A Q&A with Meera Sethi
I stumbled upon the work of artist Meera Sethi at Bombay Electric in Mumbai. I love her use of colors and her modern take on Indian garments. The Toronto-based Sethi answered some questions for me while she traveled India and as I returned from my third trip to that nation.
Your Firangi Rang Birangi series of paintings really caught my eye. Can you describe them to me?
The Firangi Rang Barangi — Hindi for “colorful foreigner” — works are a series of acrylic, pencil, and ink paintings on paper that foreground themes of femininity and hybridity through dress. In them I combine Eastern and Western textiles, garments, and jewelry in order to reimagine identity across borders.
These paintings make use of bold colors and patterns, layering cultural history with personal style. While the surface of these works draws us in, the bodies that they adorn are barely revealed — an inversion that suggests the role of sartorial expression in creating a sense of self, particularly one rooted in a diasporic, transnational experience.
Who are the women in the paintings?
The women are imagined characters who love clothing and style. Bold and confident, they are equally at home in Mumbai, Toronto, or New York.
Part of the inspiration for the work comes from my own desire while growing up to see South Asian names represented on jewelry and art in a Western context. I remember going to the mall as a child in Toronto and always looking for the key chain or ring with my name on it but never finding it. This work responds to that experience of invisibility and to the experience of being a woman of Indian origin growing up in the West, struggling to express my many identities.
They’re being shown at Bombay Electric in Mumbai. How did Priya [Kishore, the proprietor of the boutique] discover your work?
Bombay Electric is a sort of aesthetic home for these paintings, in that their energy is so wonderfully aligned with Priya’s store. The bright, fearless colors in my work match the fun, funky feel of Bombay Electric.
The first time I visited Bombay Electric was as a customer. I was blown away by the store, by the designers, artists, and craftspeople represented. Three years later, I was delighted when Priya expressed such enthusiasm toward my own work. We both felt a sense of discovery, each at different times.
You’re Indian-born and live in Toronto. How do India and Canada affect your work?
Each home impacts my work in significant ways. I think the loud colors and layering of patterns comes from an urban Indian aesthetic, where the predominant sense of style is one of “more is better.” This contrasts sharply with the heavy use of black, grays, and neutrals in the harsh Canadian climate. And while I don’t use a lot of these darker or flatter colors in this series, I think it is the contrast between the two cultural and geographic environments that makes for a very interesting perspective and provides the inspiration for these works. Beyond this, however, I am interested in encouraging new ways to dress, to express oneself through clothing to those who find themselves rooted in two distinctly different cultures. Because of this, I don’t think these works will ever neatly fit into any one place.
Which fashion scene is more exciting: Mumbai or Toronto?
At the moment, the Mumbai fashion scene is very exciting to me because there are numerous others who are bringing together two vastly different design sensibilities in their garments. I do not know about the Toronto fashion scene as much as I would like to.
Your personal style is fun and colorful. Do you intentionally dress in a similar style/color to your artwork?
It is definitely not intentional, but you are right in that it is similar at times. I love clothing, dress, fashion, and style. I love playing with garments and accessories and creating new ways of wearing old things. I think about what I wear and enjoy the effect my clothing has on my mood and my day. To me, clothing is as significant an expression of culture as the language we speak or the food we eat. It is the telling of past, present, and future in motion.
Your favorite Canadian designer?
I’m still on the prowl.
I like what Karishma Shahani is doing with layering and color.
Finally, can your work be seen in the U.S.?
Not yet, but I hope to be shown at the MoMA soon!