After four days of playing phone-Facebook tag, Shalini Seereeram and I are finally facing each other. I apologise that we could not arrange a meeting sooner. “It’s okay,” she says, pulling back the curtain in the doorway to reveal a living room full of noisy relatives, “I have my own domestic chaos to deal with.” The 43-year-old artist is seated in her studio at home in Chaguanas, central Trinidad, surrounded by bottles and tubes of paint. “I waste a lot of it when it dries,” she jokes, “because I have to run off to do something for one of them.”
Creating amid the maelstrom of her large Indian family is still a struggle for Seereeram, even after fifteen years as one of the most celebrated and recognised visual artists in the Caribbean. Acclaim came in her career, during studies of graphic design and jewellery at the John S. Donaldson Technical Institute, when she received a President’s medal for her work. She is mostly self-taught in acrylics, oils, nail lacquer, collage and metal wire, though. Her illustrations have appeared on the covers and pages of leading magazines in the region, as a featured artist in a 2014 book to commemorate the 190th anniversary of the Angostura brewery, which is world-famous for its bitters, and in The National Museum and Art Gallery 2011 volume Women and Art. She has exhibited in galleries across the Caribbean and at the Organization of American States (OAS) headquarters in Washington, DC, and is currently on show at Campbell’s of London in the UK.
Yet there was little mention here in the newspapers about Seereeram’s most recent local exhibition, ‘Intimate Moments’, which ran for 12 days at a small, upscale gallery in Woodbrook, a posh suburb of Port of Spain. It was only on ARC’s website, the highly respected online magazine for contemporary artists based in St. Vincent, that I could find a review of what was probably the first exhibition of its kind in the country. This is not surprising: the paintings of women entwined, their nipples prominently displayed, would surely have given both the Archbishop of Port of Spain and the general-secretary of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha enough material to sermonise about for months.
“It was something that needed to be said,” Seereeram says quietly. The paintings are shocking – for a Trinidadian artist. No one has ever dared to paint women like this, loving each other, so sensually, so boldly – so openly. Wasn’t she afraid? “I was,” she replies, “I thought about it a lot before the exhibition – how people would react. But it was something that needed to be said.
“All this ‘India’s Daughter’ talk was going on,” she explains, alluding to the documentary film about the gang rape of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh, whose subsequent death sparked month-long protests across India, as people demanded the equality for women that is enshrined in India’s constitution.
Here, in Trinidad and Tobago, our first woman Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, a devout Hindu whose ancestors came from India, has refused to repeal antiquated laws criminalising homosexuality, or even to accept a draft national gender policy that recognises the LGBTI community. “I wanted to respond,” explains Seereeram. “And I am not the kind of person to sit around and talk about a problem. I just do something about it.”
In the end, ‘Intimate Moments’ didn’t cause even one-tenth of the brouhaha that, given the taboo nature of its content, the artist had expected. Perhaps the gallery owner was a bit intimidated; there was little publicity or marketing of the event, and only a few curious “undecideds” and women whom she knows are gay came to see the show. No men or collectors came – a telling departure from her previous shows. The gallery owner seemed to have an issue with missing limbs in her pieces. This was deliberate, Seereeram says, to show that the essence of a person is not their physical self – it is their soul that matters.
“For me, it’s not about the commercial aspect of the exhibition,” she continues. “If one teenager or child sees it and they feel less afraid, less lonely, less isolated, then it would have been worth it.” She knows all too well the fear, the pain, the loneliness of being different on this tiny island. It was only in her 30s that she found the courage to come out. Despite its notoriously liberal carnival every year, homosexuality is strongly condemned by the church in all its denominations and incarnations on this multi-ethnic island. Indeed, carnival is the only time that Trinbagonians really get to “play themselves”, as Seereeram did.
Traditionally, Carnival time, crop time, was when her family had to be at their most vigilant for maliciously set fires. “I am the daughter of a cane-cutter,” Seereeram says proudly. Her grandfather was one of the indentureds who came to Trinidad from India, and he would go from estate to estate, planting cane before being moved on to another piece of land. She grew up spending the months of February and March watching for fires in the nearby cane fields. But then, the sugar factory, Caroni Limited, closed down in 2003. It was the end of an era for Indians in Trinidad in many ways. Now, there was no cane to watch. A friend had wanted to bring out his own small carnival band, and she helped him to design and create the characters. Taking part in carnival – seeing the unique costumes, and the freedom that people are allowed to feel in the space – gave her the courage to finally be herself.
But it wasn’t carnival that gave her paintings their explosive, riotous colours. “It was Devdas,” she says, the 2002 Bollywood blockbuster, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai, that opened her eyes to the dazzling hues that make her paintings so unforgettable. The contrasts and deep pigments reminded her of Phagwa – “but fresh Phagwa, like when it first hits white cloth. The women had always been there in the paintings, but seeing Devdas was what made everything seem suddenly in technicolour.” The Bollywood romance, coupled with the Indian fabrics, jewellery and patterns she saw at trade fairs that began popping up across Trinidad, added another dimension to her already inimitable style.
Hinduism and Indian culture are core components of Seereeram’s art, yet it has also been a source of oppression for women – in India as well as diasporic communities in Trinidad. How does she feel about the religion? “It is still the most accepting of all the religions,” she mused softly. “I think it always was – up until the arrival of the British in India.” But she has Indian female friends who are still too afraid to be open about their sexuality. One is studying to become a doctor so she can emigrate to the US, the UK or Canada, like so many others have done to escape the stigma of being gay in these islands. “The thinking is, you will find someone better out there,” says Seereeram. “But I love my country. And I love my people. I want us to see ourselves as beautiful and different, and for us to accept each other for who we really are.”
All images courtesy of the artist Shalini Seereeram.
Nazma Muller is a Trinidadian journalist who has also lived in Jamaica and the UK. A contributor to Caribbean Beat magazine for the last 20 years, she spends her spare time advocating for the legalisation of ganja in the Caribbean.