Talia Ramkilawan was born in Cape Town in 1996. She uses mixed media in order to visualise the complexity of one’s relationship to trauma using various mediums including tapestry, video, performance and installation. The discovery of rug-hooking in her fourth year of university was a breakthrough moment. She immersed herself in this craft and, through this medium, she was able to create an intimacy and honesty that felt refreshing. Ramkilawan describes the process of making these textiles as a process of healing. Her work is inspired by her own family dynamics and her own experience with South Asian identity, culture and trauma.
UL Could you explain the process of your work, from the first stage to the finished piece?
TR In-between works I do like to take a day off and really consider what I want to do next, at the same time, it can be really mood dependent. Once I have decided what to do, I make a stop at the wool shop and get the colours I need, and often self-indulge on ones I don’t… I stretch hessian over a wooden frame and nail it in place. I then use a black marker and draw out the image. When I first started I had a silly notion that the image underneath had to be perfect, but now I use white paint to correct anything I’m not happy with. When I am happy with the image I begin with the wool. I start with black wool, pulling it through the hessian mesh using a small crochet needle, following the lines I’ve made with the marker. When the outline is complete, I start mapping out areas with colour. I choose colours based on what I like and what I think will work best together. When working from photographs I will try to follow the same colours. I finish the main image with wool before deciding on the background colour. When the wool sections are nearly complete I will go to the fabric shop and mull over what background colour will set the right mood. Depending on the size of the work, I will buy a couple of meters of fabric and, when I get home, I will cut them into strips. The background is the hardest part physically, as I have to pull fabric through small holes in the hessian mesh, it typically takes me 2-3 days to complete the background. Finally I remove the nails I’ve used to stretch the hessian and I am done.
UL Why do you work with wool, cloth and hessian, is there something in particular about the material that interests you?
TR Attempting to find a process of healing through making led me to where I am now. I craved intimacy between what I was making and myself. Weaving, working with wool and cloth is typically associated with womxn’s work and I found it so intriguing that I would be doing something internally so powerful and disruptive with regards to my healing just by sitting in my apartment playing with wool all day. Why I make the work is to think, to understand. I had to make things to fully comprehend them and the process of rug hooking has helped me achieve that.
UL The titles of your work are reminiscent of derogatory comments left in social media feeds, are the works aiming to take on this tone?
TR In more recent practice I have started looking at the everyday experience of a contemporary South Asian womxn. The work is an extension of myself. They are vessels for dealing with all my traumas, anxieties (old or new), as well as the good stuff, they are also a visual celebration of who I am. So inadvertently they are all self-portraits. But by putting my own face and my own life on the tapestries the intimacy of dealing with those traumas and anxieties are a lot more real, and there for everyone to see. My work also explores the intersections and binaries of my lived experience as a queer Indian womxn. Indian, yet not Indian enough, a daughter, a friend, queer, brown, tired – yet so much more to give.
UL You’ve described your art making as a healing process. Could you elaborate on the cathartic element of the work?
TR Transgenerational trauma is a big theme of my practice. I am interested in how coping mechanisms, particularly in response to long-term subjugation, are passed down between generations and can end up hindering personal fulfilment. My work attempts to break the cycle of previous behaviours by acknowledging them and actively trying to redress past wounds. My practice is centred around healing. Firstly, for myself – as the experience of making the works is an act of healing. And secondly, through bringing this idea of confronting past traumas and living in one’s truth to my own community. I want the audience to see the full scope of my lived and shared experience. Familial memories are interspersed with nude self-portraits. “You’re hot af for an Indian girl” was the first work in which I depicted myself. The title refers to the backhanded compliment often dished out to womxn of colour, which strips them of their identity by attacking their heritage. This work was a process of reclamation. By choosing to show childhood memories amongst some of the other more intimate moments from my present existence, I am attempting to take control of my own narrative. Ultimately my practice is about being disruptive in a quiet space. Being disruptive doesn’t require me to be loud. I can do it in a way that feels comfortable to me.
Text has become increasingly important in my work. Most of the text is from phone calls with friends, a book I am reading, anything that sticks with me and I feel compelled to write down in my notes app. These works were mostly made during lockdown. During this time, I found solace in my friendships and thus kinship and platonic intimacies are overarching themes in this body of work. I’ve been placing a lot more emphasis on friendships right now, and as I’m not really seeing people their words become important. I explore the many intimacies that exist in platonic friendships. Friendships are romantic, spiritual, full-bodied relationships that stretch beyond the traditional understanding of what friendship can be.
UL After the Medium is the Message what is next for you in terms of shows?
TR I currently have work up for Apartment Vol.2 curated by Jana Terblanche, that can be checked out at The Fourth Gallery in Cape Town. (https://www.instagram.com/apartment.vol/)
And dates to be confirmed regarding some other exciting things! You can check out my instagram for any updates (https://www.instagram.com/taliaramkilawan/?hl=en)
How Do You Finger Girls With Those
Untitled (Jordan 1s)
You’re hot af for an Indian girl