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Meera Sethi: Dematerialization, Care and Repair as UN/making

Meera Sethi standing beside a home grown cotton plant.

Welcome back to The UN/makers interview series that features creatives who consciously take up methods of un/making as part of their practice to help disrupt anthropogenic, perspectives and gestures towards land. This week I had the opportunity to speak with Meera Sethi about her interesting participatory mail art project Unskilled #newclothingcaresymbols, launched in 2020 during Covid lockdown. As a brief intro, Meera Sethi is an interdisciplinary Canadian artist who lives and works as an immigrant-settler in Tkaronto (Toronto, Canada), the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Huron-Wendat, and Mississaugas of the Credit River. With an intuitive and research-based practice, Sethi moves between mediums to ask critical questions about migration, memory and care, and works at the intersection of the subjugated body and histories of cloth with a particular focus on South Asia and its diasporas. Sethi shares, “I am interested in the making, wearing, and disposing of cloth; the use of clothing as self-expression and resistance; and the ways textiles are constituted over vast geographies formed through empire, racial capitalism, caste, heteropatriarchy, and settler colonialism. Jill: Meera, thank you for taking time out from your busy schedule for this interview! I have recently been reading about mail art projects and dematerialization during the 60's, 70's and 80's. Could you begin by talking about the mail art project Unskilled, launched in 2020 with the support of the Centre for South Asian Civilizations at University.

Meera Sethi Care Label Design Sketches for Unskilled

Meera:l Clothing and textiles seem to me to be almost an invisible pollutant. Everyday we get dressed in a consumerist culture that encourages us to engage with fashion and look and feel good in what we wear. However, so little is said about the lifecycle of clothes, how they are made, and where they end up after we dispose of them. This life cycle of clothing quite literally travels the world from where the fibre is produced, to where it is manufactured, to where it is sold, and to where it ends up upon and after disposal. The textile industry also functions on vastly unequal labour conditions that exploit “unskilled” workers to produce clothes quickly for global mega-brands with high profit margins. To unmake this system, not only do we have to consume far less, we also have to understand the roots of this system that lie in the early days of colonialism, capitalism, and slavery. Jill: Yes! Consumers are often kept at such a distance from many of the physical and political-economic materials that go into making of a thing. So, the first time I encountered your work, you were producing a number of large scale, almost life size, mixed-media works on canvas entitled Upping the Aunty, which celebrated “the iconic “South Asian Aunty” for her personal style and their unique role in your life. What was it that shifted your practice towards creating a more participatory art project of caring and repairing textiles?

Meera: Part way through my practice of painting figurative works incorporating bright and patterned textiles, I realized that I wanted to have a deeper understanding of the images of cloth that I was painting. I began looking into patterns, colours and their histories, which opened up many new avenues of exploration. Part of this new direction was thinking about the making of these textiles. This led me to consider care. Through my painting, I was expressing care for the identity of the wearers of textiles, but I wasn’t explicitly extending care to the makers of textiles. So I re-focused my practice to consider both in relation to each other. Jill:. Aware of how the visual arts are very much a part of the global textile industry that works to colonize communities and land around the world through its production and waste, how do you see your praxis, particularly projects such as Unskilled, helping to unmake or undo different phenomena that contribute to the Capitolocene, Plasticocene, Anthropocene, etc...? Meera: Through my practice I encourage people to consider connections between ourselves, our bodies, and the outer world, whether that be the environment, history or community. In doing so, I draw attention to the social forces that impact and shape us, and either celebrate our resilience or ask audiences or participants to consider our relationship to self and others. Unskilled asks questions about how these various systems of power are constituted through the clothes on our back in an attempt to undo them. Jill: It takes a lot of courage to reflect on and adjust one's practice to acknowledge and deal with such realities. In making that transition, what else did you need to unmake, relinquish, resist, refuse or refrain from in order to imagine and put a project like Unskilled out into the world?

Meera: Unskilled was about unmaking our limited idea about care and clothing. When seen from the perspective of Western consumerism, conventional care labels on clothing only address care for the garment through washing, drying, and ironing, and do not take into consideration wider circles of care such as what is it made of, how did we acquire it, who made it and under what conditions was it made. I asked people to open their closets and interact with a piece of clothing as a way to care for these other aspects of the cloth, essentially to consider the entire cycle of clothing production. I resisted restrictive notions of care that treat an item of clothing as an end point. Instead, I now see clothing as assemblages of seen and unseen material that requires care at every stage of their lifecycle. Jill: Did you receive any inspirational or hopeful responses to the project and find that it helped others to unmake their ways of thinking about or interacting with textiles? Meera: The labels with the 41 new symbols got people thinking about new ways of engaging with cloth. People who previously didn’t think about the process on which clothing arrived in their hands, began asking questions. Unskilled provoked questions about the social, environmental, and labour relations of cloth. I mailed out hundreds of labels and received some responses with people sending images or sharing stories of interacting with the labels. Most labels however left my purview and continue to circulate in the world.

Jill: I would imagine that control or collection of outcomes is one more thing that an artist needs to relinquish when they put art like this out into the world. I know I still have my labels and need to sew them into one of my many thrifted and repaired clothing items. Thinking about Unskilled and other participatory projects such as Christina Battles, Ishtar's International Network of Feral Gardens, what else do you think needs to be unmade if artists are to commit and be able to sustain themselves through more ephemeral, educational and activist work? Meera: One question I feel will become increasingly important to artists is the environmental impact of artist materials from paint all the way to large-scale installations. Art does create a lot of waste and often requires a lot of storage. These are questions one will have to take into consideration when making work, especially work that addresses the undoing of damaging relations. In Unskilled, I was insistent on using a 100% cotton label free of plastics and ensure the project was mailed out in recycled envelopes through standard mail.

Meera Sethi, Unskilled Clothing Label printed on 100 % cotton.
Meera Sethi, Unskilled Project being placed in cardboard mailers made from recycled materials.

Jill: Wow! Thank you for providing a perfect example of how we can all pay more attention to our material choices when designing a project. You mention that you utilize a research-creation methodology within your practice. Is there anything you have had to unmake about yourself through research or as a result of outcomes from the creative process and interacting with others? Meera: As an artist and queer person, I am constantly in a state of unmaking. For much of my life I have had to create, bend and destroy rules and ways of doing. This is so intrinsic to who I am that it is difficult to parse through. I have forged my own path as an artist that did not follow conventional approaches or timelines. For example, I graduated with a masters degree in Interdisciplinary Studies while pursuing a self-taught practice of graphic design. As an artist, both these trajectories eventually filtered into an art practice that is inquisitive, research-oriented, multidisciplinary and highly visual. Jill: Is there any book, essay, blog, or podcast you would recommend to others that can help them unmake colonial, capitalist, or patriarchal perspectives and gestures towards land? Meera: In 2022, I participated as a feature artist at Nuit Blanche in Toronto with curator Dr. Julie Nagam with a project titled Colour of the Year. As part of Julie’s commitment to Nuit Blanche, she hosted a podcast series called Belonging to Place in which she interviews many artists and culture-workers about their practices and their relation to land and place. It’s a bit under the radar, but a truly remarkable collection of voices and stories that unmake our understanding of land and belonging. Jill: Thanks for sharing these additional projects and references. Final question for today. What do you feel needs more unmaking in the world, or more specifically, the art world, to design a more equitable and sustainable future? Meera: A continued focus on dismantling the sexism and racism of the art world that gatekeeps, not only artists, but curators and artistic directors as well. We need radical visions and voices in order to truly imagine and build a better world.


Exhibiting nationally and internationally, Sethi’s work can be found in the permanent collections of the Royal Ontario Museum and the Wedge Collection and has earned her multiple awards from the Toronto, Ontario and Canada Arts Councils, the Textile Museum of Canada, University of Toronto, Inter Access, and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. To learn more about Meera Sethi's past and upcoming projects visit her website and Instagram account.



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