Pelting Mangoes exhibits a new body of work that rescripts and re-signifies colonial portraits of Indian women during a period of 19th-century indentureship in Trinidad and Tobago. Over a million Indians were sent to the British colonies to continue the work of sugar production after slavery had ended. Within the population of indentured laborers, women comprised roughly 25 percent. This shortage of women also eventually led to jealousy and intimate partner violence. The same tool, called a cutlass used to cut cane, was now being used to murder some women. This form of physical violence continues today.
A French photographer named Felix Morin took these historical colonial photos. Morin had a studio in the capital of Port of Spain prominently situated, so it was easy to find. The images were part of a thriving photographic postcard industry that marketed the Caribbean as an exotic holiday destination for Western tourists. Upon closer inspection of these images, I realized the women were wearing similar clothing. Their jewelry suggested a manipulation or staging by the photographer to create a "brand" for consumption. These photographic postcards exist in the archive as a reminder of a colonial narrative that inflicted violence on the indentured workforce.
My choice to resurface these photographs in my new body of work is to acknowledge the colonial history in Trinidad and Tobago and resist the cultural and political work that these images continue to engender. I want to present these Indian women as women, not objects, and bestow upon them a sense of agency, however distant in time they are from me. 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. My decision to paint and create "environments" or backgrounds is a way to decolonize Morin's photographs. If the women had a choice, I wondered how they would represent themselves? What colors or patterns would they love? Would they find kinship with me and the other women in the photographs that I have reworked? Most of all, I felt the utmost importance to respect and celebrate these beautiful souls. In trying to figure out titles, I decided to name these women after my family members. The women in the portraits represent all of the women who have come after them.
Where possible, I have not entirely erased the original backgrounds. However, the traces of the original photographs serve as a reminder of the colonial history in which the photographs emerged and the power of colonial representations in continuing to shape ideas of South Asian women today. Because of this, I believe proper representation matters, and taking hold of your narrative is a matter of survival.
RENLUKA MAHARAJ was born in Trinidad and Tobago. She is a multidisciplinary artist and my work incorporates photography with elements of performance, collage and painting. Her work seeks to illuminate a people, place or subject to create narratives that speak to gender, sexuality, religion and a colonial history. She lives and works between Colorado, New York City, and Trinidad. Working with photography, installations, research and travel, her work which is often autobiographical, investigates themes of history, memory, religion, gender and how they inform identity. She completed her B.F.A. at the University of Colorado Boulder and her M.F.A. at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Image credit: Renluka Maharaj, Lillah, acrylic paint, glitter, rhinestones on canvas, 30x40 inches, 2020 (detail). Courtesy of the artist and FLXST Contemporary.