Suchitra Mattai: Breathing Room

July 24, 2021 – January 30, 2022

Using materials often associated with the domestic sphere, such as embroidery, weaving, and fiber elements, Suchitra Mattai creates large-scale installations, sculptures and two-dimensional artworks that navigate her family heritage while also unraveling historical narratives.  She reclaims vintage and found materials, such as hand-made saris and other historically rich objects as a way of making sense of the world around her and the multiple cultures she inhabits as an Indo-Caribbean American.  By recalling both her own family’s ocean migrations and research on the period of colonial indentured labor during the 19th century, the artist re-writes this colonial history and contributes to contemporary dialogue by giving voice to people whose voices were once quieted and making visible the struggles and perseverance of those who lived through it.

Born in Guyana, Denver-based artist Suchitra Mattai received an MFA in painting and drawing and an MA in South Asian Art, from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.  Mattai also received fellowships to study at the Royal College of Art, London, and at the American Institute of Indian Studies, Udaipur, India.  She has exhibited her work in Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, D.C., Denver, Austin, as well as in London, Wales, and Sharjah, UAE.

Organized by the Boise Art Museum

Sponsored by the Pettitt Group at Group One Sotheby’s International Realty and Patty and Alan Head

Patty & Alan

Suchitra Mattai, who is an American, Caribbean, South Asian artist from Latin America, creates artworks by weaving and braiding vintage saris into three-dimensional sculptures.  The saris carry the stories and histories of those who wore them.  The artist says about her experience of creating her first woven artwork, “I actually wept making the first one.  I felt this connection to these worn garments of people from all over the world.  I really felt this connection to those women.”  She learned sewing, embroidery, and crocheting from her grandmother and combines these traditional domestic crafts with painting, sculpture, and installation to tell stories about her lineage.  The processes of migration, assimilation, and belonging are at the heart of this exploration.  “I am interested in ideas of belonging and home because of my family’s many migrations during such a short period of time.”

The Denver-based artist was born in Guyana, South America.  Prior to her birth, her family immigrated to Guyana from India to work as indentured servants on a sugar plantation.  Her artwork aims to recall her family’s ocean migrations and their perseverance in the face of colonialism, as well as her own experiences living in Canada, the United States, India, and Europe.  She purposefully weaves a feeling of disorientation and dislocation related to not having a single home into colorful compositions that are entwined with her family’s histories, personal experiences, and her hopes and dreams for the future.

Two branches of weathered, grey driftwood are positioned vertically in the foreground in the left and center of the photo, against an undulating backdrop made of woven strips of colorful, patterned fabrics.
Suchitra Mattai, Breathing Room (detail), 2020, vintage saris, driftwood, table legs, 144” x 144” x 144”, Courtesy of the Artist and K Contemporary. Photo: Jan Boles

“Saris are worn by women of South Asian descent all over the world.  The weavings, especially on a large scale, as in Breathing Room, unite them.  It’s as though I am creating a topography out of the tattered remains of intimate cloth.  This work connects diasporic communities of South Asians across the globe, and gives voice to generations of women while also probing questions of displacement resulting from European colonization.”

A painting of a woman's face with brown skin, dark eyes, and black hair, appears at the top of this vertically oriented artwork. The rest of the painting is obscured by two layers of patterned and embroidered fabric, pulled taut over the surface of the artwork. Each layer has a decorative zipper running vertically down its center. The zippers are partially unzipped from the top of the artwork creating two tiers of V-shaped openings, revealing the woman's face.
Suchitra Mattai, Soca Queen, 2020, acrylic, vintage fabric, saris, appliques, fiber trim, 76″ x 48″, Courtesy of the Artist and K Contemporary.

“…I sense that when I’m making an artwork there are obvious references to women’s work, handmade craft processes, and women’s garb. There is a sense of empowerment that I’m alluding to. When I include heroines, these celebrated women, and everyday girls in my work, there’s a conversation around them that addresses a history of oppression. There’s also a voice, an optimism about the inherent power that they have. I see my practice as a feminist practice, and I see it as a post-colonial practice.”

Videos – Hear from the Artist!


Additional Reading


Examples, Stories, and the History of Saris in India:

15 Variations on the Sari: India’s Iconic Drape – Online Exhibition by The Museum Mumbai (Google Arts and Culture)

Enjoy these literary selections with metaphorical and literal connections to the artwork.


Bintou’s Braids by Sylvianne Diouf

Qiana’s Braids by Chanda Deanna Austin

Erandi’s Braids by Antonio Hernandez Madrigal

When Mama Braids My Hair Monique Duncan

Hair Twins by Raakhee Mirchandani

Of Corn Silk and Black Braids by Vincent L Johnson

Braids/Trencitas by Kathleen Contreras

La Trenza/The Braid or Lalita’s Journey  by Laetitia Colombani

Bear’s Braid by Joelle Bearstail

Young Adult  

The Braid by Helen Frost

You Cannot Resist Me When My Hair Is In Braids by  Francis Kai-Hwa Wang

The Braid by Laetitia Colombani

All Ages

How-to Book | Braids:  250 Patterns from Japan, Peru & Beyond by Rodrick Owen

Get Creative with BAM


Braiding Art

Braids can be a metaphor for the power of human connection and a pathway through a journey of escape, healing, or recovery.

Combine paint, fabric, and braiding to create your own work of art!

A long continuous braid of patterned fabrics in vibrant shades of pink, turquoise, yellow, purple, and orange, is shaped in a loose spiral pattern on a dark grey concrete floor.

Suchitra Mattai, Life-Line (detail), 2020, vintage saris, found boat, 12 x 10 ft. Courtesy of the Artist and K Contemporary.

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