“Embroidery was a technique used in ancient Sri Lanka to immortalise heritage, belonging and identity,” says Raki Nikahetiya. In his series “A Simpler Life”, Raki uses the medium to weave together his childhood memories of Sri Lanka, before he was forced to move during the country’s civil war in the 1980s. Examining the ways we construct identity in the 21st century, Raki creates hand-embroidered family portraits on pure silk. He chooses three symbolic objects to encapsulate memories about each relative he depicts. In the series we can see a beautiful white Himalayan paradise flycatcher in a portrait of his mother; an old Kubota tractor recalls expeditions to paddy fields with his uncle; and a black Sri Lankan Sanni Yakuma mask encapsulates the moment his grandfather used the same mask in a ritual to banish his nightmares as a child.
Raki was an “inquisitive, trouble-making, creative kid”, he tells us. But after being abruptly uprooted from his home in Kandy, Sri Lanka and displaced to Austria with his family, he felt compelled to follow a “sensible” career. “As a South Asian migrant kid, I was primed to believe that being an artist was not a career option,” he says. Through compulsory service in the Austrian army, a job at the UN, marine conservation with the Zoological Society of London and a foundation course at the Slade (to name just a few of his achievements), Raki has travelled the world and become a “bona fide citizen of nowhere,” as he puts it.
Now settling in New Delhi with his wife, he is finally allowing himself to revisit memories of a “simpler life” through his creative practice. “My family comes from old South Asian aristocracy with many flamboyant characters and stories, but I grew up working class as a migrant kid in the heart of Europe. Old family photographs took me back to a time before this rupture – where life seemed perfect, uncomplicated and free through a child’s eyes.”
Raki began the project by sifting through an old photo album from the 80s. Gazing at pictures of his mother, Raki describes how he tried to summon memories of her during this period, “but I kept seeing a colour when I looked at her. She was sky blue.” In response, Raki took old photographs of relatives and surrounded each figure in a ground of pure colour using acrylic paint. From here, he played around with constructing their memories through a method of association. “During the process, my mind conjured up a conveyor belt of items I link with memories of the relative,” he explains. He decided to choose three symbolic objects to encapsulate the memory of each relative: “Any more than three felt cluttered, any less didn’t convey much of a story.”
After redrawing the portraits on iPad and playing with a “pop-art” aesthetic, Raki had the feeling that the images weren’t quite finished. It was at this point that he turned to embroidery. “The form fit perfectly,” says Raki. “A 21st-century immortalisation of heritage, mirroring my ancestors weaving their personal heirlooms.” At first, giving up an element of control to the highly skilled artisans who embroider his portraits didn’t sit well with Raki’s “perfectionist” approach. But he soon realised the poetic side of this process, “memory behaves in the same way – it’s beautifully imperfect.”
In keeping with Raki’s incredible abundance of talents and experience, his next project on the horizon will look completely different to “A Simpler Life”. He will continue to explore the theme of identity in the 21st century using electron-microscope photography, microbiology and artificial intelligence.
Raki Nikahetiya: CHUTI MAMA (Copyright © Raki Nikahetiya, 2022)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.