Artist Suchitra Mattai’s Los Angeles studio is a treasure chest of materials. Bins of fabrics and paints pop with color, alongside piles of shimmering notions like pearls and threads. The dazzling array of textures and colors form the basis of Mattai’s vibrant mixed-media paintings, tapestries, and soft-sculpture installations.
Over the past months, the artist has spent dawn-past-dusk days in the studio preparing for “In the Absence of Power, In the Presence of Love,” her debut solo exhibition with Los Angeles’s Roberts Projects. These texturally complex works evoke stories and histories of her Indo-Caribbean heritage and draw from a dizzying mixture of European pastoral landscapes and figuration as well as Indian miniature paintings. Mattai populates her works with brown heroines, who replace the original subjects of the artworks she references, in an act of reclamation of material heritage.
These works touch on Mattai’s own family history. Under British colonial rule, her great-grandparents were brought from the state of Uttar Pradesh, India to Guyana, South America as indentured laborers to work the sugar plantations following the end of slavery. The artist learned sewing, embroidering, and other textiles techniques from her grandmothers, and sometimes adorns the works with family heirlooms and weaves tapestries out of saris, a reflection and celebration of her maternal lineage.
Recently, the artist welcomed us into her studio house in an old L.A. factory where the artist works alongside her team of three, finding inspiration in the morning light, and dreaming bigger and bigger.
Tell us about your studio. Where is it, how did you find it, what kind of space is it, etc.?
My studio is a beautiful and inspiring space at Mohilef Studios in L.A. It’s in an old factory with large corner windows, views of palm trees, and an industrial landscape all around. I also have a view of downtown L.A. and the most amazing sunsets at night. The space was recommended to me by a friend and inside you’ll find bins of fabrics, paints, the beginnings of large installations, an amazing set of tables built by my studio manager, Lucy, a large wooden contraption for “weaving” my sari tapestries and vintage objects of all sizes, shapes and time periods. It oscillates between organized and chaotic and mostly lies somewhere in between.
What made you choose this particular studio over others?
When I walked into this space, I just knew it was the right one. It has an indescribable aura and the most amazing natural light. I knew that I’d be inspired here every day. I also love having a community of artists in the building—we all help each other out with resources, advice, etc.
Do you have studio assistants or other team members working with you? What do they do?
I have three amazing people who work with me. I have a studio manager and two studio assistants. They help me to plan, organize, make, and dream. They help me with everything from making and installing to administrative tasks (like organizing shipping, database managing, communications with galleries and institutions, etc.). They are all talented artists and are up for anything. I think of us as a team. Next year I have several institutional shows so we are planning and making work for large-scale installations for those. I want my studio to be a beautiful space dedicated to creative practices but also committed to growth. I am always excited to try new mediums and processes and feel that my team members are always happy to support those desires.
How many hours do you typically spend in the studio, what time of day do you feel most productive, and what activities fill the majority of that time?
I am at my studio most days and my hours vary. Most work days are 6–8 hours but before an exhibition, this can go up to 13–14 hours a day for weeks at a time. I’ve waited a half of a lifetime to do this so I am really excited to be in the studio and feel like I am making up for lost time. Mornings are great for me but I also get an extra push at night. I use studio time to plan, but most of my time is spent creating. Emails and administrative tasks often get done at home. I have a family and try my best to find a life/work balance. I just finished opening an exhibition at Roberts Projects and spent months in my studio so I am looking forward to spending time with the family.
What is the first thing you do when you walk into your studio (after turning on the lights)?
I stand at the door and take it all in. I open the windows, take in the sounds of the metal factory next door, and get to work.
What tool or art supply do you enjoy working with the most, and why? Please send us a snap of it.
My studio manager Lucy built me these “weaving” frames/stands for creating my sari tapestries and they are elegant and awesome! Rope net gets stretched on them and then I weave strips of saris into the grid to create the tapestries. It’s not exactly “weaving” but an invented process. The back-and-forth motions and knots make it similar to embroidery, a process that I also use a lot in the studio. The stands have changed my life!
Is there anything in your studio that a visitor might find surprising?
There is a large automated dry-cleaning rack in my studio that’s part of an installation. Thousands of strands of tinsel hang from it and it’s intense.
What is the fanciest item in your studio? The most humble?
The fanciest item in my studio is an old copy of the book that I use to collage with. The most humble are the used “everyday” saris that South Asian women wear.
How does your studio environment influence the way you work?
My studio environment is larger than any that I have worked in before and it allows me to engage in large-scale projects. The hanging installation phala for my solo exhibition, for example, was conceived and created in this studio. I had never made anything like that before but my ceilings are 16 feet high and allowed for this kind of experimentation.
Describe the space in three adjectives.
Light-filled, abundant, inspiring.