Autograph's curator, Bindi Vora, speaks with the British Mauritian artist Sabrina Tirvengadum about her work, focusing on Mauritian colonial histories of indentured labour, and the use of AI and other digital tools to work with images from her family archives.
This conversation is part of a series supported by the British Council, sharing the work of women artists with ties to East Africa, and addressing issues of climate justice and the politics of representation. Find out more about the project here.
Bindi Vora (BV): Tell me about yourself.
Sabrina Tirvengadum (ST): I am a British Mauritian visual artist from East London, UK. Since birth I've experienced hearing loss which has become worse over time. It’s only recently that I have started to think of myself as someone who is deaf and disabled. School was tough for me, but I was surrounded by my dad's love for taking photos and videos of our family.
I always knew I had a creative side - I studied Photographic Arts at Westminster University and loved it! After graduating I went on an adventure, backpacking and reconnecting with my Mauritian roots to learn more about my heritage. When I came back to the UK it was hard to find a job because of the recession, but I got work retouching photos and started to learn web design and coding, which led me to a career in digital design, working for Ascential Design Studio. However I quickly realised I wanted to express myself more creatively, and began to feel a bit stuck.
During the pandemic, I experienced new barriers when working remotely and online, and so I started learning more about digital accessibility. The WeTransfer and Cannes Lions Wallpaper Project presented an opportunity to bring together a disabled-led team to create something amazing and to demonstrate what we can do. We produced artistic interpretations of open-ended “questions for the future” that were posed by speakers at the Cannes Lions festival.
I joined other disabled-led teams for campaigns including "Diversity is Disability" by the Inevitable Foundation, I volunteered for dubble magazine - an online platform and community space for disabled and chronically ill creatives - and I started my own project called We're All Human, a website with helpful resources around digital accessibility. It became a way for me to express myself, promote inclusivity and reconnect with art. Now, I proudly call myself a visual artist and advocate for disabled people.
This year, I have been fortunate to showcase my artwork at esteemed establishments including The Photographers’ Gallery, New Art Exchange (NAE), the House of St Barnabas, Audible HQ, LoosenArt, Autograph, Space Studios, DSQ Gallery, The Print House Gallery, and I have also received funding from the Barbican.
BV: Archives, collage, and mixed media are all part of your practice – why are these mediums important when constructing narratives in your work?
ST: Working in the corporate world, I was often told what designs were acceptable and I didn’t have as much creative freedom as I wanted. So I started working on my own art. Making collages and reflecting on my past brings me joy and helps me understand who I am and who I want to be. It's like uncovering different layers of myself and exploring different paths to achieve my goals. I enjoy trying new things and learning new skills.
I have a desire to tell stories using photography, and with the wide range of digital tools available, I have more options to create diverse stories and shape the narrative. That's why I'm currently exploring AI image generators using prompt keywords, taking photographs, and creating digital collages with old photos. What I find fascinating about AI is that it's not perfect, and the mistakes it makes can reveal new forms and subjects, altering how I represent things. I don't know where I'll stop, and that uncertainty is part of the beauty of the process. It's a wonderful journey, and I never know where it will take me. The unpredictability adds another layer to my art that keeps it exciting. These images originated from my parents' childhood photos, blended with words and other images.
BV: Where do you look to source material from? Are there particular archives or spaces you turn to when thinking about constructing these fragile narratives?
ST: I gather material from different places and sources to construct these delicate narratives. One important source is a book of case studies called Mauritians in London by A.R. Mannick. It talks about how moving to London can affect people and make them lose part of their cultural identity, particularly second-generation individuals. Reading this study confirmed what I was feeling.
To add depth to my narratives, I returned to Mauritius for my first time in 14 years to start recording my family history. The pandemic made me realise that we haven't documented much about our family, and I found a lot of old family photos of people I don't know. Seeing the family portraits from the ‘60s that my relatives had in Mauritius made me feel connected to them and changed how I saw life. I decided to take photos of my own family, to get closer to them, and learn more about myself within the family.
I also visited historical museums in Mauritius to learn about the past of our ancestors who were indentured labourers. This inspired me to record sounds, conversations, singing, and the playing of the Ravanne (a large tambourine-like instrument used in the sega music of Mauritius). Even after returning from Mauritius, I continued to have conversations to learn more about my family. These different sources and experiences have all contributed to the creation of these delicate narratives, allowing me to capture the essence of our shared heritage and the stories of our ancestors.
BV: Can you speak about the evolution of We’re All Human and how these conversations have intersected with your practice?
ST: In 2020, I co-founded We’re All Human. The aim of the project was to create a website that brings together resources for digital accessibility. Our goal was to provide designers with easy access to information about making their work inclusive. As more people showed interest in accessibility and inclusion, we expanded our efforts to reach a wider audience through social media. Our platform became a place where we uplift and empower disabled creatives, giving them a stronger voice.
However, as I progressed in my creative journey, I realised I didn't want every conversation to revolve only around disability justice and accessibility campaigns. Constantly focusing on these issues can be draining for disabled individuals. So, we shifted our focus to providing resources that empower everyone to make small but meaningful changes in society. We want to support disabled creatives regardless of their popularity or reach.
I made the decision to separate my practice into two aspects: digital accessibility on the one hand and exploring my personal heritage on the other. Nevertheless, the main purpose remains representation. I want people to be aware of my deafness, but I don't want to be reduced to a simple checkmark. I want my work to speak for itself and make a positive impact.
Looking ahead, as the team grows, I envision changes for We're All Human. I find inspiration in impactful groups like Guerrilla Girls and Hackney Flashers, and I see a similar path of growth and influence for We're All Human.
BV: Your heritage is similar to mine – as a second-generation migrant I am sure you have had to grapple with aspects of your identity that were never fully embraced. These continuities and ruptures reveal so much about what is lost or gained through moments of migration, reflections on centuries of colonial power and more especially in the context of Mauritius. I wanted to know more about your afflictions or affiliations with these histories.
ST: When I was growing up, the Mauritian diaspora in my life didn't know much about our history. We never had a chance to ask or be told about it. This made it hard for us to figure out where we fit in, whether we were Asian, African, or British. It made us feel rejected and confused. Not knowing our stories left me feeling lonely and disconnected from my family. I still need to learn more about the history of indentured labour to understand myself better. My current research is centred around understanding what it means to be Mauritian and it's starting to make more sense to me. Family is a core part of the Mauritian identity and it’s also articulated through our cuisine, languages, music, and the stories we share. However, I didn't fully experience all of this, and that created a sense of disconnection from my true self. I only encountered such connections with my Mauritian identity during short holidays every five years, which later turned into a gap of fourteen years. After my father passed away, it was just me, my sister and my mum. My heritage seemed distant, and that made it challenging for me to understand and connect to my identity without that community.
From conversations, I have noticed that many Mauritian parents wanted to blend in when they moved to the UK. They didn't speak the native Mauritian language often or practise our religion. They wanted their children to adopt British cultures. This was confusing because people saw me as South Asian, but I didn't feel like I belonged. I felt naturally connected to my Caribbean friends who shared a similar history and journey. However, I didn't fully understand the reason behind our strong connection until now. The indentured system is intertwined with slavery and was formed as a loophole to continue forced labour and exploitation. The difference is that this system offered a fixed period in exchange, perhaps, for land. I believe that generational trauma from these historical events impacts your culture and community which may mean we share similar ways of living and interacting.
I'm still on a journey to learn more about myself and my roots, especially exploring the history of indentured labour.
BV: Disability justice is at the core of your practice – why is this form of protest art or advocacy important within your practice?
ST: Creating art and advocating for disability justice is vital in my practice. Through art, I have found a powerful tool to make a difference and express myself. I have been fortunate to be part of incredible campaigns that amplify the voices of marginalised individuals. Even when disability is not the central focus of my work, I believe that my identity as a deaf, brown-skinned woman can shed light on the challenges faced by South Asians with disabilities. In our community, disabilities are often seen as something to be kept secret or overlooked. By embracing visibility, I aim to challenge these misconceptions. I want to show that we should not hide who we are. We deserve to be seen, recognised and celebrated for our unique experiences and contributions.
BV: Could you share your ideas for the work If We Were Marrier d’Unienville, 2023?
ST: While researching my surname, I discovered that it might have been recorded incorrectly when indentured workers arrived at the Port Louis harbour in Mauritius. This led me to have a conversation with my cousin, who shared a surprising revelation: that our surname shouldn't be Tamil, which confused me at first. She then explained that our grandfather was of mixed race, something I had never known before. She also mentioned that our great grandmother had worked as a maid for the Marrier d'Unienville family, who were traditionally French aristocrats.
Learning about this new information, I recalled that the surname was connected to my DNA – a genealogy website had shown that I had several cousins with that same surname – it made me revisit family photographs featuring unfamiliar faces and come to terms with this new knowledge. To explore the possibilities, I worked with my partner and artist, Mark Allred, who has a personal connection to this journey exploring my family heritage as he'll soon be joining it. Our collaboration also brings new perspectives to my interpretations along with some echoes of my great grandparents' interracial relationship.
We set about using AI to create a "what if" memory – an image that incorporates elements of imagination alongside real memories. The artwork features these elements but questions the accuracy of both imagination and memory, as well as photography and AI overall. For example, you may notice that the stairs lead to nowhere and the details of the image may not be entirely accurate.
This creative journey of discovery and reflection allowed me to look into the complexities of my family history and embrace the layers of identity and heritage that have shaped me.
Sabrina Tirvengadum (b. 1984) is a British Mauritian visual artist based in London, working across collage, digital illustration, generative AI art, graphics and photography. Her artistic practice is a reflection of her diverse background, weaving together her rich cultural heritage and personal experiences. Rooted in her family history in Mauritius and influenced by the impacts of colonialism, Tirvengadum’s art explores the intricacies of identity, relationships and the human experience.
With a background in Photographic Arts from the University of Westminster and years of experience as a graphic designer, Tirvengadum’s artistic journey is one of continuous exploration and growth. As the founder of We’re All Human, Tirvengadum strives to promote inclusivity in digital spaces, using her art as a powerful tool to challenge and disrupt ableist systems in both her culture and Western society. Her artwork stands as a testament to her resilience and determination, a vivid tapestry of her personal identity and the diverse stories that have shaped her life.
Autograph's curator, Bindi Vora, shares a series of conversations with women artists addressing issues of climate justice and the politics of representation in their work.Find out more
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