Seema MATTU | naïveté series
Seema Mattu, 23, born in Birmingham, 2016 graduate Central Saint Martins, UAL.
Likes: interracial relationships (i think they're super cute) & when ethnic women accomplish something great (e.g. Viola Davis - not even for anything specific, she's just amazing) & stickers
Dislikes: straight white male elitism - let's burn it.
How do you feel about the word ‘naive’ in terms of being an artist?
When you think of the word ‘naive,’ you think of both an innocence and an ignorance — something to be looked down upon. It could almost be replaced by ‘simple-mindedness.’ With respect to art, with respect to being an artist, naïveté holds potential. I’m not entirely sure what I would define as the opposite of naïveté, perhaps being ‘informed’? But certainly as an artist, when you are not naive — when you subscribe to set-expectations and rankings — you are forced to adhere to guidelines that ultimately curb your freedom of expression. For me, the process of creating and editing videos is not sequential. I have to maintain a degree of freedom — of naïveté — in order to play with it.
What about in terms of the direction of your practice?
Your most recent work Gay Superhero (2017) draws on complicated issues. It addresses discrimination on different levels, across multiple geographies, and to varying degrees of severity. Yet, the simplicity of your language stands out. You’ve cultivated a visual language, as well as terminology, that is inherently naive. Being ‘brown’, for example, is a big one. Or the use of viral footage like that of Harsukh Singh — a young ‘brown’ boy calling out racist bullies on a school bus.
Hahah… I know that I have a personal way of speaking.
When we speak of identities, we usually use ‘politically-correct’ terminology, like ‘Indian’ or ‘homosexual’. Whether it's an attempt to avoid misuse, or to conceptualise and distance ourselves from tricky issues — such as discrimination, it's always there. Your work completely side-steps this, rendering it redundant…
Exactly. Even though “LESBIAN” is written in background and runs through the entirety of Gay Superhero, I don’t usually address myself as a “lesbian.” I would rather call myself a “gayboy.” Even if it's just because I find it funny. There is nothing stopping me from saying that I am “Indian,” but I’d rather say I am “brown.” I’m not entirely sure why — perhaps the humour attracts me?
On the other hand, perhaps it speaks of deeper insecurities — something of a defence mechanism? In any case, I would rather present myself like that. Also, I think it parallels my practice in that it exposes something raw, both in language and content.
Do you think this “rawness” is inherent to naïveté then? Because the language you speak of is natural, but also quite childish in its simplicity.
Perhaps the more simplified something is, the more inquisitive it appears?
That’s important for me. To produce something that stimulates my audience; provoking questions and not necessarily handing over answers. I don’t believe my job, as an artist, is to “inform” my audience — if they want to know something, they need to go out and learn! They need to ask the questions.
In that sense, the more simplified my use of language is, the more naive it appears, and in-turn the more it stimulates my audience… Naïveté is effective.
By inspiring your audience to ask questions, you are prompting them to experience learning… No matter how fleeting a moment is, knowledge acquired through experience often manifests as deeply personal — it makes an impression. Yet it's also full of holes and feels child-like. Do you think our most profound impressions are born of inexperience — born of naïveté?
I think indulging in naïveté allows you to bring down your walls: your relations with the things — and people — around you, have more of an impact.
Your use of language mirrors that, it's got a very ‘sister-sister’ vibe to it… and then you have the dude with the ‘I love my husband’ t-shirt...
After all, your family and closest friends are those who see you at your most naive! Do you try to create this brother-sister kinship with your audience?
I think how I create my work mirrors how I am in real life — my personality and my language — and in that sense, it's really personable; approachable and familiar. And yet, I think that my work comes across as intentionally naive, which is slightly different. It's manipulative and teasing — a curated naïveté.
Do you think that’s provocative for your audience?
Yes. Naïveté can manifest as an intelligence — a quiet intelligence, but it can also slowly stem off into arrogance. To appear naive is almost to be playfully secretive — you are humouring people. It’s slightly dark and slightly arrogant, but it is there, that humour.
Watching Gay Superhero is a similar process. The video begins quite playfully, but the further you go into it, the darker the content becomes. I think there is a spectrum of naïveté at work — in the beginning, you get that very gay figure of the Superhero, which is a very honest expression of naïveté. But by the end, you are being teased by humorous images that are almost inappropriately juxtaposed over quite disturbing content — that expression of naïveté is much more provocative. It's played off by this sense that “I know more than you do.” So in effect, the audience is placed in the position of naïveté, seeking answers and explanations where I don’t really budge, despite my clear intention being to raise awareness of discrimination.
That’s interesting with respect to your use of news footage. It taps into a culture of viral live videos that circulate the web as they’re unfolding — infecting our newsfeeds — they evoke instantaneous reactions from hundreds of thousands, with little sense of context. They also sit alongside viral comedy videos… creating this very peculiar juxtaposition, it's almost comical — maybe it draws on the dark humour you use?
Yeah I think it does…
…Whilst this juxtaposition appears naive, the onslaught of videos are certainly captivating! Do you think that other artists value naïveté for this reason — its ability to captivate an audience — or do you think it's a problematic position for artists to take?
I certainly think it is a calculated position to take, and not a naive one, as the word suggests. I know I work quite actively to appear naive, but again I’m not sure this is the same for all artists who use naïveté.
Many artists are hung up on “realizing” their work through their audience. It’s an insecurity that is built up from art school. Competition sees students strive against naïveté. They are bent on anticipating their audience’s response.
Creating a “naive” complex?
Yeah, I think the current climate puts a lot of pressure on students to appear “in-the-know”.
What role do you think the “art world” (galleries, institutions etc.) — this weird figure haunting graduate art students — plays in all this?
You know, recently I called myself an “artist” for the first time, in front of my family, and now they won’t stop making fun of me. I am sure they don’t believe me… sometimes I don’t believe me either. I don’t have a gallery, I am not “signed” or “represented.” The term “artist” carries with it precedent that is only validated by your association with a gallery, or by your sales within the market.
“The art world” has been blindly substituted for “the art market.” It’s Tescos now! Everybody is on a shelf, everybody is selling themselves and you have to be the biggest, brightest, shiniest product out there. You end up transforming your practice into a brand and selling yourself-out in order to be deemed “marketable.” In doing that, you give in to “markets” in general, and you end up fuelling them. Still, I think that much of this comes from art school.
In what way?
At art school nothing is more “impressive” than shock-value.
Do you think naïveté has shock-value?
It really depends on your use of naïveté. My practice sees me play with naïveté in that the more naive I appear, the more critical my position is. I think that’s intimidating for an audience, producing a “shock effect.” On the other hand, you have artists who pee on a stick and expect a profound reaction… Yes okay, it might be shocking, but it has little impact. A “naïveté” you are conscious of, can be embedded in shock-value, but the direction you take it in, is what is crucial.
With respect to exposure, naïveté seems to tap into a culture of oversharing in order to compensate for the void that has been created by social media. With figures such as Kim Kardashian exposing their naïveté so brazenly to the world, do you think it's now harder-than-ever to treat naïveté with sincerity?
I think the term naive is better appreciated when it's used in reference to someone who is modest. So when you have people like Kim, who are unashamedly self-interested, it’s very easy to label her as naive, in the derogatory sense. Then again, there is nothing “real” about reality TV… any naïveté you gather from the show is carefully curated and designed to sell the product: Kim Kardashian.
In effect, her use of naïveté is ingenious. She is a celebrity, a successful celebrity. People celebrate her, and the fact she appears to be so self-obsessed. In that sense, maybe naïveté is integral to social power dynamics nowadays.