‘Gyal Dem’ Artist Amrisa Niranjan Creates Vibrant Reimagined Realities of Caribbean Women in First Art Show

gyal dem

“But you see if there were no protests
We would be better off where we’re from”
– From the poem “Here is the thing Mom” by Amrisa Niranjan

The reverberations of pulsing reggae filled the intimate art space at Burger Walla in Newark, New Jersey on Friday, October 13, 2017, as the art series “Gyal Dem” made its celebrated debut. Amrisa Niranjan, a Guyanese-American artist, used old photographs of Caribbean women of all ethnicities as inspiration for her series of painted portraits, which reimagined the realities of their femme subjects.

She transformed their black and white proofs into colorful, playful illustrations that reclaim the narratives of Caribbean women with their powerful visual command—a command that was evident by the collective gaze of wonderment on the faces of all those in attendance at Niranjan’s first art show. The pieces were punctuated by displays of poetry written by the author on the topics of identity and social justice.

The owner of Burger Walla, Kai, spoke to Brown Girl about his decision to host the show after Niranjan walked into the restaurant, painting in-hand, seeking an opportunity to showcase her work in a space that has hosted some of the most renowned artists in the world. “It was fly to see a woman come up wanting to put up her own stuff,” Kai explained. “Her work is also in the tradition of the Diaspora and we’re about that. You have a culture that is Caribbean and you have a culture that is also Indian. So whether you’re Guyanese or from India, it’s just a huge community and I think this [art] shows a breath of that community.”

“She’s breaking ground here,” Niranjan’s mother Indira gushed.

“Guyanese are not taught to appreciate art. It’s all about work and academics,” she explained. “Her art means one more step forward for her, for women, and for West Indian women.”

The guests in attendance shared these sentiments surrounding the significance of Niranjan’s work. “I know Amrisa personally and I know that she is passionate about social and political justice,” Anyelis Cordero, an attendee of the show, said. “You can see that passion in her poetry and in her art. I love that she’s highlighting women, women of color, Caribbean women, and telling their stories and showing their beauty in a different light with these modern flairs and details to the portraits.”

BG spoke to Niranjan about art, identity, and her plans for the future. Here’s what she had to say.

Gyal Dem[Art from the “Gyal Dem” series by Amrisa Niranjan/Source: Photography by Aniesa Resauladin]

What inspired you to put paint to canvas for this series?

“As a woman who is an immigrant, who is brown, who is from the Caribbean, in this case, Guyana, I think there has always been some kind of identity crisis I experienced about what it means to be who I am within my culture, race and countries, the one where I was born, and of course, America, I think to understand what it means to be me I began looking at the past – and found myself fascinated with these old photographs of Caribbean women before they packed up and moved to foreign countries with so little information,” Niranjan said.

“And I thought how little the world truly knows about the women of these countries,” she added. “I think about the way we are in so many ways unknown, and while being unknown can often be good, I wanted to be sure, if there were any statements about the identity of Caribbean women, that it would be Caribbean women making that statement.

Tell us more about the title “Gyal Dem.”

“‘Gyal Dem’ is my playful way of exploring the dynamic beauty of immigrant women of color from the Caribbean. I asked women I knew for photographs of their mothers, grandmothers, any woman from the Caribbean, who they felt connected to, and I wanted to take these photos and bring them to life in my own artistic voice, which is, in these pieces, in vibrant color,” Niranjan explained. “I found that without intending, the women I painted always seemed a bit more serious than the first photograph I had. I tried to show what I imagine was the essence of each person who was a product of a post-colonial country, a place of mixed races, and of course a woman in a world still dominated by men. The result was ‘Gyal Dem’ and I am hoping the collection of paintings grows with time.”

Please tell our readers some more about your background.

“I was born in Guyana. I moved to the U.S. when I was almost five. I lived with my grandmothers in Guyana and knew them long before I knew my parents, who had migrated to the U.S. to start laying the foundation for a new life here,” Niranjan revealed. “I always gravitated to creating art, writing, all content in general. I think I finally started to understand my own voice, what I want to say, how I want to say it, in my late 20s.

“School-wise, not that I find this of great importance, I went to William Paterson University for English writing, with a minor in English literature,” she added. “I received my M.S. degree from NYU in digital and print media publishing. I never actually went to art school, I was afraid I’d end up turning the thing I loved most into a job, I think, and I am too selfish and obsessed with my art to do that to it. I want it to always be a raw representation of me, and I will not compromise it easily and without good reason. I know that sounds a bit horrid and possibly arrogant, but that is how I feel.”

When did you first begin painting? Is this series representative of your overall style?

“I started painting probably when I was five just like we all do with tempera paints,”Niranjan began. “I kept creating content from writing stories to trying to create wild masterpieces in Microsoft Paint,” Niranjan said. “In high school, I had an art teacher, Ms. Bettini, who is to this day like an art angel to me.”

“I chose art as an elective for every year of high school, and in my school, our instructor was allowed to let certain students define a lot of their own coursework,” she explained. I always oil painted, which makes me laugh because it’s considered a difficult medium to work with compared to others, but my teacher didn’t really give us the chance to learn the others. I am still defining my style and found I don’t have one but maybe a few. I hate this pressure to find a style, because on some days I am black and white, and on others, I am 1,000 colors. I will say these pieces are great representations of one of my styles.”

Gyal Dem[“Gyal Dem” by Amrisa Niranjan at Burger Walla/Source: Photography by Aniesa Resauladin]

Who are your inspirations?

“Wow. I love digital artist Hugh Syme’s work. I love Tim Burton’s work. I like a lot of creepy art I guess, not sure if that makes me less palatable. I actually love all the famous classic and modern artists’ work: Monet, Dega, Van Gogh, Picasso,” she said. “I actually cried as a kid when I found out they were all dead. It was horrible to realize I liked Monet and there was a finite number of Monet’s work I would ever see. I also find inspiration in others, everyone from Kanye to Lebron James to Lily Singh.”

Tell us more about how Caribbean heritage, specifically West Indian culture, influences your art.

“It is a part of me and can never be separate from anything that I do. My Caribbean heritage is important to me. I see the Caribbean, especially Guyana, as a sort of Atlantis. I love that the language is not written, that it is one you can only learn in practice and experience,” Niranjan said. “The culture is a result of such a short window in history where so many cultures met and somehow developed as one. I think, the way I feel, dynamic, some days invisible, some days loud, one day color, one day black and white, is a result of this kind of a culture. This constant state of progress, this unfinished state, in that way I am like the Caribbean, and so is my work.”

What do you want people to take away from “Gyal Dem?”

“I want them to understand that West Indian women are not exotic angry creatures to be consumed in a fetish-like way; that these women are the spawn of real women who were and are incredible humans who are bold, colorful, and unapologetic,” she said.

What are you doing when you’re not painting?

I am working in digital marketing trying to teach the world why social media and all digital content is an amazing tool that connects people to information that can change their lives. I’m also reading a lot lately and it’s been many Caribbean artists,” Niranjan said. “Right now I’m reading Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings and it is nothing short of phenomenal. And I would be lying if I didn’t say that a majority of my life is spent with my dog, Kingston Beast, who loves me on my most ugly days, and reminds me that being outside is always better.

What’s next for Amrisa Niranjan?

“I hope it will be more art,” she said.

Gyal Dem[Niranjan displayed the actual suitcases, luggage tags, passports, and belongings that her family brought with them when they immigrated to America from Guyana/Photo Source: Photography by Aniesa Resauladin]

Any additional words for our readers?

“Consistently encourage yourself to be vocal even when you yourself are not sure what you are saying, or why you want to say it. You will find the right words, and they will matter, if only to a few,” Niranjan said. “You will feel fear on some days, we all do – but you have to not care, and be ready to be rejected, and be excited to be rejected because there is nothing better than telling the world how your work was rejected, and still, you persisted.

To see more of Niranjan’s work, check out her website and connect with her on Instagram @badillustration.

By Elizabeth Jaikaran

Elizabeth Jaikaran is a freelance writer based in New York. She graduated from The City College of New York with … Read more ›

‘The Black Rose’: British Asian Shweta Aggarwal Voices her Truth Against Colourism and the Battle to end her Skin Whitening Cream Addiction

Black Rose

I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.” 

Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind. 

[Read Related: Liam Neeson’s Week of Rage is Every Person of Colour’s Truth]

Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too. 

Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially  when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,

I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.

During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance. 

The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose! 

Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type —  the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way. 

[Read Related: Dear Priyanka Chopra, Endorsing Colorism and Discrimination is not ok. It Never was and Never Will Be]

It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits, 

Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you. 

I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance. 

But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,

The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and  not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour? 

I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?  

A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride! 

I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.

“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.


Photo Courtesy: Shweta Aggarwal

By Sejal Sehmi

Brown Girl Magazine’s U.K. Editor Sejal Sehmi is an IT consultant by day, whose passion for writing stemmed from challenging … Read more ›

Culture Series Part 3: Remembering Indentureship Through art in Suriname, Guyana and Trinidad

Featured Photo Credit Kevita Junior | Left to Right: Tu hiya ka kare he, Tu kaha bate, Tu hamar ke bate 

Thundering waves clawed on the body of the vessel as the sea swallowed the voices of terrified passengers. They clung to the shreds of the Eagle Speed as each hour submerged the ship deeper within the kala pani (dark waters). Steamer ships were sent for rescue, finding two children alone, clenching to the remains of the mast. The unscathed captain and crew fled in boats, leaving the lives of coolies (indentured laborers) to the fate of the dark waters. The Eagle Speed set sail on August 19th, 1865 from Calcutta to Demerara. This tragedy took the lives of over 300 hundred indentured laborers. The coolies onboard were not just casualties of the kala pani, but a larger system of British colonialism.

The crossing of these tumultuous seas was forbidden for Hindus, as it meant the severance of reincarnation and the unraveling of caste. Yet more than 2 million Indians were taken across the kala pani. The forbidden water carried stories along its transatlantic waves, bearing witness to history lost against its tides. The restraints of caste drowned along the voyages as surnames and relations were cast across the seas. They became Singhs (lions) and Maharaj’s (great kings), Brahmins by boat instead of birth.

[Read Related: The Culture Series Part 1: Descendants of Indentured Diaspora a Look at Fijian Representation]

These indentured workers were mainly taken from regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to different corners of the globe, with some of the largest to the Caribbean. Guyana experienced around 238,909 workers, Trinidad 143,939 and Suriname 34,304. With 399 Indians, the Lalla Rookh docked on June 5, 1873, at Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname, later becoming known as the coolie depot. As workers poured out of ships and onto plantations, they experienced violence and oppression at alarming rates, especially against women.

Coolie Belle

They were nameless and barefooted with gold jhumkas and bangles adorning their bodies. As tourism increased in the Caribbean’s, photographing indentured women on postcards became part of its selling point. These women became subjects to appease the white colonizer gaze and fetishized exotic ‘Coolie belles.’ A bulk of these postcards were shot in Trinidad and sold in local shops to visiting tourists. Yet these postcards failed to translate the hierarchy of power between the photographed and those behind the camera. The white European men who carried out these photoshoots chose backdrops that masked the real conditions of sugar cane fields and living quarters. Who were these women? What were their names? The women were juxtaposed with the term ‘Coolie,’ a slur for laborer and ‘Belle,’ the French word for beautiful. They were coined as laborers of beauty, yet their eyes tell a story of fear of pain.


Tu hamár ke bate? (Who are you to me?) Tu hiyá ká kare he? (What are you doing here?) Tu kahá báte? (Where are you?) Artist Nazrina Rodjan posits these questions that rummage through the minds of many Indo Caribbean descendants. Who were my ancestors? What did they experience? Rodjan aims to explore the experiences of indentured women through her oil painting series “Kala Pani.” In this series, she reimagines the postcards of indentured women alike the depictions of European nobility. In conversation with Rodjan she mentions,

 I’ve thought long and hard about whether it would be ethical to reproduce these staged images of women who might have felt scared and uncomfortable being brought into these studios to be photographed by men. I will never know their true experiences and how they might have felt knowing a stranger in the future will decide to paint them in the same positions they were put in for the original photograph.

Rodjan’s art series started as a way to commemorate 150 years since the first indentured workers arrived in Suriname and expanded to include regions like Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica. 

Wanting to reclaim these images comes from feelings of injustice whenever I see these postcards. They were made from a dehumanizing perspective. Reclaiming these images becomes necessary knowing how the violence Indo-Caribbean women still face today is just a continuation of the violence brought onto indentured Indian women then. To me, creating this piece, symbolized the acceptance of questions remaining unanswered, stories being lost forever, and realizing that after a history full of trauma, there’s a treasure in the women that are still here to tell their stories.

The ratio of men to women arriving on these ships left little to no autonomy for women. Experiences of violence on ships and plantations were common throughout the Caribbean. Despite this, indentured women became trailblazers and pioneers in uprisings against poor working conditions. 

Everything about these women seems to be a question we can never answer, but I decided to give them titles in Hindustani that are questions they might have for me as the painter who looks at them and sees both a stranger and a loved one. Tu hamár ke báte? Who are you to me?

Living in the Netherlands, Rodjan talks about her experiences tracing her ancestry and honoring this history:

 Unfortunately, in the Netherlands learning about the history of Dutch colonization only meant memorizing all the different spices they brought in and listening to teachers talking proudly about the Dutch East India Company in elementary school. Tracing back my ancestors has so far only led to a picture of my parnani and a few more names in the family tree.


On May 5, 1838, Anat Ram stepped foot on the rich grounds of Berbice, becoming the first Indian laborer in Guyana. The Whitby and Hesperus departed from Calcutta on January 13 and arrived in Berbice first then West Demerara. Over the course of 79 years, approximately 259 ships voyaged from India to Guyana. While the experiences of these ancestors may remain unknown, artists like Suchitra Mattai aims to revitalize the voices of our indentured ancestors.

[Read Related: The Culture Series Part 2: Exploring the Indo Jamaican Identity ]

Suchitra Mattai is an Indo Guyanese multi-disciplinary artist. Through her work, she uses the experience of her family’s migration and the history of indentureship to rewrite and expand our notions of history. In her piece, Life-line, a rope of saris pours out of a tilted boat, mirroring the experiences of her ancestor’s journey across the transatlantic. The saris serve as both water and a connection to two lands, India and Guyana. Mattai further explores indentureship in the piece “Coolie Woman,” depicting a woman seated with a sari, embellished with jewelry and flowers. 

I wanted to reimagine the photo to give her agency. I also wanted to address the desire for people of the diaspora to connect to their homelands and ancestral pasts. The painted wallpaper drips and fades to parallel the way my memory of Guyana ebbs and flows, Mattai says.


Anchoring at the Port of Spain on April 22, 1917, the last ship to ever carry indentured Indians made its final stop. A system that bound Indians to an unknown land finally ended after 79 years. 

To invoke conversation and pay homage to their memory, artist Gabrielle Francis creatively analyzes indentureship. Gabrielle Francis is an Indo Trinidadian queer interdisciplinary artist, writer and organizer from Queens, New York. In her piece “206:21 Queer Altar Mixed Media Performance,” Francis pays homage to her indentured ancestors with a focus on queer identities. The title 206:21 reflects the ratio of men to women that journeyed on the Fatel Razack, the first ship from India to Trinidad. A mirror is decorated with the colors of Trinidad’s flag along with six candles embodying the pride flag and vibrant red carnations. Written across the mirror is, “I wonder how many of you were queer?” A question that allows for openness and conversation around potential queer ancestors. Written records around indentureship were translated and produced by European men, leaving little to no room for women or queer folks. Francis’s work aims to transform and challenge Eurocentric narratives surrounding indentured history.

 {insert photo} 206:21 Queer Altar Mixed-Media Performance, 2021

As descendants of indentureship, it becomes difficult to sit with questions that may never have answers. Visiting National Archives or exploring digital databases can help connect descendants to learn about their own history. As we unravel difficult experiences of the past it’s important to ask, how do we carry the legacies of our ancestors? How do we honor their sacrifices?

As they were stripped of their identities and reduced to passenger numbers, they fostered new relations—jahaji bhai and jahaji bhain (ship brother and sister). From shipmates to family, to present-day melodies of chutney music to the stew of pepper pot on Christmas morning, these bonds of community have evolved and are seen across the diaspora today.

By Anjali Seegobin

Anjali Seegobin is an undergraduate student at the City College of New York, majoring in political science and anthropology. She … Read more ›