Sarojini Lewis

artistiek onderzoek - autobiografisch - Diaspora - fotografie - performance

Sarojini Lewis (India/Netherlands) 1984 has a background in Fine Art (MFA Fine Art Edinburgh University) with a specialization in archival photography, video art and book arts. She is currently working as a curator, researcher and artist. Her ongoing PhD research in visual studies examines the indentured labour archive through a contemporary lens.
Her projects reveal a preoccupation with history: of the landscape, the city, the environment and its user. She questions what unites men in particular their cultural diversity, what kinds of views are present. Recurring elements in her visual research are photographs of objects, people, migration and moments that reveal forgotten situations, and function as visual traces and fragments that create narratives that lead to new perspectives.

Reciting Footsteps - The project Reciting Footsteps aims to make connections to the plantation ground by historical documents such as archival contract of my ancestor (Hasowa Magai) that migrated from India to Suriname during the time of indentured labour (1873-1920) ). Besides this I want to trace several pages from archival missionary diaries (1862) describing the period after abolition of slavery. The idea is that the archival narratives of Magai starts a dialogue. By making 4 creative steps that are based on diverse elements in my practise such as video-work, photography and performance I create a basis for an installation. The steps consist of activating the pages of a diary and Sutterlin script, document the plantation ground, sound recordings of women in Suriname, bodily engagement on plantation ground.
Three Secrets of Fatima - Bonen Biecht en de geheimen uit Fatima “Een zee van vuur,Vlammen die als zaden waren, Bonen die als vlammen waren. Buitengewoon, magenta, paars, felroze, en een diep Bordeaux rood.” In deze performance van Sarojini Lewis zien we een mysterieuze verschijning van een vrouw uit Portugal, in de stad Fatima. In 1556 werd de stad vernoemd naar een Moorse prinses en in 1917 verscheen een vrouwelijk figuur in een orakel voor drie kinderen van schapen herders. Lewis neemt je mee in een ritueel waarin zij een visueel narratief creëert met Kievietsbonen en Fatima’s geheimen combineert met haar eigen geheimen: een Bonen Biecht. Bonen en religie zijn al generaties lang aan elkaar verbonden. Bonen staan ook symbool voor armoede, in deze performance worden de bonen verbonden aan emoties rondom geheimen, is een eet ritueel ook een moment om over de dingen te praten waar we ons voor schamen? Waarom praten we altijd over een Heilige Boon? Het proces van het plukken van de bonen in de tuin van Yussef en het dromen met de boon verwijst naar onze gevoelens en emoties rondom eet rituelen. In the performance zien we een film, we horen gedichten en vertelt Sarojini over de familie waarin ze opgroeide die drie religies heeft, hindoeïsme, protestants christelijk, katholiek christelijk, boeddhisme. Hoe veranderde mijn identiteit door mij te verdiepen in de reis van mijn voorouders en de migraties die hebben plaatsgevonden? "Ik neem je mee op een orakel waarin we verhalen horen die ik tegenkwam door het onderzoek dat ik doe naar symbolen achter objecten en familieverhalen"
Why do you have a face like Sopropo? - Why do you have a Face like Sopropo? was inspired by the project Lewis undertook in 2015 when she was in search of archival images from the documented journey of missionaries based close by a village in Dresden. While undertaking the research she encountered Kerela in the 'shops' with Indian and Pakistani workers, she imagined the journeys of the vegetables from India to Germany similar as that of her ancestors has undertaken more than hundred years ago. While accumulating images of the Kerela she uses letters, email conversations exchanges with fellow neighbor Rabiya to discover the expressions that Kerela carries. (A bitter emotion and bitter face so to speak) The bitter gourd has a strong taste that can be associated with the history of migration that carries an emotional 'silence'. The separation from loved one's and the displacement did carry along a bitter 'aftertaste'. While contemplating food one can immediately associate with the street food in Kruiskade Rotterdam, the Hindustani community and their intersecting stories with Creole community and the everyday of consuming the food. Yet the more emotional layer that can be associated with bitter gourd is something more mysterious and unresolved that leads to a deeper association with the history of migration and it's emotional spectrum. The installation for the exhibition consists of photographic explorations with the Sopropo as well as a selection of archival images. The work has been made from 2015 until 2021 over in three locations, New Delhi, Paramaribo and Rotterdam.
From Surviving To Thriving - In July 2020 three artists from Rotterdam with a shared history and diverse artistic skills and visions, decided to collaborate. We met after in the semi-permanent exhibition ‘Crossroads’ for which Sarojini Lewis made an art installation in Wereldmuseum titled: ‘Why do you have a face like a Sopropo?’ For the project ‘From Surviving to Thriving’ we aimed to bring together creative works of various artists of Indo-Surinamese descent. We felt the importance of highlighting these unique perspectives and experiences, as growing up in The Netherlands we have all felt the heavy absence of black-and people of colour in the arts. We noticed a lack of visual representation while trying to pursue a career in the arts with a migrant background. Traces of our backgrounds are left by our ancestors who once departed by boat from Calcutta in India to arrive in Paramaribo, Suriname (1973-1916). We had several conversations in which we discussed various gender sensitive experiences besides being Indo-Surinamese. With ‘From Surviving to Thriving’ we create a platform for South Asians, having in mind a complex history of indentured labour, who courageously disrupt dominant narratives. - Sarojini Lewis
Redefining Trace - Video Retracing El Alamein 2018 In collaboration with Lele Huang and monologue of Michael Lewis The exhibition involves various video works use a night-club as a performative site. Constructed environments become psychological spaces where social interaction takes place. This installation was made as part of a duo exhibition with Helen Flanagan and her work was juxtaposed with Sarojini Lewis work Retracing El Alamein. The video work Sarojini involves exploration of ancestral migratory routes of her grandfather G.S. Lewis, researching his traces and his career as a British soldier who fought on the front line in Egypt. Besides this one can read the monologue of her father M.B.C. Lewis that recounts of several historic events. Having this history in mind she retraces his footsteps and the specific Battle of Rommel. Retracing is done together with Lele Huang who on the basis of her father's dairy about his father, who fought in North Korea reimagines and embodies this experience by her performance and re-enactment of symbolic plastic soldiers in the war memorial museum in El Alamein War Museum. In conversation together, we would like to expand upon the idea of a constructed space and combine the video works in the environment of Slash Gallery and Worm in Rotterdam.
Room 327 in the aftermath of Holi - I started living in a room in a flat named Koyna Hostel with only female Indian students in 2015 and got to know its corners and mouldy cupboards throughout the years. Despite its dustiness the room gave me quietness. Two bodies share a room of 5 square meters and only after spending some time with several roommates I got used. Sharing a bedroom space meant to be sharing your personal space. Someone to consult through the maze of paperwork that one is confronted with on a daily basis as part of an administration that often confuses its students by surreal instructions. The red brick balcony overlooking the trees and other buildings in the University campus provided me a certain grounded feeling. Early mornings one would wake up by the noises of cricket players and a man on a bicycle selling curt. At nights the barking of dogs kept me awake, the gecko without tail used to crawl around on the balcony as silent companion. During the PhD research in New Delhi on the visuals of female migrants of Bhojpuri indentured labourers, I searched for archival material as an evidence of this Caribbean migration. Often I came across schematic colonial documents with figures on the deaths and illnesses of the migrants. This abstract colonial reality clashed with my emotional connection and relationship with this history. Similar as the traces of Holi celebration, history remains as a touch of powder layered on the skin. Tangible memories shaped a contrast with the elusiveness of my ancestors' personal history. The collection of archival material are from several institutions National Archives of Suriname, - India as well as -Mauritius and the National Archives of London. Self-portraits on days of Holi are combined with some colonial documents I found. I investigated how colonization overtime has led to sexual exploitation and physical exhaustion, evident in some schedules of colonial representations on diseases on board the ships during the three month transportation from India to Suriname. During generations cultural festivals such as Holi remained an important festival for the Indo-Caribbean community as a form to resist cultural domination from the other yet there are nuances in how its celebrated. The well known bright colours of Holi sometimes conceal a more embittered past that I never heard my Surinamese grandparents speak about. Personally, with my body as a holder of genetics apart of this Indian migration and containing the traces of Holi colours on the surface I see a two sided message. Juxtaposing observations that Bhojpuri female migrants are always portrayed as decorative objects in the photographic representations of the colonial era (postcard images and photo studios) or victims of a system are present in my mind. In the current climate surrounding the Indo-Caribbean community, there is little authentic personal representation of identity. I photographed my own body on the day of Holi for four years in my room at Jawaharlal Nehru University of New Delhi. In the Holi self-portraits I pay attention to my own bodily positions and my identification with indentured labour. The first experience of this celebration in India reminded me that there is a physical aspect of touch involved. In a conflicted way, the body is on the one hand the reference to the working body (labouring bodies) through colonial documents, and on the other hand the tactile reminder of a celebration of Holi. A dairy of bodily traces throughout the years. A cycle of making myself vulnerable by documenting traces on my body, the intimacy of touch and the embodied experience of faded fingerprints, an emotion that can be felt through the daylight of the passed day, my facial expression and the fragility of exposing my body. Characteristic of this repeated ritual is the contrasts of the organic traces of Holi colours with the abstraction of rectangular schemes of the colonial documents. The body transforms through time duration of a photographic registration of four years. The four celebrations are recognisable by different contrasts of Holi colours and the clothes, visible as fragments of daily life in New Delhi, various archival materials correspond, as if one is imprisoned by traces from a past.
Cutting hair and a phone conversation - I decided to work with one of my cousins, Alexander Lewis and myself. The visual documentation of this project is not about family but about the act of cutting hair. Although the roll of being related to each other does play a part in the visual presentation of the project. I could have worked with models but I chose not to do that. My cousin and I show some similarities in our appearance; still we don’t look exactly like each other. The subtle similarities in our expressions and appearance are what I was looking for during my documentation. I think that this element makes the visual presentation stronger and enforces the concept and process I’m trying to show within my work. Next to these aspects we have strong band with each other with left me space to work quite intimately with my cousin and to create an atmosphere were my cousin is not always aware of the camera. As a result I got different expressions and emotions in the documentation I made of him. My cousin and I cut all our hair off and photographed this step by step. We both did this because we wanted to have change, we wanted to look different. I used this transformation of appearance as a key point in the visual presentation of this project. An extreme change seems to be a thing that really obsessed me. The relation between the perception of identity and the way you look seemed to relate to each other. Why would one want to change, so drastically? Alexander and I where obsessed with the idea of cutting our long hair as short as possible. For me it was interesting to see how I would feel with short hair and if it changes the way you see yourself and the way you act. Could a change of the surface of the body affect the mental state and personality which is formed inside of the body? I intend to think it does, ever since I cut all my hair of I felt different. I almost felt like a different person. Is it the way we divide the way we dress in subcultures relating to specific behaviour which fits the look belonging to that subculture? I was wondering how much I am effected by these subcultures and the way people make a perception about me by the way I dress and look. There was something in this change which made me feel free. On a warm afternoon I sat down on a wooden bench in the Golden Square near Picadilly Circus. There was a man next to me on the phone. He seemed to be in a mood for phoning because when he hung up he made another phone call. I was curious I wanted to record the conversation by writing it down. I was able to write down almost everything passing by in the conversation. Something of it was typical, typical for the moment and place. I was inspired to work with this phone conversation. Both ideas seemed to relate with each other. My projects had always contained something of the daily life. Cutting hair and phone conversations seems to symbolise daily life for me. Cutting hair is an intimate process and is done in a private space and mostly indoors. Phone conversations are part of our live inside and outside the living space. The phone conversations I used are taken from the public space. I wrote down these conversations when I sat on a bench next to someone on the phone. It seems to be a normal thing to do nowadays; revealing all your private matters in the public space where they can be overheard by others and the information can be transformed and used in another context. The images and text will be presented in a grid, in a book stapled to the wall and a short movie presented on a small TV screen with a DVD player. They will appear in two different rooms. The main focus of the structure is the sequence of the photography and the sequence of text. They can be seen as lose pages in a grid and than in the other room as a book. I would like to combine the book with a short movie. The movie will contain two video portraits of me and my cousin. The movie will almost be like a photograph but than you can see small movements of blinking eyes and the rithem of breathing and swallowing. With this movie I try to enforce the idea of alienation of a moment when were doing nothing, which is part of our daily life. By stretching this moment and looping the time is passing while the viewer’s time is passing as well. Besides the time passing and alienation the video shows a lot of natural elements, we have to blink and swallow and breath both of our hair is longer since we last cut it. Time is passing while the body is transformating. The narrative aspect is quite open and can be changed when you look at both works in the different presentations. The lines of the phone conversations are printed on separate sheets of newsprint. I used letterpress to print the text on the newsprint. The sentences created by talking on the phone are slowly resembled by the metal type and printed by hand. The fast moments of impulsive information within the phone conversations are captured with pen and paper than transformed with the type and letterpress and printed. The information is frozen and stays visible; it can be read again and again. The pictures of my cousin and I are printed on the same paper. The text and the photographs can be combined next to each other with a very simple structure of the grid. The phone conversation and the two persons cutting their hair are two different subjects; they don’t have a direct relation. Although I do want people to create a connection between them. People are looking for a connection, sometimes it will be possible to make this connection and sometimes it’s not possible for people to make a clear connection and they might be a bit confused. I think it’s interesting to combine these two basically things of our daily life to create confusion. I am inspired by a development in the form of alienation created by the grids and the book. The most basically things of our life can create a feeling of alienation. This feeling is created by taking elements from our daily life and putting them in another context. For example; you usually cut your hair in a hairdresser and most people don’t cut long hair to almost any hair. The photographs are taken in a studio with professional studio lightning. The person is surrounded by a white background which gives an abstract of cutting hair under normal circumstances. The phone conversation is edited and doesn’t give all the information from the actual conversation written down with pen and paper. Working with these two human acts of daily life seems to relate to my other projects which are also developed in the transitions of the private space and public space and the passing of time within this space. The key point why my work relates to book arts is because of the sequences, the development of a narrative and the use of text and photography. For me a book is something containing some pages. Because there is always more than one page the book symbolises a series or sequence. I use this sequence by using more than one photo. The combination of two elements can produce tension. This tension is extremely important in my work; I try to use it in varieties ways. These are elements I intend to research intensely in my future projects. Sarojini Lewis
The Cave that Borrows - ‘The Cave that Borrows’ is an artistic performance-based movie based on the idea of lending and borrowing that invites discussion on diversity and transformation and the act of becoming while at the same time questioning the capitalistic materialistic society that we all live in. ‘Cave’ when translated in another language, say Mizo, is ‘Puk’. ‘Puk’ is also another word for ‘Borrow’ or ‘Lend’ in the same language. The movie lends its meaning and context in ‘borrowing’ and ‘lending’ from other cultures and ideas that transform the way of thinking and seeing. A group of artists from different cultures and countries working together offers platform for artistic intervention through a collective work that induce and provoke meditation and interpretation.