Monsters Sew

By Jo Phillips

The more varied our life experience the more we bring to the table, especially in creative forms. When you are born with generations of multiple heritages it can create a fusion of ideas to explore, as well as memories, myths and traditions. Artist Suchitra Mattai has done just that by honouring the traditions going back to her great grandmother in her new show ‘Monsters’ at Unit London.

Multimedia Indo-Caribbean artist Suchitra Mattai’s exhibition Monster will open at Unit London on 11 January, with a new body of work that explores the social, emotional and political significance of material-based practices in relation to those who find themselves culturally “othered”, through displacement, migration or mental health challenges.

Works are multi-facets materials embroidered and trimmed together to create colourful powerful canvases.

Bodies and souls 2021 Suchitra Mattai

Born in Guyana and currently based in Denver in the United States, Mattai has previously lived in Canada, India, France and in various states across the US. The descendant of indentured labourers, her great grandparents were brought to work on sugar plantations beginning in the late 19th Century from India. Using a craft traditionally dismissed as “women’s work”, Mattai reminds us of its significance in relation to “othered” communities: the disenfranchised, migrants, the historically silenced female and the mentally ill.

Mattai is a multimedia artist, her embroidery works to honour the practices of her female ancestors as well as the craft techniques taught to her as a child by her grandmother, who was herself a seamstress. Incorporating found or pre-existing materials, fabrics and furniture, combined with the embroidery and needlework skills she initially learned as a child define her current practice.

Foreigner 2021 Suchitra Mattai

In the pursuit of what has traditionally been viewed as “low art”, Mattai follows in the footsteps of the Godmother of feminist art, Judy Chicago. Chicago collaborated with a team of seamstresses to integrate needlework into her artworks since the late 1970s which culminated in the now-legendary Dinner Party.

Mattai too like her godmother highlights othered narratives and the dark legacy of colonialism via the cultural significance of textiles and quilting.

Past thoughts future actions Suchitra Mattai

As an art form, fibre-based practices have been overshadowed by painting, sculpture and architecture. A vivid feminine, feminist presence strongly imbues her work, which is unsurprising given that Mattai says she is particularly interested in excavating the buried stories of women. What with women having been historically dealt the most challenging circumstances and continuing to encounter and overcome numerous obstacles, Mattai deliberately focuses on highlighting female narratives, the ancestral thread and her stories in her body of work.

Mattai’s personal experience of mental health challenges combined with a somewhat nomadic journey has fuelled her insight into the way in which society ‘others’, particularly immigrants and the mentally ill.  “I always felt like I was Bipolar,” she reflects. “It just wasn’t talked about in my Indo-Caribbean childhood. I thought about retelling the story of my own family and the alienation that followed through to my own mental health. I decided I wanted to create an exhibition that made space for these parallels.”

Curator Rebecca Hart (previously Modern and Contemporary Art Curator for the Denver Art Museum) says,

“For Suchitra Mattai, memory, myth, and fantasy provide a platform to explore lived experience in all of its rich guises. She invites us to explore our own monsters, especially how we are involved with othering and mental health metrics. Her Indo-Caribbean heritage and feminist position inform choices for materials and symbols that resonate deeply, inviting empathetic identification with her subject, the monstrous.”

A world without secrets knows no pain Suchitra Mattai

And Mattai says by way of explanation.  “I am interested in the psychological effects of this “othering” and offer this exhibition as a space for confronting biases, misunderstandings and even taboos that are often associated with these communities.  Monsters occupy a landscape of the unknown, they embody the worst of our fears. Our biases are rooted in these (both real and imagined) differences.  Through this body of work I explore how we can confront our own monsters and learn to accept differences in others.”

Suchitra Mattai show Monsters is from now until 12th February at 3 Unit London Hanover Square, London W1S 1HD unitlondon.com

If you enjoyed reading Monsters Sew then why not read Trim to Tremendous Here