The Indo Canadian artist Meera Sethi’s art seduces you to the land of extravagant colours, extraordinary union of garish ghagra-choli with high heeled stilettos, peacock printed harem pants and mojri accessorized with a bandana and star shaped studs.
Meera Sethi’s art looks at contemporary fashion, Indian dress iconography, home interiors, sexual expressions, cultural and ethnic beliefs to express and celebrate an identity that functions at a third plane of existence.
It is the attire that chiefly constructs the self while the body is faintly sketched with minimal details. Across cultures, specifically in South Asian context ,one’s clothing are primarily reflective of attitudes, class, gender, caste and ethnicity .They form the site of celebration, self expression, gendered violence, and beauty.
For Sethi, what we choose or don’t choose to wear and how we put ourselves together is a powerful form of communication and expression. “Clothing can be performative and political. As an artist, I am interested in observing how this happens. I am also interested in understanding the contemporary and historical conditions that influenced or created certain items of clothing, trends and personal sartorial styles.”
A fascinating fusion of elements from South Asian patterns and histories and North American musical and pop culture references is a negotiation of her inherited and adopted identity that is created, altered and exercised through several cultural agencies.
In an exclusive tete a tete with Emaho, Meera Sethi shares with us “ For me, art is one way by which I can draw together (no pun intended!) my various histories and identities. It allows me to express the wholeness of myself.”
However, Meera who did an undergraduate degree in Fine Arts, specializing in art theory and drawing followed by a masters degree in cultural studies never anticipated being a professional artist. Meera Sethi shares with us “Instead once I graduated, I ventured into arts administration and later graphic design which I taught myself. Throughout this period however, I was always interested in issues of migration and visual and material culture. These found their way into my master’s thesis as well”
The images in Firangi Rang Birangi are technicolour apparel and accessories quintessentially Indian or South Asian fused with western dressing sensibilities. Interestingly,their names are inscribed on a collar broach, dangling necklace, belt and different stylized accessories. They are used to challenge stereotypes and take pride in individual expression and celebration of a diaspora identity. The inspiration for this came from Meera’s personal experience while growing up in Canada.
As a child, Meera would always look for her name on the key rings hanging in the shops and never find it among all the Anglo-English names. “I would return home disappointed and feeling like I somehow didn’t belong here,” recalls Meera.
Along with illustrations and designs, Meera’s photo-documentary series “Immigrant/Elegant”, documenting spaces of South Asian migrants is an attempt to understand how journey, migration and transition gets expressed in an interior space by means of objects, furniture, photographs, and the expression of identity in that space. It is also a “deconstruction of the idea of “beauty” as it applies to interior design; who defines it, how is it defined, and how is it challenged.”
Her latest project “Upping the Aunty” is primarily a celebration of our “aunties” and our relationship to them. It is an acknowledgement of the important place these women play in our lives as diasporic South Asians.It is also a celebration of their distinct sartorial choices and in investigation into what makes an aunty an aunty!
However, do not err into believing that Meera’s work is simply decorative, imaginative or entertaining for it is used as a strong tool for registering protest and addressing social causes. She has designed posters and book covers against Bill 94 in Quebec disallowing women to wear Nikab ,against anti-racism and forcible uprooting of Palestinians, and in support of contributions to the Pakistan Flood Relief Programme.She envisages the role of an art in society as “a powerful form of critique that can speak to people on an emotional level, making the possibility for change that much stronger.”
An ideal boy is playful,irreverentand deliciously disregardful of authorial dictations and norms. By incorporating a gay male narrative in An Ideal Boy,Meera specifically wanted to celebrate queer identities and redefine what is considered “ideal” and what are considered “good habits” not just in India, but everywhere.
Be it Firangi Rang Birangi,MixedMaster,Protest posters or Ideal boy,her art has an unremitting concern with the self and its expression.She simply put in “Because our lives as diasporic people, queer people, people of colour are important.”
Meera Sethi’s fascinating work is a herald to rethink, revise and redevelop definitions of “normal”, “beauty” and “self -identity ” in contemporary society and popular conscious.
Meera Sethi has had several exhibitions in Toronto,Canada and Melbourne,Australia and a solo show in Mumbai,India at Bombay Electric. To see more of her work,visit www.meerasethi.com. Online shop of Meera’s print coming soon here.
Written by: Habiba Insaf
Art work by: Meera Sethi