"An aunty may or may not be a biological relation. She may be a friend of the family or a stranger. But if she is older than you – old enough to be your mother's friend – then she is accorded the status of aunty. Neither our mothers nor part of our peer group, aunties may be trusted confidantes or gatekeepers of social decorum."
It was Meera Sethi's uncanny ability to paint both intricate textiles and dope shoes that drew me to her art several years ago. The Toronto-based artist explores the relationship between style, identity and hybridity in many of her works and I, a returned immigrant, saw my creativity and struggle in all of them.
Two years ago I met up with her in Bombay to show her my favourite aunty pockets - the villages of Ranwar and Chimbai with their aunties in matching ‘stitched’ outfits, and the Jogger’s Park end of Carter Road promenade full of aunties in printed salwars and cool sneakers. I've followed her project since and caught up with her this week.
So I’m thinking back to when you were here and documenting aunties all over town and we actually met for the first time and went aunty scouting in Bandra together. It was a street style project that could hold it’s own really. How would you describe Aunty style?
I remember that so well! We connected online and then I met you at a small chai dhaba in Bandra (was it Chapel Road?) where you bought me chai and we began scouting aunties. It was so fun! The fact that you were from Bombay or more familiar with it than me really helped as we wandered streets and approached women. You took us down to Carter Road where I got some fabulous photos of aunties at sundown rocking neon joggers with salwar kurtas.
Let’s be clear, there is no singular “Aunty Style”. One of my aunties here in Toronto has neatly cut short silver hair who coordinates her designer scarves with her shoes and accessorises with thick pearls or chunky modernist jewellery. Another one of my aunties with wear Swarovski-encrusted jeans, super-bright sweaters and sunglasses with the biggest, boldest detailing on the side. Still others that I photographed wore multiple patterns and colours all in one outfit with socks and sandals or the odd casually thrown on accessory or hat that I was not sure was intentional or not. You can generalise on aunty style, but be aware that they are generalisations.
I remember there being a sketchbook full of patterns post that. Tell me about the progression of the project.
I was taking street style aunty photos while on residency for a month in Bombay. This also left me with a lot of time on my hands. There was this great little art supply shop on my walk home from Bandra train station. I stopped in and found a huge selection of Letraset markers sort of collecting dust in a corner. I bought a few, came back to my room and tried them and was transported to heaven. The next day I went back and bought some more. This kept on until I almost collected a a little suitcase full! I needed something to do with all these colours and I needed to occupy my time. I had this idea of doing a 30 day challenge of creating one illustration a day with these new markers. However I went into such detail with the pattern and colour that what began as a quick little project ended up taking me twice as long. I still created 30 drawings, but it took me 60 days! If you scroll far enough down, you can see all 30 on my instagram.
You also created an Upping the Aunty colouring book a while ago. How did you go about making that?
I had this idea to create a colouring book for adults at least a year before I actually made that one. I used to do a lot more black line drawing than I do now. For me the colouring in of line art is super satisfying. Like squeegeeing a window clean. I wanted others to have to have this experience while also busting some myths and having some fun with aunties. Then while I was in the process of creating the Upping the Aunty paintings, this opportunity came up to participate in a NorBlack NorWhite pop-up in Toronto. The theme was the 6ix Goddess and what better 6ix Goddesses are there than Toronto aunties! So I basically got my shit together and drew and designed night and day for a week to out the Upping the Aunty Colouring Book together to launch at the NBNW pop-up. External deadlines for artists always help.
Tell me more about the series of paintings
The Upping the Aunty paintings I’ve created are the final and most involved part of this three-part project (photoblog, colouring book, paintings). There are 8 paintings in total, each 36” x 60” (think life-size). Tremendous detail has gone into each one. I paint in a flat style using many thin layers of acrylic to create a rich, strong, oil-like colour. This takes time. I’m also meticulous with edges. I like clean lines and so I work with a very slow and steady hand. I’ve also embellished each of them with some sort of non-paint medium like fabric, tinsel, mirrors or crystal. The result is an over-the-top, slightly campy, humorous exploration of aunty style. The outfits are imagined yet based on my observations of aunties.
Why aunties? Where did the idea come from?
My aunties have been central to my life. Plus my friends and I would have “aunty picnics” in Toronto on summer days. We would each bring some food, sit around and play cards, share recipes, talk politics and gossip. It was fun. We were perhaps testing out the aunty ropes we had learned over the years before we stepped over the threshold.
What can we learn or unlearn from aunties?
We can learn resilience, strength, patience, determination and courage from our aunties. We can unlearn racism, patriarchy, fat-phobia, shadism, homophobia and transphobia and a host of other divisive attitudes.
Do you have any other projects going on?
I have a multi-year, participatory art project in the works called #Unstitched The Sari Project. This is in its early stages with a line-up of 108 people from around the world wearing the same sari in completely different ways while also sharing their relationship to this iconic garment.
I am also working on new canvas works that build on the themes of clothing, migration and diaspora but explores some of the deeper, darker histories of these.
When do we become aunties?
When someone starts calling you one!
To see all of Meera Sethi's aunties, head over to her portfolio.
Upping the Aunty is on view at Daniels Spectrum in Toronto until July 30.