Interview with Sheinina Lolita Raj at Elaine Fleck Gallery

Artist Sheinina Lolita Raj (left) with Elaine Fleck Gallery owner Elaine Fleck (right). Image courtesy of Elaine Fleck Gallery

Interview with Sheinina Lolita Raj (S.L.R) by Phil Anderson (P.A)

The interview took place in Elaine Fleck Gallery where Sheinina Lolita Raj’s exhibition, INTERCULTURAL is on display till April 16th.

P.A: What was the personal connection to this new body of work?

S.L.R: Expressing a perspective with an integral voice that was engaging with a positive influence was important for me. As a person of Indian and English descent I was born with an identity that I’ve come to appreciate as ambiguous. I am often approached in other dialects, like, Spanish, Armenian and Farsi for example. Since residing in Los Angeles for more than a decade I have also experienced numerous offensive racist behaviors.

P.A: How did you assemble all the cultural wear for this series?

Each culture has been chosen for a reason and the outfit was assembled its own unique way. Here  are a few examples.

“Native American Woman” is from the Navajo, originally a Canadian Tribe who referred to themselves as Dene (people of the land). When my family and I immigrated to Canada when I was 5 years old, I found solace with native people.

After speaking with local Native Indian organizations, going to pow wows, craft and native artisan events I finally found a young woman to agree to loan me her rug dress and heirlooms. As I discovered it is usually not done, as their traditional regalia is considered a part of their body. So I offered a trade and Neeko, the great great granddaughter of Old Smith the first Navaho Silversmith, agreed! She dressed me as customs dictate.

Sheinina Lolita Raj, Native American Woman. Image courtesy of Elaine Fleck Gallery

“Mexican Woman” was a logical choice since I live in Los Angeles and there is a large population of people whose origin is Mexican. I am often mistaken for a woman of Mexican descent. I have experienced a number of disrespectful encounters from Caucasian Americans or friendly hellos from residents who are of Mexican descent. Thankfully there is an area considered the first landing of Spanish settlers in downtown Los Angeles and I was able to purchase an authentic traditional Mexican woman’s outfit from there.

Sheinina Lolita Raj, Mexican Woman. Image courtesy of Elaine Fleck Gallery

As I am of Indian descent it goes without saying that “Indian Woman” must be represented. I own many saris and selected my prized red sari that represents the color of celebration and is traditionally worn during wedding ceremonies. The matching bracelets and Bidind over my third eye were a gift from my aunty, Fua.

Sheinina Lolita Raj, Indian Woman. Image courtesy of Elaine Fleck Gallery

“North American Woman” completes the collection. She represents ambiguity. As immigrants from around the globe continue to settle into the New World their original and new identity will inevitably merge. For this portrait I selected a dress I owned. I think it is a good representation of who I am with the sharp lines and cut off shoulders that reference my edginess. The sky blue color represent the atmosphere where my imagination floats about while the burnt orange depicts the fire that burns within me.

Sheinina Lolita Raj, North American Woman. Image courtesy of Elaine Fleck Gallery

P.A: Why was it important for you to be the person in all of the dresses for the portraits?

S.L.R: This is a reflection of my own experience as I have been mistaken for being native to these cultures or because I have a personal connection to them. It has made me appreciate my tonality and features more than ever. I also realized that even the smallest  difference in my clothes and make up could change the way I look and how people would relate to me.

P.A: How has this new body of work been received and what feedback have you got?

S.L.R: A Pakistani woman, whose grandmother was one of the million people who had lost their lives during the civil wars between India and Pakistan, told me that I brought her to tears during my Art Talk. There is a real diverse connection that certainly resonates with people when they  learn and discover the collection. Many people can relate to the work for many reasons, whether it is because they are of ethnic descent, or their family has a history with war that torn their countries apart or simply that they have visited that country.

Sheinina Lolita Raj, Pakistani Woman. Image courtesy of Elaine Fleck Gallery

P.A: How do you view the duality of your cultural background after this exhibition?

S.L.R: As a person who is a Canadian citizen and once lived in Toronto I always felt equally respected as a person of ethnic descent. Toronto is a multicultural environment and I was happy to see that that sensibility still thrives. Showing in Toronto and having the opportunity to speak about the work has proved to me how important this collection is and the conversations that follow. I plan to continue working on the collection and include more cultures to further enforce the unification of ancestry.

P.A: How do you see gender playing a role in these series? How different would it be for a male?

S.L.R: Women are the bearers of custom and tradition and are respected for unifying identity in most cultures. In each culture there is a very specific adornment that comes with its own reasoning and is always easily recognized by a person whose of that origin. Woman naturally bring about a submissive quality since women are physically weaker than men. I think this ultimately creates a non-confrontational emotion when approaching the work. A man would have brought about other emotions, like ego, that was not welcome in my artist statement for these series.

P.A: How different are these series from your other art work?

This new collection is quite different then my past Fine Art Photography as I have always worked with the medium to express euphoric emotions. The light paintings I used to create were quite technical with different light sources, multiple exposures, different focal lengths, like the timing of my movements for example. This is my first time for using my art for a social statement.

P.A: What are your future plans?

S.L.R: I plan to include more cultures in the collection, like Brazilian, Iranian, Thai, Italian and the finished portrait of “Mayan Woman” in my next exhibition. My intention is to show this collection in major cities like Los Angeles, Miami and New York in America as well as in Europe.

I have also decided to work on a novelette that will be accessible online.

*Exhibition in formation: INTERCULTURAL / Photographic works by Sheinina Lolita Raj, April 6 – 16, 2016, Elaine Fleck Gallery, 1351 Queen St. West,  Toronto. Gallery hours: Mon, Wed, Thur & Fri: 12 – 6 pm, Sat: 11 am – 6 pm.

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