TORONTO – Toronto artist Meera Sethi’s paintings and photos feature a group of women not often appreciated for their sense of style: South Asian aunties.
In one of Sethi’s paintings, Preeti Aunty pairs a multi-coloured salwar kameez — a traditional Indian outfit that includes pants and a sash — with a “6IX” baseball cap. In another, Pinky Aunty is wearing sneakers with her salwar kameez.
“(Aunties are) dismissed as not having style, not being attractive, not being terribly interesting, kind of just taking care of others,” Sethi says. “They don’t get a lot of love on those levels.”
An aunty isn’t necessarily a relative among South Asians — she’s simply a woman, about 20 or 30 years older, whom you call aunty to show respect. You might refer to a friend’s mom as aunty, or someone you just met.
Sethi’s “Upping the Aunty” project began in 2014, with a series of photos featuring the street style of aunties. An “Upping the Aunty” colouring book was released last year, and the paintings, inspired by some of the photos from the beginning of the project, are the final step.
Sethi says it’s tough to put her finger on exactly what she was looking for before choosing an aunty for a photo.
“It’s sort of this feeling or attitude, or the way that things have been put together that looks interesting or fresh or new.”
Sethi wonders why South Asian aunties can’t be regarded as sources of fashion inspiration, pointing out that they have some “really cool style” that isn’t seen elsewhere.
“You’ll see … pattern on pattern, colour on colour. You’re gonna see socks with sandals in the summer and contrasting colours…. I think they’re kind of having their moment,” Sethi says of aunties. “It’s long overdue that we look at style from a non-Eurocentric perspective.”
Maria Qamar, another Toronto-based artist who focuses on South Asian culture and sells her work in various forms under the name “Hatecopy,” says aunties are a “recurring theme” in her work. A trio of aunties are featured in one piece accompanied by the words “Trust No Aunty.” Qamar says the piece was initially inspired by how aunties are portrayed in Indian soap operas — “a fictional character that hyperbolizes something that actually does happen in our lives.”
“For example, on the very, very cliched topic of marriage, oh you know, your parents push you towards marriage. In a soap opera, that aunty will plot 13 different ways to get you married to the wrong guy,” Qamar explains.
“The sheer ridiculousness of how exaggerated that aunty is in (South Asian) pop culture, that’s what’s so alluring to me.”
But Qamar doesn’t see aunties, specifically, as popular in art right now. Rather, it’s South Asian art in general that’s gaining prominence, she points out.
“Aunty is just a word, like sir or madam,” Qamar says. “It’s always been popular because it’s an aspect of our culture.”
Sethi’s paintings and photos are being showcased at Daniels Spectrum in Toronto until July 15.
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