Driving along Parliament St. in downtown Toronto one day in the middle of winter, Meera Sethi saw a woman dressed in a sari, bundled up in a thick, heavy winter coat.
“Her sari was just peeking from the bottom of her coat,” she remembers, speaking to CBC Arts over Zoom. “That contrast of something so gorgeous and sensual, and often quite colourful and shiny, with this dark grey coat on top — it was quite fascinating, just this stark contrast.”
“I am not sure if that was the exact beginning of the project, but I remember noticing this.”
The project she’s referring to is called Outerwhere. It’s one of two exhibitions featuring Sethi’s work at the Cambridge Art Galleries in Cambridge, Ontario. Outerwhere features 12 winter coats whose inner linings have been altered and adorned by Sethi.
Seeing other women in saris, swaddled in thick winter coats, got Sethi thinking about how the winter coat is one of the most important items of clothing for newcomers from warmer climates. This ultimately informed the process of putting together Outerwhere.
“It’s often a topic of conversation,” she says, referring to exchanges that take place amongst prospective South Asian immigrants. “What kind of coat will I need? What’s the best material? Should it be buttoned or zippered? Feather or wool? Long or short? Hood or not?”
“I mean, it’s endless, right? I wanted to use this coat to tell a story.”
Sethi also thought about the way the garment offers interior and exterior protection. The practical dark colour outside protects the body from outdoor elements, whereas the inside lining offers an intimacy that’s tender.
“I thought it would be a great metaphor to talk about the personal, private, memory, nostalgia — those kinds of ideas. Things that you may or may not want to share with others.”
Her other exhibit at Cambridge Art Galleries, Cotton Exchange, features two sets of painting series unpacking her thoughts around the garment and textile industry, and how fast fashion is constructed.
One set of paintings depicts clothing worn by garment workers from South Asian countries, such as Bangladesh, as they protested the working conditions that led to deaths in the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. Rana Plaza was a commercial building in Dhaka that housed five garment factories, which supplied clothing to Canadian retailers like Joe Fresh.
“Those drawings came about during the pandemic … as I started to get more involved in understanding the conditions of largely racialized women who work in this industry,” says Sethi. “There were many hundreds of images, and I wanted to slow down my active looking as a way of slowing our consumption of images, our consumption of clothing, because fast fashion is very toxic. To slow it down even more, I wanted to draw because drawing is such a slow process.”
The other work in Cotton Exchange is a seven-panel mural inspired by another one of Sethi’s pandemic projects: growing a cotton plant at home. Her desire to capture the plant developing the natural fibre led Sethi to a travel podcast episode set in Mumbai that explored the history of cotton in the city and the presence of a 1936 Art Deco bas relief sculpture on the historic Cotton Exchange Building in Mumbai.
On her next visit to India, Sethi sought out that piece of artwork, which was falling into disrepair.
“I had taken my binoculars and my iPhone, and positioned it just right so I could take as many photos as I could — in the middle of a very busy bazaar with cars, and people, and the heat. When I got back to Toronto, I pieced the mural together based on my images and decided to recreate this the best I could.”
Making art has always been an important part of Sethi’s life. As a child, art was her favourite subject in school. After pursuing a BFA and then MA in interdisciplinary studies from York University, Sethi pursued graphic design as a means to make a living. A self-taught graphic designer in her late teens, she progressed to computer-based graphic design in her 20s.
“I think eventually I just started to feel like I [wasn’t] being creative enough, or tactile enough. I came back to painting,” she says, and eventually added other mediums including performance, design and fibre to her repertoire.
Her current exhibitions are inspired by a lifelong curiosity about clothes and the act of dressing up — an interest she attributes to her parents, especially her father.
“I love clothes,” she says. “My mother, when she first moved here, she worked for Singer, the sewing machine company. She made some of my own clothes. She’s always bringing back Indian clothes from trips to India. Clothes have just always been around me.
“I am interested in the making, wearing, and disposing of cloth; clothing as a form of self-expression and resistance; and the ways textile is constituted over vast geographies.”
Dressing up for occasions and festivals is also a strong part of diaspora culture for South Asian, Sethi points out. But then there’s also the daily act of dressing up for survival, especially in the winter months.
Over the seven years that it took her to stitch together Outerwhere, Sethi worked with previously worn coats — her own, ones that belonged to family or friends, or ones she found at thrift stores — to produce the dozen artworks that make up the exhibit. She replaced their linings with items such as collaged bits of cassette tape covers that were a part of her father’s collection, children’s posters, plastic flowers, pieces of old maps and old fabric that she found in her home such as the gota used to embellish Indian party wear.
“Each coat tells its own story,” she says. “Some of those stories are personal; some are more shared. And some are a combination. Together they tell the story of diasporic experiences.”
“I could have kept going. There’s no end to what we carry with us, what we leave behind and what we long for. But I stopped at 12.”
A visitor to the exhibition told her his own story, she adds. Although his father had passed away, he’d kept his father’s first coat from when he arrived in Canada. It didn’t fit him, but it was symbolic of the struggles that his father faced when he arrived in Canada — whether it was the climate that his father faced while walking to work or the racism he encountered.
“It’s the same story my father told me,” says Sethi.
Meera Sethi. Outerwhere, to December 17 at Cambridge Art Galleries. Cotton Exchange, to November 26 at Cambridge Art Galleries. ideaexchange.org