In My Mother’s Image

A Note From a South Asian woman artist to South Asian women artists
By Sur Mehat

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Recently I attended a discussion where a respected peer of mine said that she felt that part of her job as an artist is to make images for those whose sacrifices and perseverance in the past enable her to be where she is now-not impoverished of body or spirit, nor bowed by the weight of hatred. Such dedication to the production of gender and culturally specific work is praiseworthy and inspiring indeed, especially when we consider the implications of such a focus. To choose to be woman-centred and, what's more, South Asian woman-centred in the art arena means choosing not to be phallocentric, not to be eurocentric, not to be any kind of white feminist nor any kind of 'Canadian' other than the particular kind and experience that one is. In the face of a society that expects your silent servitude on one side and your undying gratitude for their imperial lust on the other, to be concerned about and dedicated to the production of work that speaks of and to our mothers, aunts, sisters and grandmothers is an act of great courage. This considerable fortitude ensures not only a repertoire in the context of the arts community, but also and more importantly, provides a dialogue and point of connection between generations in the Canadian diaspora.

I ask myself if I'm prepared to do this. I wonder if I can make that jump from institutional alignments to personal responsibility. As I begin to map out the terms of commitment to working for positive change, I must also be prepared to imagine and image that which is a part of me, that which, indeed, has had so much to with my survival. I too must give back, and repay as best I can, in my own way and with my own speciality the inconceivable debt I owe. When I stop thinking about ways to trip-up a system and expose contradiction and consider what our grandmothers and mothers did and do still for us all, when I stop to consider the sacrifices that are made daily, monthly, yearly, my preoccupation with destroying the existing hegemony becomes pointless. After all is said and done, for whom have I worked? Who have I helped? If my answer is staring at me from a mirror that's not good enough. It is not enough to engage in battle for this singular "I" with its needs and desires and vanities.

There is an ongoing conversation that passes between us and that has no end. It is the discussion about what we can do for our mothers. Our dialogues are multiple and go on till all hours of the early morning. The concern that comes out and the frustration that is voiced speak of the high regard and love we have for these women who always give so much to those around them and receive so little. I have thought too many times that I must, this year, do that drawing for my mother. I must do it right. Yet, every year, I produce some unacceptable mess that my five-year-old self outdid so many years ago. I look at the drawings I did for my mother back then and remember how I felt when I thought a drawing did not quite measure up to my expectations. It didn't say what I wanted it to say. And, I remember the ones that did. But my mother liked them all or at least pretended to, like any of our loving mothers did. She still does that, but I'm still unimpressed with my own drawings.

There is a language that we are trying to construct from our discussions that everything in this society attempts to stifle, negate and destroy the desire for. Our attempts to acknowledge and enter into discourse with our mothers, with our brown skinned mothers, is not advantageous for them because it brings together two 'pools' of the labour force who do the menial jobs for the lowest pay. Our mobilization is their nightmare.

But before we can get to that point we have to forge a language in which we can find the possibilities for our images. We must produce imagery of ourselves and for ourselves that not only delineates the parameters of our private spaces but also unambiguously states what will not be tolerated in the public arena. This is a part of our job as artists. We must offer from our charcoal stained, paint splattered, scrape-knuckled, hammer blistered, young brown hands, representations of the callused, scarred, infinitely strong and tireless wrinkled hands. We must speak of what we come from and agree that it is not enough to offer to wash the dishes or move the furniture or paint the house or carry the grocery bags.

I think of all the things I do to show my mother that I love and appreciate and am proud of her and upon reflection I know I can do better. There is one thing that I can do better than anything else. There is one language in which I have surpassed fluency and entered the level of reconstruction. I have this facility and I've seen your work, so I know you've got it too. I suggest we come together and discuss till all hours of the night and use our considerable collective abilities to make images that our mothers won't have to pretend to like, and that we will be satisfied with (if only until the next series). It is indeed a daunting task, but one that grows from righteous pride.

In the face of a society that expects your silent servitude on one side and your undying gratitude for their imperial lust on the other, to be concerned about and dedicated to the production of work that speaks of and to our mothers, aunts, sisters and grandmothers is an act of great courage.
Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Sur Mehat
Sur Mehat is a visual artist living in Vancouver.
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