Youlendree Appasamy on Identity, Indenture and the Internet

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For our monthly collaboration with FLOURISH, an artist-run seasonal gathering that promotes community and collaboration across contemporary creative disciplines, Tiger Maremela chats to Youlendree Appasamy. 

For her Master’s dissertation at the University of Witwatersand, journalist and new media artist Youlendree Appasamy chose to look at the effects of domestic violence on indentured labourers and the role that Hindu temples play as a site of care for its visitors. By observing Indian histories through the lens of gender based violence and politics, Youlendree’s work synthesized how displacement has an effect on personhood, and expanded on narratives of healing and recovery. Her 2019 artist residency with new media platform Floating Reverie titled Charred Ous, used the research that went into her Master’s project, and the subsequent findings to produce an online installation that used collage, memes, and short-form text “to unpack the strange and conventional ways this diasporic culture was created, and the melancholy associated with its maintance,” Youlendree surmises in her artist statement for the residency.

 

Following internships at the Sowetan and the Mail & Guardian, Youlendree decided to return to academia through a scholarship with the Mellon Foundation. Her experience at these newsrooms left her feeling unengaged and stuck in routines. After four years at the University still known as Rhodes, she was already familiar with how restricting academic institutions can be for people attempting to produce knowledge in historically underinvested fields of thought or using innovative mediums of knowledge-making.

“I butted heads with people all the time… There wasn’t a history or archive of looking at indenture from a feminist approach.” Youlendree notes on her experience back in academia. By digging deep into the archive, revisiting childhood memories, and conducting interviews with the women that took care of the temples, Youlendree was able to weave together a tapestry that gave language to her personal musings on the construction of identity, community and nationalism. “There were a lot of moving parts with my research, and I ended up returning to a place that felt familiar… It was a nexus of a whole bunch of things I’m personally interested in.”

Through installations on social media, or presentations at conferences like African Feminisms in 2019, Youlendree’s work is acutely interested in how media can be used to present information in new ways. In Charred Ous, the artist splices together Bollywood iconography, religious narratives, and meme tactics, to work through the experiences of subaltern indentured workers and their descendants. By repurposing historical imagery from the 1800s when indentured labourers first arrived in the Natal, or using accessible language to analyse the history of colloquial and derogatory terms, Youlendree uses memes as a functional framework to present ideas in a way that audiences can resonate with. In coalescing glitch art, GIFs and self-portraiture, Youlendree questions the kinds of voices that get canonized and the effects of power and heirachy in society. “It’s a kind of synthesizing information that my Master’s couldn’t allow for,” she adds.

Youlendree’s feminist-informed politics aren’t only limited to her creative writing or visual art, but even in her commercial ventures like jewellery-making, sold online through Len’z Bootiek on Instagram. After starting out with thrifting and re-selling clothes, a practice she inherited from her grandparents, she branched out into making earrings and bracelets with feminist phrases like “feminist killjoy”, zodiac signs and carefully crafted beaded pieces. 

“I created Len’z BooTiek as a way of making my understanding of the politics of aesthetics and fashion known and tangible. I am a huge fan of fashion history, and learning how clothing and adornment, like earrings or other jewelry, has performed certain functions at certain times has only helped me further articulate my feelings about fashion and personhood. Fashion can be a radical thing to engage in!” Youlendree mentions in an interview with Alyx Carolus.

Through this deeply personal form of labour, Youlendree has been able to work through her own lineage and spirituality, often repurposing inherited jewels as part of her work. Growing up, her mother’s approach to blending together different forms of spirituality with diasporic Hinduism spurred an interest in esotericism. This sense of agency, of fashioning out new ways of being by appropriating already existing structures, is one that is reflected in her Master’s dissertion and residency statement too.

As a part of Ja. Magazine’s editorial board, Youlendree is excited to see the future of South Africa’s independent publishing landscape. Ja. Magazine is an indie zine that has taken on many shapes since its inception, including limited print runs, a creative use of online publishing spaces, and more recently, a wheat-paste edition that sought to make the publication a lot more accessible to people on the ground. The award-winning publication serves to fill the gap for underrepresented artists and writers looking to expose their work to new eyes. With the media world experiencing a shift, and digital efforts being prioritized over print, it’s interesting how these mediums will change shape and make space for creativity.

Catch Love & Other Thugs, Thozi The Creator, Neo Baepi, Rosie Parade, and A VERY COOL TIME at FLOURISH on the 20th of November at Kitcheners. Doors open 9pm with a R50 door charge. FLOURISH is a seasonal gathering that celebrates community and collaboration across contemporary creative disciplines. Founded in 2017, FLOURISH is an audio-visual experiment to reflect a diverse appreciation of music across Johannesburg’s creative community. Held in the Spring/ Summer, the clubnight uses music to encourage artists and designers to expand on their practice, and draw on the dance floor as an exploratory space. Each line-up reflects a selection of artists and producers with a range of musical tastes, traversing across genres, generations and technical grasp.