I first saw Nina Mangalanayagam’s work in 2005 when she made Snötäckt, a project about her father. Originally from Sri Lanka, he moved to Sveg in Sweden more than thirty years ago. Nina started making this work when her father became ill, unable to return to his homeland. Juxtaposing wild landscapes with delicate portraits and objects present in his now isolated life, she examines her father’s identity and how his living environment shaped his experiences. As with much of her practice, this work is steeped in metaphor. The snow, cold and harsh, weighing heavily on the land, acts as a metaphor for her father’s struggling existence and at the same time a poignant memoir. Nina used this study of her father to begin examining her own relationship to race, identity and displacement as a second-generation immigrant, eventually turning the camera on herself.
Nina says she thinks her father never wanted return permanently to Sri Lanka after he left, and that this rejection led to the family following very Swedish traditions. This discourse is somewhat playfully examined in Homeland in 2008, a project she describes as collaboration between herself and her father. ‘I have seen my father trying desperately to integrate in Sweden that he almost became more Swedish than the Swedes, which has in some cases influenced my idea of myself.’ While editing this work, Nina became increasingly uncomfortable with these concepts of a national identity, shaped by contrived traditions and memories of her own childhood growing up in Sweden.
In 2009 Nina made Lacuna, an 11 minute video where she attempts to do an Indian head nod. She examines how body language acts as cultural recognition and inclusion, but the same gestures can also ostracise, causing barriers and tension. The viewer witnesses her increased frustration as she struggles with an action that comes naturally to her Sri Lankan family. Subtitles describe how her Tamil uncle is impressed by the ‘French sound’ when she kisses them, something Nina does effortlessly without thinking. They cannot make the sound, she cannot do the head nod. There is difference.
Nina’s new work continues to focus on her father’s side of the family in an attempt to understand how she fits in. How they look at her, how she looks at them. In a country where she is seen as an Other, she recognises their body language as being that of her fathers. It is familiar and this comforts her. In Sri Lanka people scream ‘white lady’ at her in the street. She says she has never been seen as white before.
This new body of work will be completed within the next year as part of Nina’s PhD.
Emma Bowkett, 2013
Nina Mangalanayagam was born and grew up in Sweden with a Danish mother and a Tamil father. She uses her personal experience and family to explore the fluidity and unfixed nature of identities that are influenced from, but also impact on, societies, families and environments.
She graduated in 2009 with a Masters in Photography from the Royal College of Art, London. She is currently studying a Ph.D. in Photography at Westminster University.
The featured photographer for June 2013 was Nina Mangalanayagam curated by Emma Bowkett, Picture Editor of the Financial Times Magazine