INTERVIEW: SHRIYA SAMAVAI
July 5th, 2020
Interview by Victoria Campa · Artwork by Andrea Lux
Shriya Samavai is a photographer, poet, and DJ of Tamil heritage based in New York. They use their camera, their music, and their designs to elevate non-binary POCs and marginalized folk in fashion and the media. They currently run the clothing project SAMAVAI, which explores how history is passed down through clothing. Shriya tells Nearness about learning Hindi through film, creative, inspiring, business owners, and a poem by Allen Ginsberg that helps them during times of uncertainty. They are photographed at home wearing one of a kind SAMAVAI shirts.
How are you staying creative?
A lot of my creative work involves interaction with other people, so it has been pretty tricky. I do a lot of portrait photography, so that's not something I can safely practice right now. I have been taking little shots around the neighborhood when I go on walks as a way to stay connected to photography. One thing I'm missing a lot is DJing. There are options to DJ online, but I've really been missing being able to DJ in a space, to dance, to see friends boogie. I guess writing is the one thing that is still possible for me during quarantine, whether it's conducting interviews or writing poetry. But overall I'd say it's been more difficult to access my creative side. I resent the whole "Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague" sentiment. Under capitalism we are constantly being forced to be productive, to work. There is no value in resting. If you feel creative right now, that's great! But if you don't, that is so so so fine. Right now I'm just trying to stay healthy and sane and that feels like enough.
What revelations or realizations have you had about yourself or your life during this time?
There's a lot of quiet time which has allowed me to think about things that were previously pushed to the wayside. I'm non-binary and I've been thinking a lot about my body, my presentation, what feels comfortable and what I quieten in order to make myself a bit more palatable for others. I want to stop doing that last bit. It won't be easy, and there's a lot to unlearn, but it's nice to have time to consider the ways in which I can be my 100% authentic self.
Tell us about art (books, movies, music, etc.) that you have discovered or revisited during this time.
I speak a South Indian language called Tamil, and now I really want to learn Hindi, so I've been watching a ton of Hindi movies. Recent ones have included "Om Shanti Om", "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai", and "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham". I'm trying to learn one new Hindi word a day. I've also been reading work by South Asians - revisiting Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" for one. Fariha Roisin's heartbreaking book of poetry "How To Cure a Ghost" is another favorite of mine. She also has a newsletter of the same title that has been saving me. I highly recommend subscribing.
Is there a particular favorite piece of work you like to reference during difficult moments, such as this one?
I think of this tiny Allen Ginsberg poem a lot. It's called "Returning To The Country For A Brief Visit". The line "even your life is tender" always gets me:
What are some silver linings that you've encountered during this time?
I hesitate to use the phrase "silver lining" when so many people have died, are out of work, are homeless, are not able to access food or healthcare, the list goes on. I don't think it's a bad thing at all to look for positivity - how else will we find the courage to continue on? But the nation's handling of this pandemic is a disgrace, and the fact that so many people are left to fend for themselves is really horrifying.
What routines have kept you grounded?
I have been trying to find God in one moment every day. Some days it's extremely difficult, and that's when I need it the most. It can be my morning tea, or flowers from a shop, or a phone call with a friend. A moment listening to a song or watching a movie.
Every weekend I have game night with my cousins and that has been really important to all of us. It's a chance to really let go and laugh and be silly, and it always carries me through the week.
What changes do you hope are in store for the post-quarantine world?
I hope we can have universal healthcare and close the wage gap. The income inequality in the US is another reason why so many people are needlessly suffering.
What has been inspiring you lately?
I'm really amazed by my friends who run their own businesses and who are freelance. I'm very fortunate that I still have my job and have been able to do everything remotely. Aside from working for a fashion brand, I have my own project SAMAVAI that I more or less have put on hold. But I'm watching how my friends are handling this crisis and learning how I can continue to run my business when I'm ready. Tanaïs, who is the founder of Hi Wildflower Botanica, and Sheena Sood, the founder of Abacaxi, are two people I've felt really inspired by.
This interview is part of a series of conversations with artists discussing their experiences during quarantine.
Victoria Campa grew up in Madrid, Spain, and has traveled around the world with her camera. She mostly lenses women in quiet moments within their environments, and she is interested in exploring the passage of time, strength in vulnerability, and inner lives through stories. She writes a bi-weekly newsletter about art, film, and writing called things to look at. You can explore her work at www.victoriacampa.com
Andrea Lux is a 22-year-old self-taught independent creator based in Peru. Her work mainly consists of handmade collages, but every once in a while she takes photos and makes random drawings.