Listen to your aunties! Toronto artist Meera Sethi celebrates the wisdom and style of South Asian women

When it comes to navigating the nuances of an Indian-Canadian identity, this artist is 'Upping the Aunty.'

When it comes to navigating the nuances of an Indian-Canadian identity, Meera Sethi is 'Upping the Aunty.'

(Left) Gunalaxsmi Aunty and (right) Preeti Aunty, two of the paintings in Toronto artist Meera Sethi's current exhibition at Daniels Spectrum, Upping the Aunty. (Meera Sethi)

Fashion icons in North America are rarely over 40 and are almost never South Asian, but Toronto-based artist Meera Sethi is determined to challenge that. Her current exhibition at Toronto's Daniels SpectrumUpping the Aunty, explores the style, attitude and potential iconography of South Asian aunties — the older women whom Sethi has looked up to throughout her life. 

The term "aunty" in countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka isn't just used for family members. It can be applied to family friends and even strangers. In my own Caribbean culture, I was taught to always refer to older women as "aunties" because it was considered disrespectful for children to call adults by their first name.

Meera Sethi. Pinky Aunty. (Meera Sethi)

Sethi has had a life-long fascination with aunties — she and her friends would make jokes in "aunty-speak" and hold "aunty-picnics" in the park. It's a fascination she shares with a whole wave of young artists, including illustrator Maria Qamar, YouTube comedian JusReign, and the team behind Brampton web series Anarkali

In the midst of this aunty renaissance, though, Sethi began to notice that there was something missing in the younger generation's take on the older women in South Asian culture. "I was thinking about how we look at fashion and how we recognized what's cool and interesting," Sethi tells me during a Skype interview. "Where do those cues come from and why do we never look to our aunties for that kind of stuff? Our aunties are sort of at the cusp of blending together an Eastern and Western style but we're not looking to them." 

Sethi's interest in fashion is informed by a lifelong interest in navigating the nuances of a diasporic identity. She grew up in Toronto, but as a child she would spend three months in India every summer. "I've never ever felt like I had just one home," Sethi tells me. "Being back and forth, feeling that drastic contrast in terms of language, culture, family, temperature, vibrancy and the way the city looks and feels has really shaped my work." 

Her current exhibition began as a street-photography project in Canada and India. When she saw an older woman who looked interesting, she would ask to take their photo. As her collection grew, she asked her Tumblr followers to send pictures of their aunties — and she received pictures from all over the world. 

Meera Sethi. Ramvati Aunty. (Meera Sethi)

Using her photographs as a guiding inspiration, Sethi has created large-scale paintings that attempt to capture the spirit and attitude of the women.

"In South Asian culture right now, the aunty is becoming the cool thing," says Daniels Spectrum curator Elle Alconcel as she takes me on a tour of the exhibition. "It was really great at the opening reception because some of these aunties actually came and were like, 'Oh my gosh! I'm on the wall!' They were very very happy."

Sethi's aunties are re-imagined as wearing leather jackets and saris, rocking fitted caps with bindis. Each painting is embedded with varying textures as real fabric is added to the canvas to give each piece shape and depth.

Toronto-based artist, Meera Sethi. (Vivek Shraya)

"She gets colour and she gets pattern," says Alconcel. "She even gets the poses. And then she just adds in that urban culture flair. She knows how to portray what she's trying to say and she does it well. She doesn't need to stand here and explain her work. You look at it and you get it."

Sethi seems caught off guard by just how many people get her work. After years away from the Toronto artistic scene, she is now working as a full-time artist and struggling to find her footing in the contemporary art world. "I'm slightly older, so it feels a bit different," Sethi tells me. "It feels more like a struggle because I'm not part of an institution like an art school. I'm still in the process of feeling confident about my artistic voice and the fact that I work with a lot of loud colours, a lot of figurative imagery [and] a lot of pattern. You don't really see too much of it in contemporary art [in Canada]." 

"My work speaks to a lot of young people, a lot of people of colour. It speaks to a lot of people who feel the issues of representation and identity strongly but [I wonder] is it also speaking to a professional contemporary art community?- Meera Sethi

In a Canadian contemporary art landscape that is largely dominated by white male artists, Sethi has had to look beyond the border for artistic inspirations. Artists such as Shirin NeshatMona Hatoum, Nick Cave and Mickalene Thomas have helped her affirm her artistic vision. However, she confesses that she still feels like an outsider in the Canadian contemporary art world.

Meera Sethi. (Left) Viji Aunty, (right) Rashida Aunty. (Meera Sethi.)

"My work speaks to a lot of young people, a lot of people of colour. It speaks to a lot of people who feel the issues of representation and identity strongly but [I wonder] is it also speaking to a professional contemporary art community? They're not separate, but in a way they are separate. That community doesn't really speak to me that much. Yet it is necessary for me to be a part of that community in order to make a living as an artist in Canada. So how do I bridge that?"

Sethi's journey to reclaim the South Asian aunty may be her answer. Upping the Aunty has garnered attention from numerous media outlets and has connected her to an artistic community she hadn't even realized existed. Within the Greater Toronto Area, there is a significant wave of South Asian artists inspired by diasporic identity who are capturing the attention of the public imagination. Like Sethi, many are connecting seemingly disparate worlds and borrowing from a variety of cultural reference points to illustrate the layers of their experience. 

Meera Sethi. Joyce Aunty. (Meera Sethi)

"The show that I'm in right now has opened the door to me feeling like I'm actually part of an art community that feels good for me. I don't have to struggle to be a part of it. People just get my work. [Artists like] Nor Black Nor White and Rajni Perera, we're thinking and talking on parallel lines about similar ideas. Aesthetically there are interesting points of conversion happening and this for me has been the first time where this sort of stuff is coalescing."

Upping the Aunty opened May 31st at Daniels Spectrum and runs through July. It's "not a gallery, but it's not a community centre," says Alconcel. "It's somewhere in the middle."

As I walk through Sethi's show, I notice that many of the people who stop to look are entering the building for other reasons: seniors escape the sun by sitting at the tables inside; young women walk to yoga class in the courtyard; kids rush to the art and education classes happening upstairs. In the midst of it all, many stop to gaze at the massive colourful canvasses on the walls. It's an open and dynamic space. Although lacking the quiet contemplation of most galleries, the soundscape of an intergenerational community in action seems to fit the visual backdrop of cool and in-the-know aunties who were inspired by real-life women Sethi spotted in the street.

Meera Sethi. Poonam Aunty. (Meera Sethi)

Seeing the impact her paintings have on women in particular has been a powerful affirmation for Sethi. "It's been amazing and so beautiful to see women from all walks, not only South Asian women, feel honoured and seen by the work," she says, smiling. "As women of colour we don't get that experience very often, especially as older women of colour. We might see ourselves represented, but not in a way that gives us strength."

Meera Sethi. Upping the Aunty. To July 15. Daniels Spectrum, Toronto.