The figurative-surrealist artist’s work pays homage to her family’s roots — in both indentured servitude and championing equal rights.
Shyama Kuver’s art evokes the familiar. The pigmented surrealist illustrations nod to the likes of Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo while still remaining entirely Kuver’s own. Behind each piece, she incorporates her queer Indo-Fijian identity and her family’s indentured servant history through symbols such as Fijian plants like palm trees, and the focus of hands.
With influences from the past, Kuver’s art blazes a trail forward by tying in messages of equality and human rights. After publishing her art on Instagram in 2016, Kuver quickly saw interest in her work from establishments like The LINE Hotel and was tapped last AAPI Heritage Month to create a Google Doodle celebrating Southeast Asian artists. Most recently, Kuver was featured in Selina Union Market’s Queer Art Salon.
“I believe in divine timing, and I’ve been really lucky in a lot of ways to get jobs from my Instagram,” Kuver says.
Whatever inspired the opportunities she’s received, Kuver deserves the recognition. We spoke with Kuver about her art’s ethos, her journey toward pursuing art and how she found growth in change.
District Fray: As a self-described introvert, what pushed you to publish your work on Instagram and online?
Kuver: I am riddled with anxiety, but I think it was where I was at that time of my life. I had just moved to D.C. My partner Amanda was offered a job at Georgetown following her PhD, so we could have stayed where we were in Northern California, or moved to D.C. We both were like, “Change means growth. Let’s just go to D.C.” It was the first time I moved for somebody else’s job. It was the first time I didn’t have something to do [work wise].
A lot of your pieces are portraits. Are they based on people you know or people you imagine? Who are they?
It’s kind of a dance. So, there are some portraits I’ve done that are very much specifically for people. “Kavita at Home” [Ed. note: Kuver’s latest work that was shown at Selina] was somebody I was drawing a lot. She definitely came out of my head. I would say most of them are from my head.
Speaking of drawing style, your art is reminiscent of the styles of Picasso and Kahlo. Do you agree and was that intentional?
I definitely see the similarities with Picasso and am influenced by Frida — not just her work, but her life story. I don’t necessarily aspire to do work like them, but I am really intrigued that they look similar — especially Picasso, because he’s not somebody I studied.
Your Instagram byline reads, “Walking and talking with ancestors. We deserve healing.” How does this mission define your work?
My work definitely comes from the lens of somebody who has a family legacy of indenture. There’s so much I don’t know, like what part of South Asia my family is from. I have stories that have been passed down to me. For me, “Walking and Talking with Ancestors” is ambiguous because there is so much mystery [surrounding my family history], but it’s something I try to learn more about through research and through conversations with other people who have a legacy of indenture. There’s a lot of wounds and trauma. I think my artwork is one of the most innate parts of who I am, and I use it to grapple with the pain and the beautiful things that have been passed down.
When did you first realize art could be a tool for catharsis?
As an introvert, art has always been my place to go and find comfort. It is so easy for me to live in my head and on paper. It wasn’t until college when I realized it could be a place for me to focus and grow. I wanted to go to art school, but my parents were traditional South Asian Pacific Islander parents and were like, “Absolutely not.” So, I started out studying science. I was taking art classes, but I studied postcolonial literature.
What has your experience been like with the D.C. art community?
I think D.C. has such a beautiful artistic creative community with so many opportunities. I apply for as much as I can here in the District. I call myself a community-taught artist because I haven’t been classically trained in any way, but I learned by talking to other local artists and discussing techniques. I really want to be transparent about how I paint so I can get feedback. Even if you go to art school, or if you don’t, you can take life as it comes, you know?
Local D.C. artists shout out. Rose Jaffe, Jordann Wine, Jamilla Okubo, Farrah Skeiky. Must-do D.C. fall activity. Kayaking on the Potomac. Go-to art gallery or museum. Transformer, Touchstone Gallery, The Silva Gallery x Latela Curatorial. Night owl or early bird. Both? I don’t sleep. Coffee or tea. Both. Dream artist collaboration. Shivanjani Lal. Favorite cartoon. “Steven Universe.”
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