Putting Trini Culture on Canvas

2 years ago / by Melanie Fourie
Indra Persad Milowe’s first painting of her grandmother’s kitchen. Courtesy indrapersadmilowe.com

Trinidad-born immigrant Indra Persad Milowe, a recently retired nurse of 45 years, works on her art in Salem, Massachusetts, specifically on a series of paintings inspired by her memories of life in Trinidad in the 1950s.

“My art is unique, personal and original, drawing from my childhood memories of growing up in a Hindu Brahmin home,” Milowe, who lives the quiet life with her husband George, told SEEMA. “It draws on the festivals and folklore of the multi-ethnic Trinidad and Tobago culture, as well as modern cultural and popular trends.” Milowe also feels that there has not been enough exposure of Hindu folklore through art in the U.S. Her first painting is her favorite, invoking memories of where she first learned to make a paratha in her grandmother’s kitchen.

In an interview with SEEMA, Milowe discussed her inspiration, current works, other creative outlets, and future aspirations.

What was it like growing up in Trinidad?

I lived there until I turned 18. Weekends and holidays were spent at my grandparent’s house. There was a Hindu temple on their street, which was the community hub. We celebrated everything together like a family. I was very fortunate to attend St. Augustine Girls’ High School, the best high school in the country. My parents wanted me to study nursing in London, England, because I would have more job opportunities to support myself.

When did you first realize that you had a penchant for art?

In my youth I wanted to continue studying art. My interest was in nature, still life and design. I adored my high school art teacher, Mrs. Helga Mohammed. She was from Madrid and married to a Trinidadian. On my first day in her class, she wrote on the blackboard: “Art is not just a painting hanging up on a wall, art is in every aspect of your daily life.” My paintings were chosen for the high school’s yearbook for two consecutive years. At age 15, I did nature – it was orchids on a branch. At age 16, I did still life: a display of an apple, pear, and a bunch of grapes.

Those two paintings and all the incredible reviews that came with it lifted my confidence in my art.

Divali, acrylic on canvas, 2019. Courtesy indrapersadmilowe.com

Do share some anecdotes about your acrylics on canvas?

Divali. My fondest memory of Divali was growing up in an extended family with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. My grandparents had cows and they would make an altar for them, light diyas (earthen lamps) around them, and place garlands around their necks. They said that they were also a part of our family, and must join in the celebration just like us. It was a joy to watch the devotion to them because they produced fresh milk for us to drink.

Soucouyant and Moko Jumbie: African traditions, beliefs, and practices would literally draw my paint brush across many canvases. For example, there is the horrifying mythic soucouyant, who scared the living begeebers out of every young child in my country. Fortunately, there was also an antidote for her – the more friendly and protective moko jumbie!

Besides your former art teacher, do you have any other role models?

I admire Picasso, Rodin, Michelangelo, DaVinci, and the architect Frank Gehry.

Moko Jumbie, acrylic on canvas, 2019. Courtesy indrapersadmilowe.com

Do you have a process that you go through when you create each piece. If so, could you take us through that a bit?

Most of my ideas come to me when I am lying in my bed. I have a sketch book and pen next to it. I sketch my thoughts and complete them the following day, before putting them onto my canvas.

How do you prefer spending your down time?

I design and sew a lot of my own clothes. I love visiting our local hat shop and am definitely a hat woman! In the past, I was also a model for various agencies.

What are your future plans?

Unfortunately, several of my art exhibitions were canceled in Massachusetts because Covid-19 has limited the access to libraries. My solo art exhibition at the Lynnfield Library in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, of 21 paintings has been hanging since March 9, and will be there until the library reopens.

I would like to work on my art installation in the spring titled, “The Garden Walkway of Healing Colors,” in Salem, Massachusetts.