Creating Art Through Cancer
A self-proclaimed introvert, artist Seema Mathew is happiest in the studio. Her artwork has been displayed at multiple international art exhibitions in her home city of Hong Kong, and in 2022 her work will be exhibited in a group show at Galeria Azur in Madrid. A two-time cancer survivor, she has had multiple regenerative surgeries, and her physicality, as Seema calls it, is an amalgamation of different parts of her body almost abstract like her artwork. The talented artist had a difficult childhood, often playing the role of caretaker for her parents rather than being taken care of and holding herself responsible for the wellbeing of everyone around her, except herself. If you ask Seema, she will tell you these life experiences not only made her ask the imperative question “Who am I?”, but were also instrumental in leading her to her first blank canvas.
Seema was 30 when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, but it was five years later, after her second diagnosis when she knew she had to make fundamental changes in her life. This time around, “things were different”, and the cancer came back stronger. During the course of a year, Seema went through multiple reconstructive surgeries, a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. Once her body recovered, she converted an old warehouse which she had previously used for her art business into a studio. “During my recovery process, I was very low on energy. I stopped watching TV completely because I couldn’t handle the noise. I’ve always wanted to paint and dreamt of being an artist, so I started painting without expectations. I took weekend art classes and devoted most of my time to the craft.”
“I wanted to try art forms that didn’t have any rules attached to it. I found ink fascinating and experimented with it for almost 5 years. For hours, I would play with paint and ink, throw them on the canvas, manipulate the surface tension of the canvas, and watch it dry and take form. I would joke with people and tell them that I’m keeping myself busy watching paint dry. I loved making art so much that I didn’t want to do anything else. It became a sort of challenge for me, and at that point, I had no idea where this would all lead, and it didn’t matter.”
Seema describes the process as being meditative, giving her a lot of time to think and “exorcise my demons.” “Back then, I cried a lot while making my art. You see, I never really cried as a child, and I had been the strong one my whole life. What I hadn’t realised until now is that I had no option but to be the strong one because I couldn’t show any weakness to my family.” A traumatic childhood and the trauma from cancer manifests in many ways, and it has been through her art that Seema has finally managed to process her life’s story. “I’ve done a lot of crying in these last few years. It’s been cathartic and has helped me release a lot of hurt that I had been storing inside myself. Now the tears have dried, and I have moved on.”
Aware of the physical reasons that caused both her cancer diagnoses, Seema firmly believes that her life experiences and suppressing her emotions manifested into the disease that forever changed her life. “Many illnesses in our body are caused due to stress. It’s so important for us to take care of our mental health as much as we take care of our physical health. I know my parents didn’t consider my mental health during our troubled years, but now I realise they didn’t know any better, and I was able to forgive them. You must be an emotional detective. Go back to situations in your life where you reacted with strong emotions, especially anger. You must go back and analyse why you reacted a certain way.”
“I am a voracious reader now”, says Seema with a big smile on her face. A book that was impactful in my life and influenced my thinking is Total Freedom by J Krishnamurthy. He was asked by a follower why he always seemed calm and peaceful. Krishnamurthy replied by saying that “I don’t mind anything that happens in my life.” We accept all the good so easily, but when faced with tough, challenging experiences, we always say, “why me?” Reading this book made Seema realise she was given exactly what she could handle. “I already possess the innate tools to deal with the challenges that I faced and will face in the future.”
“My art is what gives me pure joy. It keeps me motivated,” says the artistic introvert. “After a close encounter with my own expiry date twice now, I want to make every day count by doing what I love. It’s not about being an artist. I know I want to spend every waking hour making art, and if that translates into being an artist, then so be it.” When I asked Seema what she wants people to take away from her art most, she smiled and replied, “Don’t live a life directed by your circumstances. Go beyond what you’ve been told you can be or what you can achieve.”