TRANSNATIONAL  COLONIAL COMMODITY by Michelle Yee, Assistant Professor of Global Contemporary Art in the Department of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University

Throughout Shelly Jyoti’s mid-career retrospective, the materiality of her objects – the fabric, its dyes, and their complex yet familiar patterns – beckon to centuries of knowledge and many hands that are involved in their production. Further, the main themes printed on her work highlight iconographic metaphors: schools of fish, merchant ships, and spinning wheels, each highlighting the artist’s negotiation of, ultimately, the role of indigo – and by extension, India – in larger transnational narratives. Indigo, the plant and the dye that it produces, was highly sought after – a desire that led to the large-scale export (and taking) of not only the plant and the dye, but the human bodies that held the knowledge to cultivate, produce, and utilize the dye in textiles and fabrics across the world. Unsurprisingly, Jyoti’s work, as Sarah Fee explains in her essay in this catalog, reminds us that indigo was mainly consumed through dress and fashion. 

In this thematic section, however, Jyoti has expanded her new 2023 textiles beyond the human scale. Here, indigo is used on a magnificent scale, a bleeding darkness in stark contrast to the billowing merchant ships, stitched in gold thread floating along waves in, for example, Jyoti’s “Indigo Trade Across the Continents,” or sitting at the center of a continent, framed by an abstract landmass in “Indigo Across the Globe.” Indeed, such iconography gestures to the role of the 18th century merchant ship – a symbol in its own right in illustrating the torrid voyages of Europeans seeking spices, dyes, and other resources around the globe. Similarly, in Jyoti’s panels, it gestures to the journeys indigo itself took. Yet, Jyoti’s decision to emblazon such ships in shining gold on massive fabric panels beyond the scale of the human body, reveals a more complex approach to the histories of transnationalism. 

Jyoti named this section of her exhibition, “Transnational Colonial Commodity,” and certainly, the ships, the voyages upon the oceans, and the encounters with Jyoti’s abstracted continents gesture to the undeniable and inevitable transnational collisions that this highly-desired commodity caused. Yet, Jyoti’s treatment of the merchant ships is nuanced. The golden glorification of the ships reflect a complex relationship between India and the colonial past, one that is not easily dismissed in postcolonial critique. They remind of India’s pivotal and central role in the complex histories of transnational encounters. In so doing, they function as a reclamation of the narratives of movements and circuits. Her works return the ships and the transnational collisions of colonial projects back to India – a modern nation-state that continues to grapple with this complex history.  

In these works, the cosmopolitan significance of indigo point to India as the originator not only of the indigo dye itself, but also of the Indian ports from which those ships departed, the production of the crop, the knowledge, the traditions, and the creativity – creative traditions and cultural knowledge that have been carried on for generations all the way to the present day as exemplified by Jyoti’s works on the wall in this exhibition made by the hands of skilled Indian craftsmen who continue to be the best in the world. Indeed, it was while doing research in the port city of Kochi that Jyoti noticed the prevalence of merchant ship vessel images decorating her hotel room harkening back to an 18th century that witnessed the movement – oftentimes forced – of Indian people to serve in Indigo production around the world. 

Similarly, in Jyoti’s large-scale tapestries, these ships are glorified. They are rendered visually in the shining gold thread, manifesting the gold of the “blue gold” that indigo was called. Here, the ships shimmer in all their glory on tapestries of sublime scale. The tapestries themselves utilize culturally-significant ajrakh printing and zardozi embroidery. Both techniques hearken from different cultures across multiple continents – once again conceding that the transnational is also local depending on context. Like medieval tapestries, these larger-than-life panels tell stories. They reveal that materials, techniques, and craftsmanship are always inherently transnational. And yet, in Jyoti’s work, they also seek to re-center India and to glorify her histories, traditions, skill sets, materials, and commodities within transnational colonial narratives.