Sukanya Mani holds up a recent piece in the diffuse light of her basement studio where she does the delicate work of putting knife to paper. It's an intricate cutout of a woman in a sari, a traditional South Asian garment, decorated with flowers. Paper is ethereal already, and this piece — like all of Mani's artwork — contains filigree-like cutouts that heighten the delicacy of the piece. It's also shot through with a thread.
"The knots within it denote memory," Mani says, recalling the knots her mother tied into her own sari as to-do reminders. "It's practical memory. These knots are tied as connections to our ancestors."
The piece is part of Mani's latest collection, which examines how society treats women and how the pandemic has heightened the threat of domestic violence and abuse for immigrants and refugees.
Mani, 46, felt the impact of COVID-19 acutely. During lockdown, she was rarely able to muster the impetus to create, but one day she found herself listening to a radio program about people living in abusive situations during the pandemic. She was struck by how the pandemic made things even more precarious because of its isolating effects.
"I started looking into what resources are available for domestic-violence survivors and victims, and specifically within immigrant and refugee communities because that's a very vulnerable population within an already vulnerable population," Mani says. "The new work is going to be about experiences, storytelling and then also data — taking pure numbers and trying to present them in a form to build awareness."
Though it's still in its infancy, the project brings together the disparate elements of Mani's life: previous work centered on expectations surrounding what women wear, her experience immigrating from India in the '90s and her first career in the sciences.
Mani grew up moving around the border regions of southern India because of her father's job in the Indian Army Corps of Engineers. Despite being artistically inclined, Mani, driven by the practicalities of financial solvency, pursued a career in the sciences, studying chemistry and biochemistry.
Though she knew it wasn't her path, things continued on until Mani moved to St. Louis with her husband in 1998. She immigrated on a dependent visa, which restricts work. Mani decided to use that time to figure out what she wanted to do.
"What is my competency?" Mani recalls thinking. "What's my inspiration, and what's my dream, trying to align all of them together. And so I became an artist."
Refining her process took years. Mani started with painting, experimenting with color before turning to black and white, then began questioning why she needed the black. She dropped the paint, picking up paper and beginning to remove the negative space.
"My thought process was growing right as my techniques were growing," Mani says.
The last step was adding three-dimensional elements through installation. Mani hangs her works with threads; gravity works upon the paper, changing its form, and the works sway gently in the open air. Installing requires "letting go" on Mani's part, which balances with the precision of her cutouts.
Mani's creations require extreme meticulousness, especially as she rarely sketches out her art beforehand, instead using an X-Acto knife as a pencil. She also plays around with trying new techniques and cuts on scrap paper. Take, for example, the floral designs in the sari piece.
"This is not a cut I've done before, and so this took me, I'd say, four to five months," she says. "I kind of wanted it to be like a closed structure. Because there's so much hidden within the story here."
She works simultaneously on several pieces, thinking about the message she wants to convey as well as aesthetics. Sometimes Mani will write out what her underlying concepts are, reaching for whichever language fits best: English, Hindi or Tamil.
When she first began developing her current series, Mani started by thinking about what she might do if she were in an abusive situation, heading to the web to look for resources and phone numbers for assistance. She discovered a report stating that 7,645 individuals in the St. Louis region had requested and received services from the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
She began by trying to represent those numbers on paper.
"I started cutting these faceless, nameless silhouettes," Mani says, noting that she soon ran out of space. "Each of these people has a name, has a story, has a life, and I'm not even able to represent them, you know, not even that number. That kind of boggled my mind as to how many people need help."
Mani says she tries not to think too hard about the impact she'll have on the world because that's out of her control. She instead focuses on finding something she can care about deeply and authentically telling a story about it.
"Once I find that, all I can do is create the artwork and put it out there," she says. "If there is something that can increase the awareness or increase education on that particular issue, then that would be the best thing that can happen. ... All I can do is just put it out there. Then find something else to put all that energy and love into."
We will honor Sukanya Mani as the recipient of our inaugural ChangeMaker Award for visual art at RFT's Art A'Fair on Thursday, June 23, on Cherokee Street.