Historical archives, that usually feature textual and visual documentation in black and white, bring forth layered narratives from the past. One such instance is the colonial portraiture of Indian indentureship by the British Empire in the 1800s, which saw the dispersal of millions of Indians across the world to work in sugar cane mills under exploitative contracts. The women labourers being few in numbers fell prey to gender-based atrocities. And to add to their miseries, the real picture remains buried under classist and sexist records of history. Colonial Trinidad not only systematically oppressed this workforce of women but also photographed them as exotic creatures to promote tourism to the region. With a familial history rooted in colonial oppression, Trinidad and Tobago-born artist Renluka Maharaj seeks to address the generational trauma faced by her ancestors through her evocative, colourful work.
Finding One’s Voice
Renluka holds a Master’s degree in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has won several awards and scholarships. “Initially, I aspired to be a lawyer thinking it would enable me to know my rights better as a brown person living in the US and leverage it to take care of my community—especially the women and children. Whilst in undergraduate school in New York, I signed up for an elective class in art history, albeit a Eurocentric history, but it drew me in. I later attended a painting class, and as clichéd as it may sound, I immediately fell in love. I chose art school over law school, but have still found a way to give back, represent and celebrate my community,” Renluka shares.
Return To Roots
A curiosity to investigate her own family history led Renluka on the journey to uncover the tales of the oppressed Trinidadian women workers. “I didn’t know my grandparents were indentured labourers until later in life. The inspiration to explore this subject came after taking a DNA test in 2018 which indicated my 100 per cent South Asian lineage. I have also managed to located immigration passes that belonged to my maternal grandparents. And I hope to find my extended family in India someday.” Renluka says, adding that she identifies as Indo-Caribbean and that has always helped her maintain an inclusive perspective in the multicultural context of modern-day US.
While researching her ancestors, Renluka chanced upon the archives of French photographer Felix Morin who captured the Indian women labourers through a culturally appropriated lens. “Trinidad had a thriving postcard business and Morin owned a photo studio in the capital, Port of Spain, as did other white photographers in other colonies, to promote tourism. The term ‘Coolie Belles’, coolie being a derogatory term for a labourer, was coined to describe the women he photographed. I wondered how they came to be in his studio. I had so many questions: Was it voluntary? Were they compensated? Indian women had more freedom in the Caribbean than they did in India, so, perhaps, this was a choice? Upon closer inspection, I noticed how similarly they were all clothed and a repetition of jewellery pieces and aprons, and realised that Morin was manipulating a certain look for his European customer base, further objectifying, exoticising and, thereby, othering these women. It became important that I lift them out of these archives and re-present them in a respectful, beautiful, engaging and confronting way. Given my fragmented history, any one of these women could be a relative and I felt it was my responsibility to protect them.”
Colours Of Freedom
A quote by Mauritian and French poet, Khal Torabully, who coined the term coolitude—‘Art liberates what the archives obliterate,’ is included in Renluka’s professional bio and her work reflects the same ideology. While Morin’s monochrome portraits robbed these women of their dignity, Renluka strives to resuscitate their power and free their portrayal from the shackles of objectification through the series, In Pelting Mangoes, she embellishes these photographs with a mixed palette of vibrant colours, beads, acrylic paint, rhinestones and glitter, refraining from altering the original backgrounds entirely so that they remain to serve as a constant reminder of the subjects’ trials and tribulations. “I choose colours and materials based on what I feel while looking at these images of my ancestors, as well as draw some from my memories of a childhood spent in the same places. As a child, I was oblivious to the violent history of the sugarcane I loved so much, I only saw the natural beauty and colours around me,” she remembers.
Looking For Inspiration
“Living in Colorado introduced me to foliage, something I never saw in New York City, where I spent most of my life,” she talks of her inspirations, counting Raja Ravi Varma, Amrita Sher-Gil, Pablo Picasso and Helen Frankenthaler among her favourite artists. Renluka also reads books by Caribbean authors and they usually inform the title of her works and shows. “My favourite authors VS Naipaul and Samuel Selvon have wonderful ways of making me, an Indo-Caribbean living outside my country, feel seen, heard and appreciated,” she tells us.
Renluka is cognisant of the risk of cultural appropriation that her own art may face in the future. “There is only so much an artist can do to protect their work, but I feel the more people know of this history the better. Also, no one else can copy the unique intensity of my art,” she says. Collaborations with talented non-visual artists is a prospect Renluka is keen on for future projects. Speaking enthusiastically of her latest outing in New York City she says, “I stepped out of my comfort zone to create a public installation at the Queens Botanical Gardens recently, and I hope to do more of that in the future.”
Photographs courtesy: Renluka Maharaj
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