A Poet’s Quarrel, by Denver based Indo-Caribbean artist Suchitra Mattai, is an artwork made out of another artwork. Like many of Mattai’s recent pieces it is a textile intervention on a found artwork – embroidery on a landscape painting. Using bright yellow and red thread Mattai has embroidered large lightning bolts onto an otherwise idyllic scene of a cottage nestled in a mountain valley. It’s an offbeat pairing in so many ways: new and old, abstract and real, primary colors and earth tones, craft and high art, serene and disaster. It is quintessentially Mattai. Kajal connected with the artist to discuss the finding, making, and naming of this work.

Suchitra Mattai, A Poet’s Quarrel, 2020, Embroidery floss on found painting, 24 x 36 inches.

Kajal: I’d like to begin by asking you about your finding process. How and where do you find your “found artworks” Are you always looking or do you purposefully source from a few trusted places? And do you visualize an intervention as soon as you “find” an artwork or live with a find before working with it?

Suchitra Mattai: I source materials from numerous places. Sometimes I come across an object at a second hand store and am immediately inspired to create work with it. Other times I find or collect objects, keep a mental note of them, and then use them when the time is right. I gather materials from Etsy, Goodwill, vintage stores, and markets in the US and abroad (France, India, the Caribbean, etc.) as well as from family, friends, and strangers. My Mother collects saris from friends and family for my tapestries and, recently, strangers have been contacting me to give me saris too!

I am always looking with an eye towards objects that reflect a European/Western historic moment. These objects already have a history or aura that I can infer, imagine and manipulate. I use them to create new narratives through their complex histories. There is also a theme of recycling that is important to me. Reconfiguring the discarded object that was once precious to give it new life is important to me.

Mattai’s supplies.

Artistic reincarnation through recycling! Do you remember where you found this painting?

I found this painting at Goodwill! It felt so nostalgic to me and reminded me of the way humans struggle to convey the sublimity of nature.

What was it about this image that drew you to it?

I live in Denver, Colorado now and the mountains are always calling me. I have also had the opportunity to visit the Himalayas and the Alps. But ultimately, I was drawn to this particular “site” because it reflects an idealized version of a place. It is kitschy on one hand, but also beautiful and desolate, a perfect place for nature’s wrath and human turmoil to unfold.

One of Mattai’s photographs of the Colorado mountains.

The tension between the found, the serene landscape, and the added, the lightning bolt, is so gripping and delicious. Can you talk me through your intervention? Why lightning bolts? Why embroidery? Why red and yellow?

The house is the site of the impending disaster. The lightning bolt is of nature but it is made of the hand through the process of embroidery. The lightning bolt is dramatic, as are the colors in the work. The colors I use are often vibrant and are based on Indian miniature paintings and textiles as well as the landscape of the Caribbean. I wanted the colors of the bolt to also be dramatic and to contrast with the earthy tones of the landscape.

I embroider because it is a creative practice that was once confined to the domestic sphere, mostly employed by women. I learned embroidery, sewing, crocheting, etc. from my Grandmothers, one of whom was a professional seamstress. I am interested in dissolving the boundaries between craft and art and high and low. Women have long been excluded from the art world and I am interested in bringing practices like embroidery into the contemporary art dialogue.

A detail from A Poet’s Quarrel.

I see more and more contemporary artists, especially women artists, similarly challenging the hierarchy of art processes by adopting craft techniques – it’s exciting, and long overdue. It’s ironic that this is happening alongside NFT-mania.

People in the domestic sphere were always creating, but their work was never included in the canon of Western art history. There is now a greater effort to be inclusive and this means being inclusive in terms of who gets to be part of the art dialogue, but also what materials and practices can also be included. I often feel as though I am in dialogue with these women and others of the past. I celebrate and recontextualize their work.

Back to your piece, I really enjoy your decision to leave the original artists’ very prominent signature as is. You didn’t even add your own name to the canvas. Do you always retain the original signatures? Did you ever consider covering this one?

It is very important to me that viewers are made aware that I am using a found work. I wanted to honor the original maker so naturally I left their signature.

A detail from A Poet’s Quarrel.

The title, A Poet’s Quarrel, is very…poetic; it teases a dramatic and romantic narrative. It implies conflict and intimacy. How did you come up with that phrase?

The site is romantic but there is an allusion to impending disaster. In a way, it is a metaphor for the pregnant pause, the moment before creation. It reflects the struggles within the artist/poet, that provocative internal dialogue.

Is this piece part of a larger body of work or creative investigation?

Yes. Though much of my work is based on my family’s ocean migrations and research on the period of colonial indentured labor during the 19th Century in order to expand our sense of “history,” this work more abstractly looks at the rupturing of an “ideal” landscape. A Poet’s Quarrel takes a found idyllic western landscape and disrupts the serene space with a lightning bolt. The “browning” of America is something that I think about a lot as an immigrant. Though I’ve been in America for decades, I continue to feel like an outsider in many ways. For years I made fragmented “landscapes,” using my disjointed memories of places I lived and traveled within as a basis for the work. The bolt hitting the house in all of its pastoral glory reflects the impending awakening of America to its cultural and racial biases.

Also, in the last five years or so I have been increasingly integrating practices and materials associated with the domestic sphere such as embroidery, weaving, various fiber elements, etc. I also re-imagine vintage and found materials that have a rich past as a way of creating a dialogue with the original makers and the time periods in which they were cherished as well as a means of navigating my own personal narrative. I feel that A Poet’s Quarrel synthesizes all of these approaches.

All forms of genuine education require a loss of innocence, and that loss is sometimes painful or uncomfortable. But it can also be liberating.

It’s great to hear you contextualize this piece within your practise. When I first saw it, it felt like an outlier because it did not have any of those visual references to colonial and Caribbean historical narratives that I associate with your work.

My practice is open-ended. I use a wealth of materials and processes. When I was younger, I considered myself a painter but I have found that I am most comfortable without limits and boundaries. As artists, we are often expected to work within certain limitations but I want my practice to be free and expansive. Humans are complex as is the process of creativity. I learn from every work I make and if I restrict myself the joy of curiosity is stifled. There are connecting conceptual threads in conversation with a wide array of formal processes and materials.

I am an artist, an immigrant of the South Asian and Caribbean diaspora, a mother, etc. You can find themes associated with all of these personas in my work.

This being said, I often compare the act of intervening in the landscape to the feelings of isolation and difference associated with migrating. When we are thrown into new places, those places undergo disruptions of a sort.

Speaking of disruptions, you made A Poet’s Quarrel in 2020. A year that was unprecedented and disruptive in so many ways. What was 2020 like for your practice?

2020 brought so many challenges. We all know people who’ve lost their jobs, or worse, their loved ones, as a result of COVID-19. I’ve been incredibly fortunate, since I was able to continue my practice. I’ve produced several exhibitions worth of work during this past year. Working allows me to process what’s going on around me, though it will take a great deal of time to fully wrap one’s head around the magnitude of the pandemic, and all of the various struggles that have surfaced – from the fight to end systemic racial injustices, to the need to deal with environmental catastrophes and political turmoil.

In the summer, after a few months of lockdown, I created an exhibition called Innocence and Everything After, at K Contemporary Art (Denver, CO) in which I explored the possibility of regaining a kind of second-order innocence, one that transports viewers back to their collective childhood, when the world was full of tantalizing possibilities. I thought that tapping into this deep and universal experience of innocence could help us re-imagine a new normal, one that makes space for unheard voices, environmental reforms, and racial and economic justice. All forms of genuine education require a loss of innocence, and that loss is sometimes painful or uncomfortable. But it can also be liberating, and a source of inspiration for new beginnings.

Installation images from Mattai’s exhibition Innocence and Everything After. Courtesy of K Contemporary, photos by Wes Magyar:

All images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted.