After Postcards, 2022-ongoing, stone pigments and watercolour on handmade wasli paper, series of 8, approx. 35 x 50cm irreg. each
Sugar Vessels, 2022, 3 black clay vessels fired in sugarcane, wooden bench, ceramic shards and grounds, sugarcane ash and dried sugarcane.
The Plantation, 2022, watercolour and gouache on handmade wasli paper, 6 panels, approx. 125 x 95cm irreg. each
The River, 2022, watercolour and gouache on handmade wasli paper, 4 panels, approx. 125 x 95cm irreg. each
The Fire, 2022, watercolour and gouache on handmade wasli paper, 4 panels, approx. 125 x 95cm irreg. each
Sugar, 2022, black clay vessel fired in sugarcane, sugarcane ash, burnt sugarcane, scent, diffuser, sound.
An Archive, 2022-ongoing, reading room.
The exhibition Sugar expands on Sancintya Mohini Simpson’s ongoing research and practice that began in 2017 that has sought to tell the experiences of her maternal ancestors and other indentured labourers like them. Through this work she charts the complexities of migration, matrilineal memory and trauma, addressing silences within the colonial archive.
Simpson’s maternal ancestors were indentured labourers taken from the port of Madras in India to work on colonial sugar plantations in the colony of Natal (now KwaZulu–Natal, South Africa). The system of indentured labour was brought into place after the abolition of slavery in 1833 to meet the demand for cheap labour in the colonies by the British Empire. This resulted in the movement of 1.3 million Indian people from 1834 to 1917, to sugar plantations in South Africa, Mauritius, the Caribbean and Fiji.
The panelled paintings, The Plantation, The River and The Fire tell a fragmented story of the experience of indenture for Indian women on the sugar colonies through three main landscapes of the sugar plantation. Simpson has chosen to illustrate the complexities of their experience: of their oppression, resistance and their contributions of domestic and agricultural labour rather than a stereotyped colonial interpretation.
This portrayal is drawn from the archives to acknowledge the history and experiences of women taken from India to South Africa as indentured labours during from the late 1800s to early 1900. A process that attempts to uncover a hidden and often erased history of exploitation. Gaps in knowledge dislocate these figures from the landscape and location. Simpson reframes the ownership of this history and pays tribute to the women who came before her so they are not forgotten.
These works use the technique of Indian Miniature painting, which Simpson learnt in Jaipur, India in 2013. Traditional miniature painting in South Asia focuses on privileged persons in terms of gender, caste, class and colourism. Simpson’s use of the style of miniature painting centres casteless coolie women bringing their history forward and allowing their stories to be accounted for, acknowledged and recorded. She uses this form of painting, in a simplified manner, leaving the edges of the paper untrimmed, and the wasli paper visible to acknowledge the gaps of knowledge of this history and missing stories.
To further understand these histories, Simpson began looking at historical documents, which predominantly came from the colonial archive. During her time navigating these archives, she encountered painful silences and gaps due to the absence of the voices of those indentured. These works acknowledge the complex relationship with this archive that she simultaneously relies on, even with its problematic gaps and biases. This archive was made to sell and promote the colonies, not for her and other descendants of this history to hold, touch and see.
After Postcards takes the flora referenced in the postcards and separates them from place. This landscape that could be from any of the so-called ‘sugar colonies’ is taken out of its context and separated. Just like how people were taken and displaced through the system of indenture and colonisation, the landscape was shifted, taken and displaced with ongoing environmental impacts still occurring – similarly as the ongoing trauma experienced generationally continues.
In Sugar Vessels, three clay lotas made from black clay and fired in sugarcane mulch and sawdust or ‘vessels’ become symbols for body, water, boat. The black tones gesture to the kala pani ancestral ‘black waters’ known as ocean voyages, both consumed and embodied, but also to the dark history and residue of the sugar industry. These vessels sit precariously in a row on a tall, thin table followed by black clay ceramic shards, ceramic grounds, sugarcane ash and dried sugarcane. These elements reference how memories are inherited and passed down generationally, although fragmented through time the traces and residues of trauma continue as the need for deep healing and remembering.
In the installation Sugar a clay lota made from black clay and fired in sugarcane and sitting on a mound of sugarcane ash and burnt cane, with the sound of deep breathing and the scent of burning sugarcane. Sugar references the healing process of trauma, and is about acknowledging the bodily response to trauma and this history.