Meet Whyishnave Suthagar, a visual artist and a first time TAC Grant recipient

Featured Story

March 2021

photo of a visual artist standing beside her art creation
Photo by Pranavi Suthagar, Whyishnave Suthagar in front of her installation
Whyishnave Suthagar’s artistic practice in Visual Arts pays homage to her dual cultural identity as a second-generation Tamil-Canadian. She works with immersive light and sound-based installations, creating kaleidoscopic patterns on the wall, inspired by the South Asian tradition of Kolam, using neon-lights, part of urban Canada’s landscape. “When my mom came to one of my first shows she recognized my artwork immediately as a Kolam. The only difference was that it was on a wall instead of on the ground,” says Whyishnave.  

Kolam is the creation of mandalas out of rice, flour or pigment directly on the ground for auspicious occasions. Kolam, a tradition learned at home from her mother while growing up in Canada, has a religious and sacred significance. In choosing to create Kolam on the wall, using neon lights instead of following the traditional rice or flour, Whyishnave is tapping into her other identity – Canadian. The neon lights are a commentary on 21st century Canada: the city, the billboards and the lights. Where these traditions intersect is in the impermanence of the work. The Kolam, created specifically for a cultural event, is washed away after the conclusion of the event. “It’s like an ephemeral moment in time,” says Whyishnave.

Whyishnave’s artwork is also temporary, created at the site, specifically for the location, to be dismantled at its conclusion. 

However, this transition from a religious iconography of Kolam, to a ‘secular’ art form wasn’t easy. In the beginning when Whyishnave began using sacred imagery that is rooted in Hindu mythology, she questioned whether it was alright for her to use this image in her art and exhibit it publicly. But Whyishnave knew that these images were part of her identity, her experience, and as an artist her artform is sacred. 

In 2020 Whyishnave became a first-time Toronto Arts Council grant recipient, having received a Visual Artists grant. “Receiving the grant provided me with reassurance that this is a story worth telling. It validated my practice,” she says. Whyishnave also used this opportunity to expand her artistic practice, adding another dimension to her installation. While her previous installations were on the walls, she used the creative flexibility provided by the grant to also use the floor, creating a connector between the wall piece and the floor piece. “It gave me the flexibility of being experimental,” she says. 

Whyishnave exhibited her work in December 2020, in an empty warehouse in west End Toronto, allowing private showings, following COVID-19 protocol and also creating a virtual show through social media. She is now working on creating this piece on a larger scale for Nuit Blanche 2022.

neon light image of a Kolam pattern projected on a dark wall
Image of Whyishnave's art - Interwoven Dimensions. Photo by Whyishnave