Kelly Sinnapah Mary: Riddles of survival | Portfolio

Working across mediums, Guadeloupean artist Kelly Sinnapah Mary creates images with a fairytale quality, mingling cruelty and enchantment, as she explores postcolonial dilemmas and the resistance of self-invention, writes Shereen Ann Ali

  • Kelly Sinnapah Mary. Photography courtesy Kelly Sinnapah Mary
  • Notebook of No Return, Land Owner (drawing on paper, 2017). Photography courtesy Kelly Sinnapah Mary
  • Detail of installation Notebook of No Return, Alice & Goliath (painting on tapestry, wooden bench, and fabric knots on wall, 2019). Photography courtesy Kelly Sinnapah Mary
  • The artist at work in her studio. Photography courtesy Kelly Sinnapah Mary
  • Detail of Vagina (sewing and embroidery on cushion, 2014). Photography courtesy Kelly Sinnapah Mary
  • Paintings from Notebook of No Return (acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100 cm, 2018). Courtesy of Fondation Clement, Martinique. Photography courtesy Kelly Sinnapah Mary
  • Paintings from Notebook of No Return (acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100 cm, 2018). Courtesy of Fondation Clement, Martinique. Photography courtesy Kelly Sinnapah Mary. Photography courtesy Kelly Sinnapah Mary
  • Notebook of No Return, Jungle (photo montage, variable size, 2016), by Kelly Sinnapah Mary. Photography courtesy Kelly Sinnapah Mary

Braided cloth, flowered bedsheets, stuffed cushions — these are the unlikely materials from which Kelly Sinnapah Mary makes art. She combines such soft, “feminine” crafting materials and surreal, subversive techniques to raise hard issues: the reality of violence against women, for instance, or institutionalised violence against colonised cultures. What do such invasive experiences of domination do to the people who must endure them? How have people changed themselves in order to survive?

These themes sound heavy indeed, but the range of Sinnapah Mary’s approaches makes her art a constant adventure. Born in Guadeloupe in 1981, the descendant of Indian indentured labourers, the artist embraces her own ethnic heritage, sexuality, love of crafting, and keen sense of social injustice to make art objects, installations depicting mini-worlds, and two-dimensional images which often have unexpected science fiction or fairy tale echoes. She paints, draws, takes photographs, makes occasional videos, and also enjoys sewing up a storm of handmade objects with appliqued graffiti and drawn or collaged symbols, as she lets her imagination loose on ideas.

With degrees in visual art from the prestigious Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès (2004) and from the University of the French West Indies and Guiana in Martinique (2005), Sinnapah Mary has shown her work widely. The list of exhibitions includes her provocative 2012 show Vagina at Galerie T&T in Guadeloupe; the 2014 group show Caribbean: Crossroads of the World at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami; the 2015 show Field Notes at the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts (MoCADA) in downtown Brooklyn; the 2017 show The Expansion of Fantasies at the Maelle Gallerie in Paris; and most recently Present Passing: South by Southeast, presented by the Osage Foundation in Hong Kong this year.

She works mostly in a dedicated studio, but says sometimes she also likes to make art at home — “Because I like hearing my son play and talk in the background.” She also listens to music as she creates — right now she’s into Haitian-Canadian DJ Kaytranada, she says.

“When I was a child, I always liked drawing, doodling characters from tales or cartoons: Mickey, Donald, Goldilocks, Cinderella,” says Sinnapah Mary, in an email interview translated from her native French. “I could also spend hours and hours colouring. My mother liked working directly with cloth: she was a seamstress, and I think I inherited this hands-on approach from her.”

One of her grandfathers was a Hindu priest. All her grandparents followed both Hinduism and Catholicism, as many Indian families did in Guadeloupe, says Sinnapah Mary, but her own parents became Jehovah’s Witnesses and were uninterested in Indian diaspora issues. As Sinnapah Mary grew up, she gradually realised that both Afro- and Indo-Caribbeans are victims of a terrible uprooting, and this consciousness would help shape her future art.

Her artworks today involve subtle or graphic statements and visual stories that can be a bit like puzzles or riddles: you have to experience them and take the time to decode them. That is not to say that many of her pieces don’t have an immediate visceral power: just look at the animalistic image of a hairy mother cradling a newborn (a photo-drawing collage from Hot Milk 2), which seems bestially primeval, or the macabre images of a long-haired, faceless woman with a huge red-cushioned open maw where her face should be, part of the 2013–14 Vagina installation.

The scary Vagina woman-monster-mouth image may remind some people of the 1990s X-Files character the Flukeman, a genetic human-worm mutant who evolved from human pollution, living in sewers and eating people to survive and breed. Sinnapah Mary succeeds in creating her own unique interpretation of the monstrous: a cushioned red mouth orifice suggests both the vulnerability of female apertures and the dangers of woman unleashed, who may swallow you whole if you’re not careful.

What inspired that red-mouthed figure was Sinnapah Mary’s deeply felt reaction to the brutal 2012 gang rape and death of a twenty-three-year-old woman named Jyoti Singh Pandey by a gang of men on a bus in Delhi, which made international headlines and sparked public protests in India that year. Sinnapah Mary’s art in the wake of this horrendous crime became a meditation on rape, resistance, and the mutation of assaulted bodies and psyches into ghoulish personas and sometimes monstrous survival strategies.

Sinnapah Mary’s creative process often begins with reading literary works, and then proceeds to a series of sketches as she fleshes out her ideas. At the time of this interview, she’s busy reading books by V.S. Naipaul and James Baldwin. “I am very influenced by Caribbean literature,” she explains. “For example, in the series Notebook of No Return” — a 2018 installation — “I’d been reading about transcultural concepts as expressed in ‘Coolitude’ by the French Mauritian poet Khal Torabully, as well as ideas on the Négritude movement as expressed by Aimé Césaire. Both writers addressed themes of oppression.”

Sinnapah Mary often uses photo-editing and collage approaches to help in composing her paintings, doing a series of tests before committing to the final work. She works on several projects simultaneously, with inspiration coming from anywhere at all: “Anything can inspire me: a book, a meeting, an odour, a sensation, a movie . . .”

There is a fairytale quality of magical enchantment and cruel brutality to some of Sinnapah Mary’s work. In Notebook of No Return, one painting depicts a mysterious, somewhat zombie-like young woman in a ballooning white colonial-era dress with her arms and feet cut off, against a painted background of soft feathery leaves. Strange white spikes grow from her skin.

This image of severed limbs and a spiky body is disturbing: it’s gory, but can also suggest other kinds of dismemberment, such as the cutting up of women’s identities, or the cultural amputations of Indian migrants to the Caribbean, who must keep some parts of themselves, lop off other bits, and grow new body-armours in their struggle to adapt and create new identities in alienating new lands.

“Yes, there is both the idea of enchantment and brutality in this work,” says Sinnapah Mary, referring to the group exhibition Désir Cannibale — which ran in mid-2018 at the Fondation Clément in Martinique — in which her dismembered spiky women featured in her Notebook of No Return to a Native Land works. The title of this series references Martinican writer Aimé Césaire’s celebrated 1939 poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Journal of a Homecoming), about the cultural identity of black Africans in a colonial setting. Sinnapah Mary sees some commonalities, and says for Indians in the Caribbean, there was no real going back to any ancestral home.

She explains that her spiky amputated women figures are indeed mutated selves: they shed or moult old skin to make way for new growth, essential to the rebirth of Indian emigrants in their adopted lands: “The spikes on their skin are like the quills of sea urchins. These women are marked with traces of the crossing of the waters and the curse of the black waters of the Kala Pani” — cursed to perpetual wandering.

Some of Mary’s Notebook of No Return images evoke a primordial, even cannibalistic quality in order to defy “the violent intentions of the colonial insult,” as Trinidadian-Canadian writer Andil Gosine notes in an article on her work. “Sinnapah Mary creates visual images which both assert the presence of an underrepresented people and reveal the spaces in which pleasure and violence are simultaneously generated and entwined.” The hint of cannibalism also recalls the Brazilian modernist poet Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 Manifesto Antropófago, advancing a playful theory of cultural cannibalism: the New World must eat up the creations of the Old World, digest them, and transform them to create its own reality.

Another intriguing motif in Sinnapah Mary’s work is a long skein of plaited hair. In one series of black and white drawings, all the images are formed from hair. Sinnapah Mary says this references survival mechanisms of indentured Indians who encountered deplorable working conditions on French plantations. For most, there was no question of a return to a former home, to a motherland, or to former notions of “purity”: “They had to rebuild their identity in the global context of French, Caribbean, African, and Indian cultures.”

So in the plaiting together of different strands of hair, Sinnapah Mary finds an apt visual metaphor for how Indian diaspora people had to reconstruct and weave together new realities and creolised identities from whatever was available to them in these new landscapes — and an equally apt metaphor for those Caribbean artists, like herself, who create bold, unforgettable images exploring these elements of personal and collective history.