A reflection by academic Emma Sadera, on Abhi Chinniah's exhibition, A Migrant's Path. WHAKAARI | 29 September - 19 November 2023.
A FIRST ENCOUNTER: VISUAL CLARITY AND COMPASSION
I first encountered Abhi Chinniah’s work – and Abhi herself – at an exhibition of her photo essay Melanin Rising at the Depot Artspace in Devonport, Auckland. Coming into the narrow, bright, whitewashed space from the street outside, her work struck me with force I had not expected. Instead of the people I have often seen represented on gallery walls, here were faces of beauty, of melanin skin. They surrounded me in that close space, their eyes filled with experiences of being dark in a light-framed world, where fairness is prized in almost all our communities. The words that accompanied these portraits privileged those experiences, each subject talking about the impacts of colourism on their lives, their culture and home, fit and discomfort, compromise and loss. This was work I hadn’t seen before, speaking to the diasporic experiences of sitters of Asian and African descent in Aotearoa New Zealand. Some time later, I saw Abhi’s work from her show A Migrant’s Path. This collection of portraits centred stories from migrants from Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa, giving them space to express their ideas around belonging and cultural preservation.
As a brown migrant woman, I saw in both of these shows people whose lives and faces and words spoke to me, who I knew, although I hold what is termed without irony as light-skinned privilege. They were wonderful. Their melanin rose to heights of elevation, even if this contrasted with some of the difficult journeys that living in dark skin had brought these sitters. This work placed their skin, their lives, in the landscapes of Aotearoa New Zealand, places I could see if I took just a few steps over the gallery threshold. For tauiwi of colour, we don’t often see ourselves represented in art, except sometimes at the margins. In the context of Asian Australian artists, Professor Jacqueline Lo has discussed the 'orthodox multicultural paradigm’ that operates to limit migrant artists of colour to producing ethnographic works which outline racial differences between the Asian diaspora communities at the fringes and the mainstream communities at the centre. So to see whānau centred in these spaces was powerful. I wanted to know the artist who had created these images, who had captured her sitters with such lyrical acuity. I was lucky: I met Abhi, and I encountered her as a force of uncompromising vision, seeing her sitters with such vivid clarity and compassion. We spoke of her life, of her cultural and personal journeys, of her search for home and belonging. We talked about her art.
A NEW COLLECTION: No. 13
Abhi’s new photo essay is No. 13. In these works, which centre on experiences of mental health and mental illness, she expands her lens even wider to take in the mind’s construction of safety and comfort in our own (melanised) skin. Abhi’s work explores how people of colour navigate these questions and how the conflicts they experience – we experience– are shaped by and become vivid in the skin. The works in this series explore themes of choice and power, discretion and courage. Who decides what is valued, and what is normal? Who holds the power to determine safety and belonging? Power is relative, but there is no mystery about where power accretes and who misses out on holding it, in whose grasp it turns to liquid and escapes, like mercury trickling out of cupped brown palms. In No. 13, choice and power are manifested in the ways people experience mental health crises, or the slow exhausting burn of mental illness, and how they and the communities around them respond. In this show, Abhi’s work seems to do what Disability scholar Lennard Davis describes as ‘a kind of surveying of the terrain of the body’; that is, a reading of how the interior landscape is manifested in the body and face. That surveying is done with wit and rawness.
I am writing this during Aotearoa New Zealand’s Mental Health Awareness Week in September 2023. Amongst the laudable reminders in print and onscreen of the importance of tending to our mental wellness (although this is often constructed in Western, colonialist, capitalist terms, that reify individual productive solution-finding over the holistic, the communal, and the culturally safe), a lens such as Abhi’s which gives voice to Other experiences of mental health and ill-health, and of how culture and need can sit in tension, shows us a perspective that is often missing.
IDENTITY: A UNIVERSAL STRUGGLE OF DIFFERENT MEASURES
At the heart of Abhi’s work, it seems to me, is identity. This is certainly a universal struggle, but these works remind us that it is not felt equally by all. The work explores contested, difficult terrain of finding and remaking and asserting identity, even when the world (both within and without your community, or your whānau) is telling you that this thing or that thing cannot be part of your identity, that this is not what you are supposed to look like, this is not how you are to appear, that this way is not proper. Stigma – both public stigma, and self-stigma – sit (uncomfortably) close to the surface of these narrative images. Misunderstanding, fear, confusion, guilt, and shame are patterned through the batik. That most of these sitters and characters are pictured outside speaks to me of the need to be unconfined, seeking respite and the chance to stand in the outside world, in nature, and be unscrutinised, even if only briefly.
The other story that stretches through this work is that of community, of how coming together can create safe spaces for our identities to thrive, in all their dark, spiky complexities.
In brown families, at least in the ones I grew up within and around, difficult emotions are often either kept silent, squashed and suppressed, or, occasionally, dangerously, screamed. That suppression doesn’t, of course, eliminate them. It just means they seep out, or explode, in ways which either harm us, or perhaps a few of us can turn into art. Art which, too often, is not seen. Through this body of work, we can glimpse other ways of being with emotion, other ways in which these experiences, universal as they are, can be embodied and worn and danced and known.
This work creates a nexus of the human and the iconic in its imagery. I see Abhi in this work. I see myself. I see all my diasporic melanised whānau. I see the unfair and the unlovely. I see strength, I see fear, I see beauty, I see struggle, I see hope. I see you.
Lo,J. (2016). Diaspora, Art, and Empathy. In: Assmann, A., Detmers, I. (eds)Empathy and its Limits. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137552372_12
Davis,The Disability Studies Reader, p.12
Image: Meadow Sisters by Abhi Chinniah. All rights reserved.
ABOUT EMMA SADERA
Emma is an academic at Waipapa Taumata Rau The University of Auckland. Emma is Associate Dean for Equity and Diversity in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, where her work focuses on equity and inclusivity. She migrated to Aotearoa New Zealand in 2013.