This interview was published in South Asian Generation Next on 22nd September 2010.
Flipping through a local newspaper, I was arrested by a woman’s photograph. She sat with her back exposed and her eyes lowered. She wasn’t young, like those models on magazine covers with saucy bodies and delicious curves. Yet, there was a serene beauty in her aging body. The name of the photographer was even more intriguing- Meera Margaret Singh- and hinted at untold stories.
A week later I find myself sitting at a tiny nondescript cafe in downtown Toronto, sipping teeming huge glasses of hot drinks with the artist herself. I had expected a little proud artsy type, with an air of pretence. Instead I find all my stereotypes slipping away in the face of Meera’s candidness and down-to-earth personality.
She wasn’t born a photographer, she reveals. It was only a six week photography class that she took “for fun” after her graduation with a BA in Anthropology that introduced her to her true calling: “I had this euphoric feeling… I felt like my perception had shifted and I felt that I couldn’t stop once I picked up the camera.”
Faced with opposition from her father, she decided to pursue photography through academia: “I think my father’s perspective was more of a pragmatic look at career. Of course… you have to make money… And definitely at first, I was discouraged. I think my father wanted to see that I had… financial stability and independence and that art could be a hobby. The way I kind of approached entering into Fine Arts was that at the end of [my degree], I will be able to teach. To my father, teaching was a profession. And, what I had to negotiate was that [art] was something I couldn’t have on the side”.
Going back for another BA, this time in fine arts, was a decision that put her on the path to becoming an artist. She believes that “academia is not for everyone in so far as art is concerned [however] what academia granted me was an immediate community… it helped me grow as an artist. Especially in Winnipeg, I had an incredible mentorship there. Through school, as well, I was allowed more access to opportunities. I learnt there how to apply for shows… for grants… What school provided me was a space to how to talk about my work and I think that’s important”.
Coming from a mixed background of an Irish mother and an Indian Punjabi father, Meera had always been caught between two worlds. When asked if she ever felt a cultural disconnect, her face lights up for a moment with her sudden laugher as she says, “Yes!”, but then she sobers up and continues, “It’s almost like a gift that you can feel a sense of belonging in multiple contexts, and at the same time, you belong and you don’t belong.” Not being introduced to her South Asian roots growing up in Winnipeg, Meera felt an urgency to access those very roots as an adult, “We didn’t have a lot of interaction [with my father’s side]… I wasn’t taught the language… [and] I had met my [paternal] grandmother once when she had come to Canada”. While on one hand, she was able to “envision” her mother “as a young girl in Ireland” due to the healthy dose of stories that she was fed by her mother, on the other, she felt that her ‘Indian’ part of herself was a “blank”, since her father was silent about his past. She felt that she “needed to fill that part of herself”.
Currently one of the most sought after photographers on the Toronto art scene and a professor at OCAD, her philosophy on success appears to be unselfconscious: “I don’t gauge my success in the same way as my parents would… I think it’s about feeling fulfilled with yourself and your accomplishments as opposed to ‘do I have a job?’ or ‘do I have an income?’. I always struggled financially, regardless (laughs); that is the nature of being an artist half of the time”.
For more information on Meera Margaret Singh and her work, visit www.meeramargaretsingh.com
Photographs: Copyright Meera Margaret Singh.