Shalini is one of the luckiest underexposed artists I have met. She has a work studio larger than the average one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, and it’s set on sprawling acreage behind her family’s house in the Central plains on the island of Trinidad. The spicy, curry aroma that greets us on this Friday afternoon, signals the savory feast her housekeeper has prepared for grateful guests.
Few know that Shalini Seereram, 36, is relentless about being recognized as an original. To safeguard that objective she fervently budgets how much art by other artists she consumes. “I don’t mingle much with similar artists. I would go to [their] show, but I’d rather get to know the people rather than the art. I don’t really like to hobnob at certain shows. I would go the day [after opening night]. I don’t want their style to entirely influence me,” she reasons.
The subjects in the paintings she dreams up to illustrate magazine editorials and to realize her imagination, bear three trademarks: intense colors, bold, crisp lines, and yoga-like contortions. Shalini considers herself “mostly self-taught,” though she studied jewelry design with precious metals and graphic design at John Donaldson Technical Institute in Port of Spain. She explored “everything from sketching to photography” during her enrollment. “I got exposed to so much that it was overwhelming.” She adds, “The commercial art program encouraged me to be adventurous. I was influenced by Christopher Cozier; he was my tutor for two years at John D.” Shalini was 20 when she graduated to pursue a career. “I had this passion for art without [a] specific direction. I just knew art would be a part of my life.”
Studying jewelry design grew from wanting to create three-dimensional work, but she was unwilling to subject her creativity to the compromise that comes with making bangles and chains based on someone else’s vision. “[The] perception [that] we are still people who are toting water all over the place, living in old chattel houses, hanging up washed clothes while looking at barren cane fields … I am not into that (she smirks). We are more than that.” You won’t find humble wooden homes and sun-kissed clotheslines in a Shalini original. “I am not going to sell myself that short.”
Two years ago Shalini noticed her work started to reflect her East Indian heritage. “My subjects are not entirely distinguished as Indian or African, at first. I started to paint people not regarding ethnicity as much All of a sudden the fine detailing that I like started to creep out of me; and I [became] more exposed to fabrics and colors of the Indian culture,” She explains. “That’s where I am in 2007 with my process.”
Among Shalini’s 19 exhibitions, her 2006 “Rite of Passage” show that was installed in Trinidad then Washington, D.C. is a stand-out because with that collection she “explored a sensual side of Indian culture.” That show also offered her the most memorable exhibition experience: “A guy came up to me and told me he sold his Jackie Hinkson to buy my piece [for about U$1,500].” Shalini admires Gustav Klimt‘s use of gold in his work, and Modigliani; she discovered both artists after receiving compliments that likened her style to those icons. She also admires how Carlisle Harris uses color and Glasgow’s application technique. Shalini defends her approach to abstract painting as original, and questions why she should “feel proud” that her work invokes Matisse or Picasso for some.
Ashraph, a fellow artist, Renelle, Shalini’s confidante, and I browse unframed early works as Shalini opens shutters as gentle rains drift from Chandernagore Village. Some of her 12 adopted dogs stretch near the door. She says they each strolled onto her yard, one after another. And claimed a piece of her warm heart. A work-in-progress awaits on a tabletop easel near dozens of bottles of vivid nail lacquer. Larger works hang near a shiny, black boxing bag.
Shalini believes she has crossed the starting line during the 15 years she’s been in the marketplace, yet she is restrained. “I could be holding myself back not knowing the next step.” She wants to be a serious player in the fine art world, but is yet to refine and train her strategy on a prize. “I get up in the morning and I sketch. If I leave home I carry a sketchbook; I sketch, I sketch, I sketch.” Few sketches reach completion without delay or the catalyst of an exhibition deadline. Ashraph confronts her anguish: “You need to step out of your comfort zone.” “I don’t know how to,” retorts Shalini.
The creative chi that fuels Shalini’s work usually emerges in the dark, lonely night. She is eccentric, modest, and Hindu. “I pray for the higher power…the electricity going through our body, and peace and sustenance,” she offers. “There are others who do deity celebrations. I don’t, though I would reference the stories and background that deities represent.” That odd boxing bag is another agent in Shalini’s cleansing and spiritual regimen.
“My dad used to get into fights with me,” she recounts. “We always butt heads and I would get angry and hit a wall, which is not good for somebody who should insure their hands instead of damage them.” She found the bag in a mall two years ago and also gets a good cardio workout with it.
Shalini envisions exhibiting across the Caribbean region and beyond, but what her work evolves into and how that work translates are the first evaluations she’ll need. She notices, “People see my pieces being broken down into stained glass.” Her urge to explore her creative potential and find durable canvasses for her nail polish paintings, led her to toy with glass panes then old chattel windows. She found a good fit for what she calls “fusion pieces.” “I started using $3 nail polish because it was more affordable than paying $46 for a tube of acrylic.” When working on paper she employs oil and iridescent acrylics, and reserves nail polish for accent areas to satisfy any concern about durability.
Shalini trusts her go-with-the-flow spirit will continue to serve her imagination and career as it did one slow afternoon: “I was [a graphic artist] at McCann-Erickson Advertising. One day, I went downstairs to a drugstore and noticed the beautiful colors of nail polish. I bought some polish and started to [paint with] it on matte board. One polish led to two; before the end of the week I bought 15 colors,” recalls Shalini. During a later purchase the sales clerk asked: “I am noticing that you come in every day, buy two or three bottles of polish, and you don’t have any on your nails?” Shalini replied, “Yeah, because I have them on my toes.”
© SEAN DRAKES
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