Thinking through memories, an interview with Ilish Thomas

Indira's Birthday (ઇન્દિરાનો જન્મદિવસ) is a solo exhibition by Ilish Thomas at play_station in Te Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington. Here, play_station co-facilitator Connor Fitzgerald speaks to the artist about transience, community and intimacy.

Date 18 September 2021 Interview Connor Fitzgerald Imagery Supplied

Ilish Thomas, (Jugaad) Silk Folds into Sweats, 2021, digital video.

Connor Fitzgerald: The exhibition is titled Indira’s Birthday (ઇન્દિરાનો જન્મદિવસ). How did you come to this name?

Ilish Thomas: I filmed this video with my mum on the day of her 60th birthday. She was going to wear her saree at her party but took it off before we left the house. I wanted the title to speak directly to that moment and that day. In brackets Indira’s Birthday is translated in Gujarati, parallel to the English version, referential to the proximity of both cultural worlds we live in.

I’ve been thinking about the exhibition through my hectic memories of the installation, the photos taken on our phones, and the times I saw the artwork in the week before the gallery had to close for lockdown. What do you hope for when we come back to the gallery after all this time? It’s an exhibition that you didn’t spend much time with, but you spent so much time working on and making.

My initial thought was, ‘ugh, I’m gonna have to go back to the work.’ Which is never that appealing, because once I finish something I like to keep moving forward. Coming back to it almost feels like walking backwards, but it isn’t at all. I think it’s a lowkey blessing, because it will give me more time to process and know where I can develop afterwards. I’m looking forward to seeing the artwork again, with a new perspective.

The distanced proximity also makes me think of the themes within your work. This separation, this balance or imbalance, this weird space we’re existing in currently.

The first thing that this exhibition calls to mind is how much my family and I had to move when we were little. Navigating spaces that are always unsettled, and changing, is something I’ve become comfortable with. I feel that the exhibition being broken up by this lockdown didn’t affect me as much as it could have. I guess I was just happy that it was installed. With this lockdown and the last, I find that I’ve thrived as I’m naturally quite an introvert, I’ve often had to shift myself or adapt in different situations and take things as they come. I guess it kind of reflects how I was brought up.

Being comfortable with moving so much, and not having a single place as the constant—how does this come into play?

A lot of my work in the last two years, including this one, pinpoints moments that happened really briefly. They seem like mundane, day-to-day activities. My mum putting on a saree in her room would be standard practice if we lived and grew up in India but this isn’t the case. I didn’t even know she was putting it on when I filmed her. I was in the other room and I walked in and fuckin’ scrambled to get my camera because she was just putting it on, and I was like, ‘mum this is so cool!’ A lot of the things I look at are just snapshots of moments in time, everyday scenarios. I see those moments as more beautiful than something staged. Don’t get me wrong, something semi-staged serves a really good purpose, and part of that work was, but the moment I drew on was temporal. That constant changing and moving, I just go with the flow and pick at whatever I vibe with at the time.

“I guess marginality is people existing in these fine gaps around the centre. In my experience it was constant movement, my mum finding it hard to get a job and the general experience of racism. We’ve had to adapt. Marginality to me isn’t an identity, it’s more a discourse; a set of ways of being and thinking that only exist because there is something that centralises itself so hard.” — Ilish Thomas

Ilish Thomas, (Jugaad) Silk Folds into Sweats, 2021, digital video.

Focusing on specific moments that wouldn’t usually be seen as an event, using your practice as a way to amplify these. What do you hope to do by showing intimate and ‘real’ unstaged occurrences?

For the most part, those liminal moments are a part of my growing up here in Aotearoa. It’s an experience that might not be seen or heard by the majority of other families, but it’s those macro-zoomed-in moments that speak to the broader social and cultural development of this country. I wanted to show something really private in public to try and challenge stereotypes, the general lens, on people like me.

I was born in Aotearoa but I’m removed from my motherland. I’ve experienced some kind of marginalisation where people often consider me one thing or another, so here I’m throwing something that is neither into the mix. I just want to add a little more spice because right now I feel like New Zealand is just salt and pepper and we’re not really acknowledging all the other spices in between, allowing people to think a little more broadly. There’s so much fluidity. Growing up, moving between spaces in so many ways, that small space is something I want to focus on, it’s where I thrive.

It feels really powerful showing something that’s individual, that isn’t shown all the time on mass media or focused on; and you’re purposefully being like, ‘hello!’

Yeah, I’m putting my hand up.

You’ve mentioned to me before how marginality is important to your work. Would you like to talk to that?

‘Marginality’ extends to why I’m showing such a private moment. There’s a fine line between feeling too vulnerable or exploitative or not, but with this situation, and in a lot of my work, my mum and I somehow collaborate. Because of that, I guess my personal experience with what it means to be marginal is closely tied to her and her experience. While filming (Jugaad) Silk Folds into Sweats my mum put on the saree and then she immediately took it off before we went out, because it’s not standard practice here to wear it in public. People kind of see that dress as celebratory or occasional, when it’s actually just everyday wear. Seeing my mum put her saree on was a special moment. It’s something I wanted to draw upon because it’s been so squished out of our lives, particularly growing up in Dunedin which is super provincial and really white. I guess marginality is people existing in these fine gaps around the centre. In my experience it was constant movement, my mum finding it hard to get a job and the general experience of racism. We’ve had to adapt. Marginality to me isn’t an identity, it’s more a discourse; a set of ways of being and thinking that only exist because there is something that centralises itself so hard.

I’ve been reading a lot of bell hooks—her text Marginality as Site of Resistance really stuck out to me in terms of the energy I bring to my practice. It’s taken me six years to get to the point where I want to be vulnerable with my work, and now that I am being I feel this energy that she wrote about in her texts. She spoke of “marginality as a site of resistance,” a space to foster new imaginaires, a new way of being or alternative ways of existing in this shit. It’s inspiring to me, and kind of acts as a prompt or mantra in the back of my mind.

Ilish Thomas, (Jugaad) Silk Folds into Sweats, 2021, digital video.

Ilish Thomas, (Jugaad) Silk Folds into Sweats, 2021, digital video.

Being vulnerable is hard, especially with art, showing it publicly and having people be able to be all art critic like, ‘hmm what do I think about this?’

Oh it’s disgusting, its so fuckin weird, but we love it. It’s so public right? But it’s cool, it’s such a weird double edged sword.

Yeah, you’re opening your soul, your heart.

People have no idea. I think part of the charm is to make something look so effortless and beautiful, when actually you’ve had breakdowns and cried in the process of practicing and making work. It can be fucking ugly but the outcome can be so beautiful.

The visuals in your work are so beautiful. The minimal nature of this exhibition is very inviting, with the low volume soundtrack and video that shows a single subject being filmed. There’s a screen with the video projected on it, your mother in her bedroom, dressing herself, you and her together. Surrounding this are curtains hung across the gallery windows, similar to the curtains in your mothers bedroom.

I think my purpose for keeping it simple was because of the chaos and the ideas behind it. I didn’t want to embellish it with anything much because the moment for me was quite powerful, I wanted to carry that through. I didn’t want to cover up the fact I was filming with my mum in her room. I think inviting people to this moment said enough, so I kept the install quite simple. I wanted to create a setting where people could take time and notice what was happening. I wanted people to be able to leave when they wanted or stay however long they felt comfortable. It’s something really subtle, it’s my mother going through the process of pleating and draping a saree. It might be intriguing for people if they’ve never done it before.

Ilish Thomas, (Jugaad) Silk Folds into Sweats, 2021, digital video.

You’ve almost recreated that experience of filming your mum in her room. Sitting there alone and watching this work, the viewer is able to have a similarly intimate moment. You notice subtleties, the way the light interacts in the space, the curtains, the colours, the textural qualities of the sari, the sound that quietly comes in.

I like how it’s filmed from a first person perspective. It was me there, but I kind of had the hope that people would imagine their mother. You grow up with your mum and you have this special relationship that you don’t have with other family members. I wanted the video to have this reflexive quality, in the tone of a memoir. I was hoping the artwork would carry and be able to thread through to other people.

Has your mum seen the work? What does she think of it?

I sent her the first cut before I showed it to anyone else. She was nervous about having her face shown, which is fair enough, so I made an effort to dignify her as much as possible. It’s her on a big screen in a gallery that isn’t even being shown in the same town as her. That was kind of the hardest part of the work to be honest. I sent her shots of the install but she couldn’t make it up to the exhibition, which sucks. I think she would love it but I know she’d feel vulnerable; it’s revealing for me as well.

Other than that she thought it was quite nice, she sort of just laughed because she said that if grandma or anyone saw her putting on a saree this way she’d be given shit because she was putting it on over her sweatpants, at home, and not in the best way, apparently. There is a very particular style and she commented on that—her saree pleating technique. That was kinda cute and yeah, i think she liked it but my worry is just when she sees it in the gallery would she really approve? So far she has, but it can be quite a shock to see it all up like that. So yeah she likes it, I think i’m just doubting myself.

Ilish Thomas, Indira’s Birthday (ઇન્દિરાનો જન્મદિવસ). Installation view, play_station, September 2021.

Ilish Thomas, Indira’s Birthday (ઇન્દિરાનો જન્મદિવસ). Installation view, play_station, September 2021.

Ilish Thomas, Indira’s Birthday (ઇન્દિરાનો જન્મદિવસ). Installation view, play_station, September 2021.

Ilish Thomas, Indira’s Birthday (ઇન્દિરાનો જન્મદિવસ). Installation view, play_station, September 2021.

Ilish Thomas, Indira’s Birthday (ઇન્દિરાનો જન્મદિવસ). Installation view, play_station, September 2021.

Ilish Thomas, Indira’s Birthday (ઇન્દિરાનો જન્મદિવસ). Installation view, play_station, September 2021.

Ilish Thomas, Indira’s Birthday (ઇન્દિરાનો જન્મદિવસ). Installation view, play_station, September 2021.

This conversation took place on 3 September 2021.