Mathushaa Sagthidas on South Asian Culture & New Exhibition

We spoke with the British Tamil artist Mathushaa Sagthidas to discuss the significance of South Asian culture and the voices within it.

Mathushaa Sagthidas on South Asian Culture & New Exhibition

"Creatives have struggled with being Tamil in Britain"

As a first-generation British talent, Mathushaa Sagthidas’ creative journey is deeply rooted in her Tamil Eelam ethnicity and British nationality.

After graduating from Camberwell College of Arts, UAL, she has honed her skills in photography, set design, and creative direction.

Her portfolio boasts collaborations with renowned brands like Amazon, Adidas, and Royal Court Theatre.

But beyond her professional success lies a deeper narrative – one that explores the complexities of identity, authenticity, and representation.

Driven by her parents’ experiences during the Sri Lankan Civil War, Mathushaa’s work serves as a poignant reflection of her heritage and the struggles endured by her community.

Through evocative imagery, she amplifies narratives often overlooked in mainstream discourse, sparking conversations and inspiring progressive change within the South Asian diaspora.

Now, with her latest exhibition, Not Just Brown, Not Just Indian, Mathushaa invites audiences to delve into these shadowed experiences.

Through striking photographs and powerful storytelling, she challenges stereotypes and celebrates the multiplicity of traditions and histories.

The project celebrates South Asian countries from a female perspective, particularly focusing on British South Asians based in London.

As a Tamil woman, Mathushaa Sagthidas encountered assumptions of being Indian, reflecting a common misconception within South Asia communities.

Collaborating with women from various backgrounds, the project aims to amplify their voices.

Frustration over the lack of authentic representation of South Asians in publications and gallery spaces spurred the creation of this project.

Therefore, DESIblitz was delighted to talk with Mathushaa Sagthidas to hear more about the exhibition, identity, and representation. 

How do you represent your heritage authentically while challenging stereotypes?

Mathushaa Sagthidas on South Asian Culture & New Exhibition

In terms of navigating the complexities of my identity and heritage, that is something that I tend to explore through various projects.

When there is an aspect of myself and my identity as a Tamil woman, there tend to be particular things that I want to explore or research to understand creatively.

As a South Asian woman, that is something I have explored in a very different way, like within this project, Not Just Brown, Not Just Indian.

I tried to do everything I could to ensure that this project represents all stereotypes.

One stereotype I felt was staggering was how Asians are grouped as one massive group of Indians as if there’s no other part of South Asia.

Even within this, there were stereotypes that I wanted to avoid such as a South Asian woman’s only purpose in life revolves around marriage and having a family.

These were elements that I was so adamant about avoiding.

Not because it’s not important to some South Asian women, but I wanted to show that there is so much more to them, whether they are creative or not.

Can you share some poignant stories captured in the new exhibition?

Not Just Brown, Not Just Indian is a project that is very strongly focused on sharing lived experiences.

It’s something I’ve wanted to do.

Even before I found a complete team, I made it very clear to the women who were part of the project that I wanted to dive into what they grew up doing, and what their childhoods were.

I felt like if I did my research, I was going to find something that was very surface-level.

I wanted to properly explore the culture so I spoke to people, got a team of women, and we discussed our experiences within the culture.

“There are quite a few personal moments within the project.”

For example, the concept of Afghanistan was very much about sisterhood and family.

This was something that we reflected within the image as everyone in the photo is either sisters or cousins.

Even within the team of people that I worked with, some were cousins.

There are quite a few moments like this within the project and I think that’s what made it super special.

I’m grateful to the girls I worked with to build this because I don’t think it would’ve turned out the way it did without them.

How do you use your various skills to create impactful visuals?

Mathushaa Sagthidas on South Asian Culture & New Exhibition

In terms of the way I work, I’m quite focused on the project and think about the output.

I think about what I want to get out on social media or share with publications after the project is completed.

However, in saying this, it is quite different with clients as you don’t know what the outcome is going to be or how things might go.

Likewise, you may work with a client that has a very specific vision in mind.

Whereas with a personal project, I’m very much working with a team of creatives who can help evolve ideas and build on the foundations laid by others within the team.

Within set design/art direction, that is something that I began to incorporate when I started exploring still life photography during COVID-19 for my final major project.

These were elements that I wanted to continue to include within my work and it has expanded into something deeper where I’m now building and creating various sets in a commercial sense.

How do you hope your work educates people on various cultures?

The funny thing is even within my project, Not Just Brown, Not Just Indian, I feel like I’m only exploring small elements of each culture.

I know that there is so much more that I could look into, learn, and understand, especially as this is only from a female perspective.

“I hope this is just the start for me as I would love to keep growing this project.”

I’d like to use it as a starting point to work with men and understand their perspectives on South Asian culture and their lived experiences within their respective heritages.

I just want my work to be the foundation, where people can visualise and become curious about the aspects of South Asian identities.

Can you elaborate on the significance of the lens of British Asian women?

Mathushaa Sagthidas on South Asian Culture & New Exhibition

Through this project, I have found a community of women, who to some extent can relate to my experience as a Tamil woman born and raised in London.

I know a couple of other creatives have struggled with being Tamil in Britain, but also trying to be Tamil among their own.

But yet again this is just the perspective of one particular culture within the wider South Asian community.

I wanted to understand this further and how women dealt with their difficulties.

Exploring these stories from a woman’s perspective was important. It felt right because a lot of the work I continue to create focuses on women.

This is especially significant because of the male-dominated narratives we get in different male-dominated industries.

I hope that creating projects like this contributes to levelling the playing field.

What challenges have you encountered in the creative industry?

Having only been on a handful of shoots, whether as an assistant or production assistant, where there are no POC creatives present is ridiculous to me.

I know a massive amount of creatives who are looking for a break in this industry. Yet, I am not seeing them.

“So, I always try to advocate for those POC because I’ve seen the lack of representation.”

I know how difficult it can be to break into an industry where you don’t have any contacts or many opportunities at the start and you simply need that foot in the door.

This industry can be about who you know, so I’ve been quite lucky to have met quite a few people who align with my vision and thoughts.

How do you balance expressing frustration with leveraging your platform for positive industry change?

Mathushaa Sagthidas on South Asian Culture & New Exhibition

When I am frustrated, I channel it through my creativity. Hence, why this project is so important to me. 

It goes hand-in-hand and emphasises why I’m so determined to do everything I can to push it as far as I can and reach out to so many platforms, publications and gallery spaces.

I’ve been really lucky to have worked with two amazing community-led platforms that have supported this project.

But, it’s more important for South Asians and the wider project to see this and understand our experiences better.

How do you use your disciplines to create rich imagery?

I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure how to answer this.

For me, I just got with my feeling, depending on what the concept is.

“I just work around that and see what comes to mind, then I’ll adjust accordingly.”

When it’s still photoshoots, I tend to go with the first idea that comes to mind and see if it works and how the images look. 

I’ve had ideas come to me at midnight and been super proud of them because everything clicks instantly.

It chops and changes, there’s no set way I do things.

What do you hope viewers take away from your work?

Mathushaa Sagthidas on South Asian Culture & New Exhibition

I hope that they see this exhibition as a starting point to learn more about South Asian culture and understand the complexities, layers, history, and stories within it.

For example, even within India, there are various communities and languages and key differences that stand out.

That’s just one country in South Asia, so imagine the other nations.

I hope viewers feel welcomed and immersed in the exhibition. 

What are your aspirations for the future?

It’s to be able to keep going.

I want to keep creating projects like Not Just Brown, Not Just Indian.

“But, I want to keep working with various other Asian and POC creators.”

I hope that we reach a point where we level the playing ground within the industry or at least I hope my projects contribute towards that.

It’s evident that Mathushaa Sagthidas is more than just a photographer, stylist, or art director.

She is a storyteller, a cultural advocate, and a beacon of representation.

Through her lens, she not only captures moments but also preserves narratives, bridging the gap between past and present, tradition and modernity.

With each exhibition, she invites audiences to explore the complexities of identity and the nuances of heritage.

See more of her work here

Balraj is a spirited Creative Writing MA graduate. He loves open discussions and his passions are fitness, music, fashion, and poetry. One of his favourite quotes is “One day or day one. You decide.”

Images courtesy of Mathushaa Sagthidas.

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