Bold. Brown. Badass! In Conversation with Sukanya Balachandran

Sukanya (Suki) Balachandran is a Sydney based creative and artist who creates empowering and relatable artwork. She's bold, brown and 100% badass!

We recently caught up with Suki to hear more about her creative journey, the BIPOC women who inspire her and what makes her glow.

Tell me a bit about yourself

Hello Hello, my name is Sukanya Balachandran (what a mouthful hey? But I guess that’s being South-Asian for you haha). Most people know me as Suki, but my close friends (and my mother) like to use my name/s interchangeably - with the prior being used, when they mean serious business…

I am Sydney-Australia born and bred, with my heritage rooting back to the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. Sadly, I have never really been - other than a 2 day layover on the way to our trip to India - where we were apartment bound because we landed during an electrical storm, in the middle of monsoon season… Just our luck.

My entire family actually planned a family reunion in Sri Lanka back in 2017... that is the entire fam minus myself, because it was the year that I moved out of home and across the world to Canada. Not that I’m resentful at ALL (Insert eye roll here).

Anyhow, without rambling on a tangent TOO much, if I were to reflect on my upbringing as a Brown kid in Australia, I would liken it very much to Devi from Never Have I Ever. The morning after that show had premiered on Netflix, I woke up to a bevy of texts from friends and fam pointing out our similarities. I very much felt too “brown” for the white/non-South Asian kids and yet “not brown enough” for the Brown kids and all I wanted to do was “eat a donut” (exact words from the show).

I couldn’t find how to marry these two beautiful parts of my worlds - of having Eastern roots and a Western upbringing. Being South Asian meant being immersed in a rich world of festivities, family and food, all seen through a beautiful lens of vivid lights/colours, deep connection to our ancestry and always remembering the importance of being a kind and compassionate human… yet it came with this feeling of needing to be a kind of perfect… a model minority… be loud and proud, but not too much. Be more of “this”, but no no "not too much of that”. Be feminine, but no don’t own your sexuality and confidence. And then growing up in a western country where you HAD to assert your confidence, your voice and take up space… gosh. How confusing.

It was only when I moved and lived in Canada, at 25, that I truly was able to connect to both parts of myself and the worlds I was connected to. I saw these people that looked like me, that had a similar upbringing to me TAKE UP SPACE. They took up space just as they were - with ALL elements of their culture, their interests and their identities. They celebrated themselves loud and proud, all while pursuing every single thing their heart desired - romantically, ambitiously, entrepreneurially and everything in between. Seeing my family, friends and you know what? The people in the public media there setting this standard shaped my confidence monumentally.

People ask why representation matters? This is exactly why. Shilpa, you creating and championing this platform is doing exactly that! And I am so grateful for the work that you are doing.

Have you always been into creating artwork? What inspired/motivated you to start creating artwork that's both relatable and empowering?

I have always had this itch/hunger to create, to take random bits and bobs and turn it into something functional or meaningful. My parents were always very ambitious and involved in their work, when I was younger and so I would spend a lot of weekends/after school days at their offices and I would be left with all the random stationary that you’d find in an office. I remember always wanting to turn it into origami or a sketch or just something NEW, something that would tell a story.

I have always had a wild imagination and a lot to say, a lot of things I have learned or experienced in my life that I loved sharing with the people around me, in hopes of connecting and relating.

When Instagram came around, my close friends encouraged me to start sharing my sketches online and what started as sketches of my fave Disney characters or fave public figures coupled with inspirational/relatable quotes eventually matured over the years into pieces and work that was deeply transparent to my opinions and life experiences… pieces that showed vulnerability and all my awkward life moments haha.

I know how powerful it is when I see another artist (illustrator, singer, actor, director, writer, athletes - who I also consider artists) speak on their own experiences, vulnerabilities and learnings and how seen, heard and empowered I feel when I see them take up space and declare themselves so powerfully and publicly. If even one thing that I create and share can make someone feel that - connected, heard, less alone, empowered, confident - then dang. That’s all I could hope for and more.

Do you have a favourite piece of artwork?

Ooft, that is hard! I find it hard to even sell my original pieces because I form such close bonds to these pieces haha. I clearly have separation issues with inanimate objects. If I were to choose one favourite, it would have to be a painting I did at 19 of a white wolf under a full moon. It’s hanging in my mum’s living room and always feels like it’s watching over the family. I have always been drawn to wolves, they are creatures that understand the foundational importance of solitude but also understand the magnitude of a pack. Their family, their pack is everything to them. Fiercely independent but deeply loyal. This painting represents exactly that. It was also one of my first “big”paintings, where I really let myself get lost in the messy, beautiful process.

When I paint, it’s a different process where I allow myself to put on music/content that relates to the subject matter and connect to it on a deeper level. With this one, I remember playing The Vampire Diaries on repeat in the background while painting - super deep stuff or what huh?

You recently hosted the 'Bold, Brown & Badass' event for South Asian creatives in Sydney. What was your favourite moment from the night?

Gosh, that night still feels surreal. It was night for people of all walks of life to come together to celebrate the human spirit and badassery that lives in ALL of us, no matter what shape, size, background we come from. It was a moment to celebrate our South Asian heritage and for people to understand that art can be consumed by anyone! It’s for conventional creatives and non-creatives alike. It’s there to tell a story. And the story of the night was to welcome everyone into celebrating our South Asian Heritage and history with us, while also reflecting on the boldness and badassery that exists within them.

This was done through showcasing stories of “badasses through history” - people that have gone a little under the radar but have powerfully and bravely championed people and circumstances around them. They were presented with Random “WHO AM I” cards, where they had to match the backstory with the badass. Another installation was “Dauntless Deities” where we explored the meanings and symbols behind certain Hindu gods, but these gods were represented as modern day people. Guests were given a pack of symbol cards as they entered the venue and it was up to them to match the card to the god, to understand the true symbolism of these deities.

In all honesty, the most important/favourite part of that entire process and night was having SO many of my nearest and dearest come together over those last 2 weeks to help build my vision into a tangible reality. I know it’s known to be challenging to find solid friendships in adulthood, but I strongly disagree. Your people are out there. Time and age are not determining factors. Half of those friends were solid relationships I built in my adulthood.

Another huge humbling moment was having people share that they resonated with the message of tapping into their inner badass, while also being surrounded by so many like-minded people.

Who are some BIPOC women that inspire you?

My mother first and foremost. We drive each other insaneee, but I love and respect her deeply and like no-one else. She is someone who always speaks her mind (sometimes with no filter) but always presents herself with confidence and conviction. She really is a superwoman, the way she balances motherhood with career, extracurriculars, ambition and everything else… when I think of those Hindu gods with the multiple arms - I see our mothers. They really do champion it all.

My list of inspirational BIPOC women is endless - it starts with my family, my aunts, my cousins, my best and dearest friends, to women like you Shilpa who are celebrating themselves while doing so much for those around them too. Other public figures off the top of my head are women like Maria Thattil, Liza Koshy, Deepica Mutyala, Ava Duvernay, Rupi Kaur, Amanda Gorman, Malala Yousafzai… the list goes on. All women who celebrate themselves while powerfully championing those around them through their endeavours.

What makes you Glow?

The way we look is the least interesting thing about us… And that’s saying a lot, considering how interesting our pretty little meats suits are.

Our features speak on our heritage, our ancestry and our experiences - your wild curly hair representing your mother’s wild mane and your wide eyes relating back to your great grandfather’s gorgeous brown eyes, in which he experienced the world visually in his time. Your deep brown or pink-flushed skin representing those long summer days spent on gorgeous hikes and on the beach with your best friends. Our bodies and minds do so much for us. They allow us to dance and jump and eat and hug and reflect and express ourselves, while we take in all the endless opportunities and beauty that this world and universe has to offer.

It’s easier said than done to reflect and re-centre ourselves, but having this as a reminder to constantly re-connect to has been powerful. It’s a reminder that has monumentally helped destroy my ego, fuel my spirit and exude confidence.

You can check out more of Suki's work here and buy her pieces here.

Image via Suki (@bysukibee)

January 19, 2023
Shilpa Bhim