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Issue 139

Sanjit Dhillon and cherry kutti: Biding My Time / Biting My Tongue
by Vince Rozario

In the warm sunlight of a late summer afternoon, a curious pastel pink tableau – seemingly, a diorama of a suburban living room – occupies a storefront in Toronto’s Chinatown. The stifling heat inside is palpable. Biding My Time / Biting My Tongue delves into mental health, trauma and memory, as experienced through a South Asian diasporic lens, broaching a sensitive discourse on mental health wherein whiteness is often disproportionately centred.

  • Sanjit Dhillon and cherry kutti, "Biding My Time / Biting My Tongue," installation view at Whippersnapper Gallery, Toronto, 2017.

These themes are fraught within an exhibition complex which aestheticizes and intellectualizes racialized trauma for colonial consumption. Racialized artists are often expected to perform the role of the “native informant.” Critical consensus often relegates work exploring race and identity to the realm of the pseudo-political, or vanity-driven. A racialized depiction of mental anguish is often either trivialized as anecdotal or expected to encompass the entirety of a communal experience. Sanjit Dhillon and cherry kutti deftly navigate the challenges of presenting confessional work as racialized femme artists – or “bearers of race,” as Hannah Black1 writes – by way of an extended visual conceit which plays with indexicality and memory.

The installation comprises an assemblage of peculiar furniture and anachronistically assembled bric-a-brac: a model auto rickshaw, a screen-printed stool made by kutti’s grandmother, a lamp embellished with pressed flowers, dying houseplants, novelty votive wall hangings bearing the evil eye and a sandalwood box with a secret stash and bong, among other items. While some of these objects are particular to South Asian households, it is in fact a familiar suburban tableau. As a diorama, it appears authentic, save for minor yet evocative interventions in which the artists challenge the voyeuristic hegemonic gaze engendered by the diorama format. Appearing to be signifiers of otherness to an etic perspective, for the emic viewer, these interventions invoke a nostalgic relationship. Even this nostalgia, however, is problematized by kutti’s gestural interventions, which come in the form of graphic overlays on multiple surfaces. Traced schematic drawings on vellum are placed over old family photographs. A video work loops on the television; on the pink wall behind it, kutti has hand-painted, in a slightly darker shade of pink, a pattern of grimacing faces, recalling delirium. This interplay between static and dynamic components seems to viscerally conjure the thrall of a psychological nadir.

The accompanying text, sourced from Dhillon’s personal journals, oscillates between depressive inertia and cloying anxiety. It recounts the countless hours spent waiting in hope of treatment, support or even basic motivation. She articulates the exhaustion of confronting the systemic realities of being a racialized artist operating in circumstances of precarity. “I’m tired in all the ways that tiredness can manifest itself on both an emotional and mental level. I’m tired from following my mind, jumping through hoops, searching the cracks and crevices for pieces of ‘Myself,’ and consistently coming up short,”2 she opines. Impaired mental health and systemic trauma are expressly not mutually exclusive here, which is echoed in the exhibition’s title. While Biting My Tongue evokes a suppression of rage and tacit resignation to systemic contingencies, Biding My Time characterizes this period as one of anticipation, of a positive alterity.

kutti and Dhillon also confront the myth of the model minority. Dhillon criticizes the valorization of high-functioning depressives who fit conveniently into capitalist notions of productivity while the systemic factors affecting mental health in racialized communities are flattened. Exploitative labour and intergenerational trauma inform the work. In the exhibition text, Dhillon contrasts her psychological exhaustion with the physical exhaustion of her mother who endured years of strenuous manual labour supporting her family. She belies the sense of disappointment and frustration that comes with not being able to meet the expectations of a parent who has contributed toil and capital toward the prosperity of their child. In this way, Dhillon traces the bewildering trajectories that render trauma through successive generations, particularly as they relate to capital.

Recovery becomes contentious when even the holistic modes of addressing trauma available to racialized communities are co-opted by larger social and political systems. The exhibition’s central video work samples footage of Baba Ramdev, a celebrity yogi and business magnate at the helm of a multi-million-dollar business in pseudo-Ayurvedic products and quack remedies which promise relief from every conceivable ailment, from cancer to depression. He is also currently at the centre of multiple fraud and sexual abuse scandals related to his company, Patanjali.3 Orientalist thirst for the exotic other, albeit appeased by opportunistic swamis and yogis from the time of Vivekananda in the early 20th century,4 pollutes centuries-old esoteric practices with pseudo-science and modern religious identity politics. The tongue-in-cheek video hints at a sense of betrayal at the failure of both traditional coping mechanisms and familial support networks against the countervailing pressures of consumer capitalism and border imperialism. kutti’s stash and bong, nestled within the confines of a carved sandalwood box, take this up, winking at contested cultural taboos and the stigma of self-medication in the absence of effective treatment.

While grappling with the complex intersections of mental health and race, Biding My Time / Biting My Tongue still manages to hold space for those wounded by these realities. The fictitious domesticity of the space, its celebration of liminality and articulation of a hybrid diasporic aesthetic, invites viewers to converse and relate, both to the objects and each other. Across multiple visits, the space continued to facilitate kinship and solidarity. New friendships were forged, communal futures discussed and familiar humorous tropes regaled. In this interactive aspect, Biding My Time / Biting My Tongue is at its most successful, engendering growth, healing and the possibility of reconciliation between oppositional cultural forces impacting mental health for racialized people.

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