Vivek Shraya’s “Trisha” Blurs the Past and the Present

A trans artist ‘queers time’ by juxtaposing photos of herself with those of her mother from the 1970s


Vivek Shraya created her latest project, Trisha, after she found a trove of photos of her mother from the 1970s. The project pairs scans of the 4-by-6-inch originals with corresponding matching 36-by-48-inch digital images Shraya and her collaborators have remade. In the original photos, Shraya’s mother is settling into a life of Canadian domesticity after having recently immigrated from India. In the contemporary images, Shraya re-creates poses in which her mother wades into a body of water, cuts into a cake, looks glamorous as she talks on the phone, and clutches a stuffed animal in her robe, glaring into the camera’s lens.

“She is the source that has led me to light, femininity, and feminine energy,” Shraya gushes about her mother.

Trisha, which debuted online in April 2016 and has since been exhibited in galleries across Canada, makes its U.S. debut this summer at the Ace Hotel in midtown Manhattan, curated by John Chaich. Much of the attention around Trisha thus far has focused on Shraya’s status as a transwoman, and her poignant use of visual re-creation. Chaich says he was drawn in by how the photos blur binary ideas of the past and the present. Shraya, Chaich says, is queering ideas of time by creating “a dialogue across time, genealogy and gender.”

Sheila Cavanagh, a sociology professor at York University in Toronto, says she is interested in how Shraya’s project advances conversations. Cavanagh recently gave a lecture on Trisha at the University of Buffalo, where she noted how, rather than engaging in definitions of what is a man and a woman, Shraya introduces the viewer to “many ways of being a woman and how these ways of being are shaped by age, time, culture, generation, migration, marriage, and so many other things.”

One of Shraya’s favorite pair of images from Trisha pictures her and her mother each tucked into the corner of a brown couch, with their hands, decorated with gold and silver rings, resting on their sari-covered abdomens. Online, where the images are most often shown at equal size, the audience sees two sets of beguiling dark eyes, lidded by makeup and intensity. Shraya tells me she likes this photo of her mother because of the “seductive look” she is giving to the camera, which Shraya emulates in the reproduction.

In a gallery, the dimensions of the photos matter. The older, much smaller photograph recedes in prominence, becoming better understood as source material for the larger image. Seen in this context, Trisha becomes less about reproduction. Instead, it is a retracing and dragging forward of the past to illuminate the present.

Shraya, currently an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Calgary, was born in Edmonton and moved to Toronto in the early Aughts to pursue a musical career. In Toronto, she became a self-made, multidisciplinary, creative force. Since 2002, Shraya has self-released ten solo EPs and full-length albums (along with several singles and collaborations); produced and directed five short films; and written seven books. She has toured internationally with the Canadian indie pop band Tegan and Sara, and last year won the prestigious Publishing Triangle Award for Trans and Gender-Variant Literature for her poetry book, even this page is white. In 2017, she launched her own imprint, VS., with Arsenal Pulp Press.

A public reckoning of identity is a common theme in Shraya’s work, with a focus on being seen on one’s own terms. Shraya’s first foray into film, Seeking Single White Male (2010), was a revisitation of her twink phase, a period in which she rocked blue-eye contacts and a mop of short blond hair in an effort to become visiblewithin the limits of the white gay male gaze. Her latest film, I want to kill myself (2017), is a cinéma vérité-style slideshow of her domestic life, photographed by Zachary Ayotte, over which she narrates how naming her suicidal ideation helps conjure a will to live.

To announce her use of she/her pronouns, Shraya dropped the single “Girl It’s Your Time,” featuring a cover photograph of herself by Alejandro Santiago in which she wore a lace tutu and nath (nose ring). Later this year Penguin Canada will publish I’m Afraid of Men, her treatise on the imposition of masculinity in her life.

Beyond her mother, Shraya cites Beyoncé’s ability to blend politics and entertainment across mediums as a major influence. Shraya approaches most of her work with what she calls “a political agenda.” But with Trisha, it was different. She was motivated first by curiosity. While on tour, Shraya started projecting the vintage photos of her mom onto the stage. One night, touring mate Casey Mecija from the band Ohbijou mentioned to Shraya the cross-generational resemblance. As a result, Shraya was inspired to follow through with the idea to re-create the images.

A group of Shraya’s friends helped make it happen. Artist Karen Campos Castillo, who like Shraya (and myself) grew up in Edmonton, was chosen to be the photographer. The two are close and have worked together on many projects, including the blog Heartbeats. Adam Holman, Shemeena Shraya, Alanna Chelmick, M. Orbe, and Fabio Persico (a group that includes Shraya’s current boyfriend and one beloved ex) were the team who helped make the sets and outfits, ensured the hair and makeup were right, and provided emotional and technical support.

Shraya believed it was important to have loved ones working behind the scenes. She wanted to create the level of intimacy present in the originals, something that could only come with the help of her friends. (Shraya assumes her father took the original photos of her mother, but has been unable to confirm that.) Conversations about Trisha with her parents have been limited. Shraya says the issue is not about her being trans. Rather, it’s a creative difference about the personal nature of the work. Shraya’s mother, who prefers her name not being used, is hesitant to engage with Trisha. She says she’s not sure what to make of a project rooted in memory, interpretation, and creativity that is both about and not about her life. Shraya’s mother understands that the photos are being seen, but does not wish to know more.

With Trisha, Shraya joins a long tradition of artists who have been inspired by their mothers. James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s 1871 painting, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother; the inclusion of fashion model Sandra Bush in the artworks of her daughter Mickalene Thomas; Marilyn Minter’s 1969 Coral Ridge Towers series of photographs; and Oli Rodriguez’s film, The Baseball Project, which was narrated by the director’s mother, all carry a maternal theme. In these works mothers are muses, collaborators, stand-ins, and more. They establish the artist as a witness and subject, with origin stories and influences. One could argue that these works are not about the mothers, but about the artists themselves.

In some cases, though, they are not about either person, but about picturing something made new. In an image from her Momme Portrait Series, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier poses behind her mother as the two create a self-portrait. They stand in front of a mattress they have turned upright and covered with a blanket. But they are not alone. A third figure is in the frame, as the title suggests: Shadow. Similarly, as much as Shraya’s project is about bringing together photos of her mother and herself, the title highlights another’s presence. Trisha, as Shraya writes in the exhibition essay, was the name her parents would have given a daughter, if they had one. Trisha lives through this work.

‘Vivek Shraya: Trisha’
Curated by John Chaich
July 12–August 31
The Gallery at Ace Hotel New York
20 West 29th Street