Anjuli Selvadurai was born in Auckland, New Zealand. Her mother had relocated there from the UK in the 1970s and her father was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur before moving to Wellington when he was in his 20s.
Growing up, she didn't see herself represented in any kind of media and as a result she feels like she neglected her culture in her formative years. "As I got older and started making artwork, I began to unpack the intersections of being a first-generation New Zealander, a mixed-race woman and a child of the diaspora." Her photo project, Spice Girl, was born from the conflicting nature of these experiences.
Now 22 years old and with photography studies under her belt, Selvadurai has a way to access her feelings of displacement and belonging and is using her craft to explore what it means to move through the world as a young woman of dual heritage.
"Although I had a very happy childhood, I felt like I never quite fit in with either Western or south Asian cultures and I was resentful of that in some ways. I was unable to relate to images of south Asian women adorned in gold jewellery and embroidered saris, and felt worlds away from the women I saw in Western media." As a result, photography for her is less about taking technically perfect photos and more about using it as a tool to visualise those little gaps in the way she sees herself. "In most of my work, I aim to create a space where I can exist freely and feel empowered to represent myself on my own terms."
Symbols from both cultures are woven into Selvadurai’s images to create a full picture of an identity. Each image features a solo portrait in which saris and sunglasses, hoops and tank tops are wrapped up in warm magentas, oranges and golds. Sometimes, portraits are collaged against backgrounds of intricately embroidered fabrics. "As my experiences with my identity throughout my life have been quite lonely, I wanted this loneliness to reflect in my work and so I decided to photograph just one person throughout the series." The model is a young girl named Shakira, who is also mixed race with south Asian heritage, so naturally the two could relate to each other in all sorts of empathetic ways.
"By projecting the feelings of my teenage self onto her, I wanted to create a dreamy representation of a girl who was envisioning herself as her own muse," says Selvadurai. That idea of empowerment and self-acceptance runs through all her work and, in many ways, this project has been a stepping stone towards eventually turning the camera back upon herself. She’s since made a series of self-portraits entitled Gita that further celebrate the contrasts of her cultures.
"The theme of girlhood comes up a lot in my work, as a lot of my identity-related tensions were birthed during that time of my life. Strangely, I look back on those years of innocence and those feelings of longing to belong with such an odd sense of sentimentality." The name of her series, Spice Girl, stemmed from this sense of sentimentality as a fun, nostalgic reference to a girl group from her youth, the Spice Girls. As a child imitating the group with her friends, she says, she was always dubbed Scary Spice by default, highlighting that painful and nonsensical conflation of identities and cultures that happens to women like her everywhere, every day.
Most of these photographs were taken in the garden of Selvadurai’s flat. Before shooting, the two women would sit, have tea and discuss ideas for the shoot. They’d raid Selvadurai’s wardrobe and pick out accessories, throwing together looks they both liked, then create a makeshift studio in the sunlight. "Draping saris from the washing line, I created a little nook which echoed my own girlhood of building and crafting – a place to talk and make things. The whole process was refreshing, to work with someone like me provided an insight into how my work might speak to other people like us."
Selvadurai’s favourite image in the series is one of Shakira’s hand resting on the fabric of a moss green sari. It’s embellished with gold and deep pink and shimmers in the light. It is particularly special to her because it was one of Shakira’s favourite moments, too. "She’d got henna done for the shoot and I remember her being so excited," Selvadurai recalls warmly. "She told me she got complimented by her friends and she was so proud to show it off at school. That made me feel so content." Showing Shakira that every part of her is beautiful is what it’s really all about.
Ultimately, Selvadurai hopes that people who have ever felt like they don’t belong in one place or slot neatly into one community can accept themselves and thrive in that in-between place. You can belong there too, she says. "I want people to feel proud of their heritage, whatever it may look like." From her own personal experiences and the time she’s spent making this project, Selvadurai says there is still a lot that our societies could do to better represent south Asian bodies.
"Speaking as a first-generation New Zealander and a mixed-race woman of both English and Sri Lankan/Malaysian Tamil descent, I think representation is everything. I could only have wished to have seen something like this when I was a child and a teenager. I want to see more south Asian women, female-identifying and non-binary people in mainstream Western media. People that look like me and face the same experiences as me." Making photographs that speak to these issues has been crucial for her sense of self. "Without my art," she says thoughtfully, "I think I would still be lost."