Sheinina Lolita Raj blurs perceptions of ethnicity to counter L.A.’s unexpected, ‘obvious’ racism

By Christina Campodonico

Raj’s portraits showcase traditional regalia from Persia, Japan and the east African country of Eritrea

People are always asking Sheinina Lolita Raj where she’s from.

It’s often the first question she gets from a stranger, and it’s a complicated one to answer. Her father is Indian. Her mother is English. Raj was born in the U.K. and raised in Canada. And throughout her life, people have assumed she’s Mexican, Armenian or Persian, among other ethnicities.

This confusion — sometimes spurred by curiosity, other times by enmity toward her actual or perceived ethnic origins — has followed her since age eight, but came to a head when she moved to Los Angeles about 16 years ago, despite the city’s reputation for being ethnically and racially diverse, inclusive and cosmopolitan.

“When I moved to L.A., I guess had this idea in my mind that Los Angeles is a giant city and it’s a metropolis and it has cultures [from] all over the world,” says Raj. “I immediately was so much struck by the obvious racism that’s just present. … Nowhere have I ever experienced it so bluntly and aggressively and often.”

Her experiences taught her that “you can’t run from racism.”

But about two years ago, when the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery put out a call for artwork addressing issues of race and ethnicity, a “bolt” of inspiration struck Raj on how to explore the thorny question that had followed her throughout life.

“In this vision I was taken into a gallery space. I was looking at ancestral clothing from different cultures,” she says. “I remember looking up and seeing my own face and having this epiphany.”

From there, “Intercultural” — her internationally touring photo exhibition now on view at Santa Monica’s FAB-Gallery — was born. In this series of self-portraits, Raj dresses in traditional garbs of cultures from around the world.

She dons a Navajo woman’s rug dress in one image, a Japanese woman’s kimono in another. In an homage to her Indian descent— which Raj traces through her father to a great great grandmother abducted from the shores of Goa in 1891 and forced into slavery in Fiji — the artist wears her most prized red sari, matching bracelets and a bindi gifted by her aunt Fua. Raj also utilizes regalia of Pakistan, Thailand, Spain, Turkey, Greece, Portugal, Armenia, Eritrea, Jordan, Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Brazil, Hawaii and North America, but throughout the series retains the same serene expression, underscoring her ethnically fluid look.

“I realized that while I never fit into one culture, the beauty of it is that I can fit into every culture. … In a sense, it’s really put me in a place of embracing all cultures and ideally they, in turn, embrace me,” says Raj, adding that she hopes her work encourages people “to be at peace with themselves, with their community members, with the international community … and [aware] that we can live in peace amongst others.”

Accompanying Raj’s self-portraits exploring the ambiguity of race and ethnicity is a solfeggio-infused soundscape designed by singer-songwriter (and fellow Canadian) Nelly Furtado, best known for her Grammy-winning 2000 hit song “I’m Like a Bird.”

Like Furtado’s international chart-topper, Raj’s images leave an indelible impression.

 

Sheinina Lolita Raj discusses “Intercultural” with art critic Shana Nys Dambrot from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 5) at FAB-Gallery, 2001 Main St., Santa Monica. Visit facebook.com/FABstudiogallery to RSVP.

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