and really having fun with the exuberance of that expression.

After I finished Begum, there was a shift in what I was making and, and I wanted to explore more of an abstracted visual language. And so, I did another series of paintings called, which I called trends, iterations of looking at textile and colour again, but through a more abstracted lens of bolts of fabric lined up from one colour to another colour. And I painted these, taking each painting takes a particular colour, such as Indigo that has this relationship or this history between global North and the global South or the East and the West. And that led me to think about colour and clothing and textile and more abstract ways.

Right now, I’m immersed in this project called that I’ve called Unskilled. And it’s based on this now because of COVID and the pandemic at the at-home residency. But it’s based on this residency that I was awarded at the University of Toronto Mississauga campus through the Centre for South Asian Civilizations and the residency was to engage the students and some of the themes that are part of the Centre for South Asian civilizations through artwork. And I’m thinking a lot about those ideas about making and the maker and the labour and the work of making clothing and the work of taking care of clothes.

Those ideas are interesting to me and it’s shifting away from or it’s trying to connect my own or our own love for clothing and self-expression and identity to other power structures that make this possible, but actually are quite exploited and quite vulnerable and involve these global exchanges, unequal exchanges of material and of cloth.

And anyway, I’m working on this at the moment, it involves drawing and design practices and sewing. I think, as an artist, one of the things that I notice I bring as an artist, is this interest and ability to make connections between things. My practice is not a deeply focused practice on a particular medium, or a particular idea. I think what’s really interesting to me, and where my skillset maybe comes in, is thinking interdisciplinarily. Thinking about making connections that we often don’t get time to make in our everyday lives. Our lives are so busy, we’re not making connections between, you know, this shirt that I wear, and where it’s made, and how that relates to the environment, and how that came to be in the store where I bought it from. That’s just one idea. Or how that relates to the colour that it is dipped in or the pattern that is on it? How does that relate ancestrally to my identity and why does that feel important to me? Why does that give me a sense of myself?

Making all of these connections is what’s really interesting to me. Whatever the focus of my project making these connections is I think a way for me to find wholeness in myself to connect these disparate parts of myself, that, you know, I spend my whole life making these connections. And I think now I’m quite interested in and curious about making these connections through whatever project that I put my mind to.

Thank you to my guest Meera Sethi and podcast collaborator Femme Art Review. Audio engineering by Riaz Mehmood and music by Kevin MacLeod. The Profiles on Practice Podcast was generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Originals initiative.

Transcribed by Adi Berardini, Femme Art Review 2021.