Suchitra Mattai Envisions a Future of Brown Reclamation

Roberts Projects unveils the gallery’s first exhibition with the artist, who explores rebirth and reimagining with every strip and stitch.

In material and form, artist Suchitra Mattai monumentalizes matriarchs across her expansive body of work. Crafts learned from her grandmothers’ embolden her artistic practice. “It becomes a way of connecting with them, but also a way of honoring them, that’s what’s important to me, especially in this show,” she tells Observer.

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An installation view of ‘in the absence of power. in the presence of love.’ at Roberts Projects. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

With embroidery, needlepoint, beading and found objects, the Indo-Caribbean artist inserts women’s handiwork into traditional landscapes, creating a combination that thoughtfully contends with a colonial past and is amended to celebrate women reminiscent of her roots.

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Born in Guyana to Indian parents, Mattai weaves the thread of her ancestral history throughout her solo show at the Roberts Projects gallery in Los Angeles. When slavery ended in the Caribbean in the 1800s, the British turned to their largest colony, India, to find laborers to work the sugar plantations. It was under their rule that her great-grandparents were brought from the state of Uttar Pradesh to Guyana as indentured laborers.

‘show pony’, 2023, Vintage saris, vintage salvage trim, found objects, Bollywood cassette tape and other mixed media materials 100 x 70 in (254 x 177.8cm). Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

With every strip and stitch, Mattai’s family makes up the fabric of her art. Sumptuous saris belonging to her mother, sister, grandmothers, aunts and friends are braided into pendulous phala. “It’s the Sanskrit word for both the fruit that you eat, but also the fruit of your actions,” she explains. Suspended but organic to the space and subject, the soft sculptures offer food for thought, each one a delectable symbol of abundance and imbued in a celebratory labor of making.

Mixed-media collages continue the Los Angeles resident’s invented techniques and exploration of rebirth and reimagining. In thinking about freedom and liberty for women of color, past, present and future, Mattai created a Cosmic Awakening. The sprawling tapestry is draped to emerge dynamic, where the artist has returned to “the material of women’s bodies,’ braiding shimmering saris into a topography of prosperity. Decorative tassels become nods to domestic life, often embodied by her maternal ancestors but rarely represented. Meanwhile, golden tinsels are a less subtle ode to Caribbean and South Asian adornment.

‘future perfect’, 2023, Embroidery floss, found objects, freshwater pearls and trim on vintage needlepoint 25 x 19 in (63.5 x 48.3 cm). Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

For a sense of purpose, vibrant textiles, sourced from Rajasthan, India are transformed into ornate architecture. The faux pearl-lined patchwork reveals and conceals a sublime brown heroine “created from scratch.” Her lavish apparel is evocative of the European needlepoints Mattai revises throughout—she is an expression of newfound mythologies and a people that will no longer be denied representation. Mattai’s learned processes and use of culturally significant textiles collapse the division between high and low art, presenting a joyful “future” space full of possibility.

‘there once was a girl who had a little curl’, 2023Vintage saris, fabric, ghungroo bells and beaded trim 106 x 78 in (269.2 x 198.1 cm). Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

Traditional tapestries are reworked into vessels of reclamation, including the piece that takes the title of the exhibit in the absence of power. in the presence of love. In lieu of the pre-existing imagery, a brown woman replaces her white counterpart. Transformed, the figure appears as a warrior. She commands the scape dressed in a sari, flaunting intricate pink embroidery and opulent beading. An angelic young girl sits in her arms, and the figures behind her become ancestral spirits that support and celebrate the birth of this child. Recurring references to religious iconography materialize throughout the collection, particularly as radiant halos and as a means to disseminate power to everyday people.

‘Mother Earth’, 2023, Woven vintage saris, fabric, beaded netted cloth and cord 110 x 68 in (279.4 x 172.7 cm). Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

In other works, Mattai reconfigures needlepoints adding layers of intervention. European pastoral scenes are reimagined to characterize brown heroines—here the peaceful warriors span generations, realized as mythic yet accessible. In future tense (2023) an older woman serenely reads of the future enveloped in floral needlepoints and a black beaded halo glimmers atop her head, birthing new folklore. Each artwork engages in a deliberate dialogue between the historically empowered and the disenfranchised.

in the absence of power. in the presence of love. is on view through August 26.

Suchitra Mattai Envisions a Future of Brown Reclamation