In new exhibition, Trinidadian-born Renluka Maharaj reimagines Indian indentureship in technicolor

A report by Suzanne Persaud for Scroll.

Colonial archives are rarely in colour. Instead, history is documented in black and white – its grave epochs of colonial violence and inconsequential minutiae in the same repeating archival shades of grey. In the absence of colour, all violence is neutralised; the number of women murdered on a plantation is recorded in the same black ink as the ounces of tamarind and rice allocated as rations sailing on ships from Calcutta to the Caribbean.

After the abolition of chattel slavery in the British empire in the nineteenth century, colonial planters required a new supply of labour. The system of indenture was conceived as a way to maintain the plantation economies, transporting over one million Indians from the subcontinent and scattering them throughout British, French and Dutch empires.

In the Western hemisphere, present-day Guyana received the largest number of indentured Indians, followed by countries such as Trinidad and Tobago, Guadeloupe and Jamaica.

In colonial Trinidad, Frenchman Felix Morin established photography studio capturing a series of portraits by indentured Indian women; their likeness would become the faces of exotic Caribbean postcards. These Indian women were icons of a visual paradox: posed by Morin and named sometimes as the anonymous “Coolie Belle”, these women inherited a convention of naming that fetishised them as “beauties” during a system of labour that was characterised by horrific rates of gender-based violence, resulting in the gruesomely high rates of murder.

As indentured Indian women appeared in British reports as regular victims of violence, they were simultaneously photographed during this period. Disproportionate ratios of men to women aboard the ships leaving Calcutta and Madras were cited as the cause of women being murdered.

Although the British attempted to redress these numbers following the consistent murders of indentured Indian women on plantations, in some colonies the numbers remained severely unequal through the end of indenture.

In Jamaica, indentured Indian women remained the disproportionate minority of indentured laborers from 1845 through 1916, spanning nearly the entire period of indenture on that island.

“Pelting Mangoes,” an exhibit by Trinidadian-born Renluka Maharaj currently underway at the FLXST Gallery in Chicago, reimagines the portraiture of these indentured Indian women by embellishing Morin’s original photographs in a mixed-medium of acrylic paint, glitter and rhinestones.

The new portraits dazzle the viewer, producing an affective impulse familiar to those with indentured histories: knowledge of a violent system of plantation labour, and recognition of the simultaneous importance of chronicling of an archive that is seldom catalogued by history.

“Lillah” (2020) 30×40 inches, archival photo printed on canvas, acrylic paint, glitter.

The exhibit features nine portraits of Morin’s photographs that Maharaj has enlarged and reimagined on nine canvases. In the canvases of the nine women, Maharaj reworked both the women’s garments and jewelry, fashioning these objects to resemble her own experiences of family and growing up in Trinidad and Tobago. In one portrait, Lillah, a woman appears with a halo surrounding her, her bare feet planted among flora – unlike the cold studio in Morin’s originals. In Susila, the background of the woman evokes the Caribbean in a mural of coconut or palm fronds.

In one of Morin’s original black and white portraits, a woman is covered with an odhni or headscarf, as she poses carrying her weight in jewelry; in Maharaj’s colored transformation, the red of the sari produces an almost palatial effect. The women’s arm bands shimmers with silver enhanced by glitter, while rings are detailed with lapis lazuli and other stones differentiated by color and texture.

By presenting these women in bold and glaring colors, Maharaj plays on the coolie, pink and green stigma associated with indentured Indians, which scholar Patricia Mohammed notes associated them with a “supposed love of garish colours”.

Maharaj’s use of color and texture does not only counter the monochromatic textures of these women in colonial postcards – in her artistic account, they command hyper-visibility. The women, it seems, even sparkle.

In the Morin’s original colonial-era portraits, the women could easily have been photographed in India; on Maharaj’s canvas, the photographs evoke shades of Caribbean flags. The spectacular colours pop; the women assume a majestic presence in the foreground, a stark contrast to the archival original.

These women appear in shades of vivid greens and yellow, rose pinks and reds, and golds and blues easily conjuring images of Caribbean flags. In the jeweled arm band of one woman’s portrait, one easily senses the colors of the flags of Suriname, Grenada or Guyana.

“Susila” (2020) 30×40 inches, acrylic paint on canvas

Scholar Joy Mahabir has noted that while these women posed for colonial photographs, they were simultaneously participating in labour strikes on plantations. Postcards, as the figural and metaphorical matter of history, were therefore another form of propaganda. Indentured Indian women were therefore manipulated as docile rare beauties as the nineteenth century catalogued some of the most gruesome murders against Indian women in Caribbean colonies.

This perverse genealogy of ascribing beauty in the midst of violence evokes a similar colonial aesthetic that informed works such as Thomas Stothard’s The Voyage of the Sable Venus From Angola to the West Indies.

Portraits of the indentured archive – however violently constructed – inevitably presents the possibility for a possible connection to one’s own unarchived and unknown family histories. The women in Maharaj’s portraits are named after women in her family; a decision that resists the anonymity of the photographed women catalogued simply as “Coolie Belle”. In dispatches from the British colonies, the names of indentured Indian women – when they are named and differentiated, apart from their anonymity as simply “coolie women” – regularly appear named as victims murdered by indentured Indian men.

“Being an Indian woman from Trinidad, I feel vindicated in how I represent these women, and how the photographic archives continue to represent women like myself more broadly,” Maharaj said of her decision to return to the colonial archive for this series of portraits. By embellishing these portraits and re-presenting the photographs of these indentured Indian women, Maharaj says she sought a form of resistance to the historical representation of indentured Indian women in the historical archive.

“Sero, Susie, Bebe”.

Maharaj, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, was supposed to become a lawyer. After a painting class at Brooklyn College under William T Williams, she was a convert to visual art. Her oeuvre spans mediums, including photography with elements of performance, collage and painting. Themes of diaspora, belonging and Indo-Caribbean cultural identity inform her art, including a playfulness with gender and sexuality. In the gender-queer, auto-ethnographic “Epicene” series, Maharaj is both subject and artist.

In the annals of indenture, the agency of indentured Indian women is a theme that portrays women as either objects of men’s violence and desires, or simply victims of their own sexual agency. The visual archive of these colonial postcards conspires with history to produce a figural Indian woman, further ascribing anonymity to the lives these women might have lived.

“I wondered, how would they represent themselves?” Maharaj said. “Would they find kinship with me and the other women in the other photographs that I have reworked?”

How would they represent themselves? Those critical of engaging with an archive characterised by violence might censure any artistic decision to reclaim its past. Yet is not the archive – violence and all – there for the descendants of indentured to claim? Reproducing these portraits with both a vibrant aesthetic and a commitment to honor the ancestors of indenture, Maharaj has produced an alternate way of seeing history.

In a sense, “Pelting Mangoes” resists the anonymity of history’s archival grays and colors the complexity of their often-unarchived lives. In a sense, Maharaj asks us to meet their gaze in the spectacular violence of the colonial archive and its subsequent reverberations – challenging us to not look away.

“Pelting Mangoes” by Renluka Maharaj is on view at the FLXST Gallery in Chicago until November 29

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