16 OCTOBER 2023

A Migrant's Path: Abhi Chinniah

A Migrant's Path: Abhi Chinniah

An interview with Abhi Chinniah about her exhibition, A Migrant's Path. Exhibiting in WHAKAARI from 29 September - 29 November 2023.

We sit down with Abhi Chinniah (pronounced Ah-Bee) to learn more about her exhibition, A Migrant’s Path, what it was that influenced her work and how she came to photography.

What is your background, artistic or otherwise?

A lot of my story ties into my father's story, who arrived in New Zealand as a migrant in the 1970s, and the challenges he faced as a minority in Malaysia and later as a minority in New Zealand. I was born in Christchurch, and moved back to Malaysia when I was seven years old, which was a real culture shock, because I had been brought up as kiwi kid (although I didn’t look like a typical kiwi kid). In Malaysia, art was seen as a ‘lazy’ subject, but I always knew I liked creative things, and when my father bought a family camera, I quickly made it mine. At 17, I was sent back to New Zealand to finish school, which meant I was able to pick up art classes. I tried (and failed) at law and accounting, before graduating in Marketing and Management. My first job out of university exposed me to photography again, and it just clicked and reminded me of how much I loved it as a teenager. I started experimenting and developing my voice, before some of my work was published. I went on to establish a gallery exhibition, paying an astronomical amount of money while still on minimum wage, and it evolved, finding my voice along the way helped me grow into what you’ll now see in Te Atamira, which is an extensive showing of my work.

Now I am trying to reclaim the creative side of me because I love doing it, and upending a lot of stories that are put on women of colour is really important for me, which ties in to colorism. All of the storytelling in my work to date has come from extremely personal places.  

Can we talk about the inspiration for a Migrant’s Path and what compelled you to create these works?

My father is at the core of everything I do, so the motivation was the migration journey of my family, and my father's experience, and his story of opening the doors for us in New Zealand but leaving and never coming back because he did not feel like he belonged. ‘A Migrants Path’ is about how people seek belonging when they are away from their home or their roots, and my experience with that was being in New Zealand without my mum and dad, as they are the anchor to my culture, and I had a lot of questions about how other people navigated these feelings. I photograph people and talk to them about their stories, and then start adding other layers.

How do you show this through this work? Can you explain how it is woven into the different elements and layers?

All the cultural elements are extremely significant. ‘Light skin dark skin’, 'A Migrants Path’ and ‘Melanin Rising’ are all rooted in documentary, so everyone has agency to share their story and choose their outfits, which are personal and of significance to them. It’s also a bit of a political statement when you have people from ethnic communities wearing their cultural heritage proudly in Aotearoa, and that's part of the journey of finding belonging in this beautiful place we all call home.  

With No. #13, my latest body of work, it’s not a documentary, it's a very self-reflective and extremely personal body of work where I have created six fictional characters who, in my head, exist in the small towns where my father and I grew up. The outfits were reminiscent of my upbringing and the beautiful parts of it, such as the traditional Indian dance, and the music performed by my mother, and the sari that is featured is my grandmother's which is over 50 years old. You’re now seeing a more personal side of me, a more conceptual side of my work that also relates to mental health and how that ties into colourism and the migration journey.

Why has the medium photography making been your outlet here?

Photography is all I’ve ever known, and I think it comes down to hijacking the camera from my dad as a teenager. My Grandmother had a wall covered with photographs of her family, black and white pictures that were very traditional and serious, so that was what I grew up with. We never engaged with art or went to galleries, so there was no other art medium or exposure besides photography or music.

Do you have a favourite piece from the collection?

I have a bias towards No. 13, not just because it is a new collection, but because it is such a self-reflection and I had the opportunity to dig in deep, which is why they would be my favourite. I like all the portraits, but maybe Marigold Head would be my absolute favourite.

What is the significance of No. #13 title?

No. 13 is my number. I was born on the 13th and I’ve always liked the number 13. I asked myself what is the most personal thing to me, but also a title that would appeal to other people, that they would understand and be a bit more interesting.

What message do you hope people take away from seeing your works?

It's hard for me to articulate, as the storytelling has come from a massively private place, so I hope there is recognition that some people have incredibly intense journeys, and that the meaning behind this resonates with people, because it's so deep. People can fit this into their own experiences and conversations, or they can take in these journeys and perhaps it resonates, or they can just enjoy it and learn about it. All of these experiences are part of the journey, and I will spend my life unpacking all of this intergenerational trauma, and trying to make sense of it, and this work, particularly No 13, has helped me to do that.  

What is next for you? What is your big dream? What projects do you have in the pipelines?

I would love to have an ongoing home for my work, as it’s quite an extensive archive, so it would be great if people can view it at any time. Coming into the art space had its own challenges as I wasn’t seen as an artist and some people pointed that out, saying ‘why are you here, don’t even try, you’re not one of us’ which is kind of ironic because I’ve never been one of anyone so what's new! That’s the whole point of these exhibitions and exactly what my work is about [Laughs].

About Abhi Chinniah

Born in Ōtautahi Christchurch to Jaffna Tamil Malaysian parents, Abhi grew up in East Coast Malaysia and now lives in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Abhi Chinniah is a self-taught portrait photographer and writer. Drawing from her lived experiences, Abhi uses portraiture to elevate marginalised voices honing in on women of colour, migrant communities and colourism. Abhi currently resides in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland.

About A Migrant’s Path

'A Migrant's Path,' followed the stories of migrant groups in Aotearoa and how these groups seek out belonging when separated from their roots. Abhi's collection of narrative portraits featuring migrant residents of New Zealand is photographed against the backdrop of Aotearoa's landscape. This exhibition celebrates cultural heritage and nods to the past while paving a path for the future. Her debut photographic series, 'Light Skin Dark Skin,' explored the journeys people have to take because of the colour of their skin. 'Light Skin Dark Skin' and 'A Migrant's Path' went on to be acquired by The National Library of New Zealand. Her widely acclaimed photo essay 'Melanin Rising' used portraits, essays and interviews to understand skin-lightening practices and media representation of dark-skinned people. Abhi currently resides in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland.

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