Meet Artist and Educator Prinita Thevarajah
At the intersection of art and education, Prinita Thevarajah (she/her) connects the personal, the institutional, and the spiritual to navigate the multiple realms of healing. Prinita recently joined us for a discussion around The Decolonization of Wellness.
This is my older sister’s from the 90s. I grew up on hand me downs. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the femmes and queers that I am surrounded by. Imagining radical futures and building alongside generous teachers, comrades, and co-conspirators saves me over and over.
Kapu incense holder (I have a repurposed glass object line, kapu..)
This piece helps me not take myself too seriously. Being on my own healing journey while running Studio Ananda can be overwhelming. Articulating trauma everyday is a lot. I have to constantly remind myself to log off and play. Sensory objects bring me back to my body.
For those who didn’t get a chance to join your Transformative Healing session, I would love for you to open with a little bit about your background
I was born and grew up in Sydney -- my parents migrated to Australia from the UK where they went as refugees from Sri Lanka. My siblings and I were raised in a tightly-knit Christian community made up of other Thamil refugees and migrants. I was sexually abused for eight years of my childhood in both the home and church and, as I grew, consuming and making art was a catalyst for my healing. My parents work directly with refugee and war-affected communities in Jaffna, so I grew up surrounded by acts of community care. As someone victimized within the context of community as a child, I attempt to build and be in healthy community with my own practice.
You recently started Studio Ananda, a community space for global healing and reflection, with Fariha Róisín. Can you talk about what prompted you to create this space and what your intentions are for it?
Spurred by a moment of institutional collapse, Studio Ananda explores what it means for the mind, body, and spirit to be well, asks who historically gets to heal, and imagines what holistically-healthy societies should look like. We center alternative healing modalities that prioritize liberation, particularly offerings by and from Black, Indigenous, and people of color who have been systematically sidelined by an industry that commodifies our practices.
On this journey Fariha, myself, and our generously talented designer Sonia Prabhu are in no way experts, instead we operate with a radical curiosity. Having a fluidity has made this project one in which goals have never been predicated apart from being a space of dialogue, committed to hope and change.
The American concept of wellness is deeply rooted in an individualistic narrative and the idea that healing is something we do alone. How can we respect our individual histories while creating space for community in the path toward healing?
Through the packaging of healing into white-led Ayurvedic healing workshops, mass-harvested sage, and genetically-modified turmeric lattes, the commodification of wellness centers individual, immediate benefit over community care. Healing becomes less about interrogating the structures that isolate us. You’re not encouraged to ask ‘how can we reform unhealthy societies,’ but instead ‘how can I learn how to put up with the people, spaces, and things that make me feel bad’. Without labeling that it’s commodification driven by various institutions, without making the personal connection to the institutional, healing becomes a realm that stunts an evolution of energy. You reach a point where you’ve ‘healed’ or think you’re healing, but things around you continue to fall apart. Holistic healing is a continuum, it doesn’t end and it requires a consistent confrontation of both individual and collective trauma. When we accept that we are all collectively on a journey and will probably not arrive at a certain point together but can be accountable, mindful, and abundant regardless, we do a service to both ourselves and those around us. We need to not just acknowledge what makes us well and what does not -- in order to transform these systems, we need to acknowledge how we also benefit and are complicit within them. It’s not usually linear, it’s not individual, and it’s certainly not always glamorous.
How can we work to interrogate the capitalist hold on self-care and tune into the wisdom of our minds and bodies?
Divesting is key. To interrogate, we can’t be part of it. Change cannot occur while we are within the system. Recognize that there is no "one size fits all" mode to healing, that it is nuanced and completely based on individual needs. This doesn’t mean you only focus on yourself, it means you pay attention to what your body, mind, and spirit needs and commit to exploring what helps you feel better.
These wooden elephants have been with my family since I was a child, and they were made in Sri Lanka. I’ve been reckoning with bad ancestors for a while so the purity and the corniness is a way that I can look directly to my benevolent ancestors.
"Recognize that there is no 'one size fits all' mode to healing, that it is nuanced and completely based on individual needs. This doesn’t mean you only focus on yourself, it means you pay attention to what your body, mind, and spirit needs."
I was really struck by two of your recent pieces on the Studio Ananda site. As a survivor navigating the healing process and working to transcend ancestral and inherited sexual trauma, you speak openly about your own experience and the normalization of sexual violence within your community. When did you begin to question the patriarchal nature of this system and interrogate it alongside your upbringing in a culture of hyperpurity?
In Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood writes about her initial interrogation of the church saying, “It must have been then I began to suspect, something is not right with the way these people have arranged the world, no matter what their intentions." For me, I don’t think there was one exact moment when I began to interrogate the culture of Christian chaste and religious dogma that I was raised in. Instead, there were several different instances that allowed me to ultimately connect the dots in realizing how patriarchal systems have weaponized sexuality to limit the erotic power of women and heighten structures of capitalism, colonialism, racism, and misogyny. I owe a lot of this understanding to the access I’ve been afforded to in both art and education.
As a kid in primary school, my third grade teacher would play guided meditation tapes for us in between lessons to help us relax. The mindfulness and deep breathing seeds were planted very early on. At this point in my life, I was already being sexually abused daily and was quite detached from my body. These moments of pause did something for my undeveloped and malfunctioning neuropathways. It allowed them to relax. I would come into my body again and drop out of anxiety. When school was over and I expressed curiosity in meditation, I was told ‘an empty mind is the devil’s workshop,' and to turn to the Bible instead. That made no sense to me because I was being abused in the context of the church.
There were moments like this scattered throughout my childhood where I was, perhaps divinely, exposed to situations and scenarios where the spiritual system I was being forced to occupy did more harm to my spirit than good. I processed a lot of these understandings by turning to art or education. My 12th grade English teacher at the all-girls high school I attended, Miss Crossan, fed us feminist (albeit white feminist) texts and taught us how to critically analyze words and language. I remember one afternoon when studying A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, a play about the awakening of a middle class wife and mother, Miss Crossan spent a good ten minutes prompting us to think about why the most taboo is considered to be the explicit reference to a woman’s vagina. In my bedroom, as I was buried in books and annotation, I would hear my white neighbors use derogatory terms when mentioning my family. Then I would see them smiling the next day and inviting us for tea.
When I entered university and explored the art scene in Sydney, I was isolated as a working class someone without an institutional background. The Sydney art scene brought me face-to-face with white supremacy, and I began to see how this was a structure of domination, its hierarchies replicated in many of the other institutions I occupied. By this point, I was beginning to understand vaginismus a bit better, and learned that alongside abuse and anxiety, fear conditioning imposed by dogma is a prime cause of the issue. Fully processing and understanding that my sexual block existed because I was abused within the context of Christian chaste culture allowed me to awaken to systemic spiritual violence as another organization of power.
Moving to New York City for school brought with it a more holistic interrogation by which, as I began to learn about the history of this country, particularly the transatlantic slave trade, I could locate my own history as the child of refugees, migrants, and settlers on stolen land. I saw parallels in the systemic erasure of Indigenous people and learned about the construction of race for capital purposes. That was huge. I am really fortunate to have travelled parts of Europe and Asia, but living in America has been a whole other experience. The ways in which systemic discrimination are so explicit at the surface is jarring. I couldn’t turn a blind eye to it and had to seek deeper truths.
In "Sex and War," you mention that part of your grad school thesis involved surveying 50 women in the Thamil diaspora and fifty women living in war affected areas in Ilangai. Could you tell us more about this project?
As part of the capstone project for my program, I had to strategize some sort of art intervention. We were instructed to use our art, design, and research skills to create a disruption that brought awareness to a specific issue. Of course, when it exists within a system such as university and is something that can be qualified, it all becomes a bit performative and institutional. Nonetheless, at the time, I still hadn’t processed my trauma and this project was a catalyst for me.
My idea was to create an online interactive space where women within the diaspora and on the motherland could go to anonymously share their stories, seek council, and access resources regarding the sexual violence they have experienced. Within the Thamil community as a result of wartime violence, sexual abuse is rife and, to prove the need for such an intervention, I surveyed women in the diaspora and on the island. The results were overwhelming. I had women from around the world emailing me about their experiences within the community, how they had never had a chance to share or even articulate what they had gone through. It became a lot for me as a survivor who still had not processed. This was around the time of the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, so we ended up pivoting the project to focus on the governement’s inability to protect its citizens, particularly Thamils, against systemic violence. I still had all this data I was sitting on that I didn’t know how to filter through though. In a way, writing became the long-term result of marinating in the reality that so much of our community has trauma that needs to be metabolized.
What does it mean to be well?
Being well to me means making a conscious, daily choice to establish an awareness of and alignment with truth. I believe it is the birthright of all humans to know our own souls and have a conscious relationship with the divine. It means embracing the yuck and relishing in the light. Saying ‘no’ and establishing boundaries while being gentle and open. I think there’s a duality to being well. It doesn’t look like one thing, it’s beautifully messy and it constantly changes.
Daily rituals that keep you grounded?
Calling my mama and speaking to my nephews and nieces
Moving my body in dance
Checking in with my loved ones
Pausing in between tasks to regulate my breathing
Watching funny videos (I am kind of obsessed with TikTok)
This list changes frequently… but for now:
All About Love by Bell Hooks
Not Quite Not White by Sharmila Sen
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
How to Fight by Thich Nhat Hanh