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DARK SKINNED AND LOVELY (Part 1) - Meet Sheena Akkulugadu

Updated: Jun 25

Mathushaa Sagthidas’s photography showcases a strong interest in fine art, contemporary fashion, and styling. The 'Dark Skinned and Lovely' project explores dark skinned representation through photography in collaboration with dark skinned models. This project isn't just about showcasing the beauty of these incredible dark skinned south Asian women, it's also about giving them the chance to tell the world about their lived experience as dark skinned south Asians in western society. To begin this series, meet Sheena Akkulugadu.

What does representation mean to you as a dark skinned south Asian women? Do you feel like you are represented within wider society?

"Representation, to me, was always wanting to see myself or someone like me in mainstream media. When I was very young, I always questioned whether people that looked like me actually even existed. When I got older I realised to a certain extent that, yes we did exist but we weren't considered pretty, beautiful or handsome. Any complimentary words weren't used towards people like me. It didn't even make me sad at the time, I just kind of accepted that I was seen as 'ugly'.


The only time I ever think I was 'widely represented', per se, was when Slumdog Millionaire came out and everyone started calling me 'Latika.'


My brown skin wasn't what people wanted, my long black hair wasn't floating around me like they did on the adverts and I was never and would never be that teen girl in the Disney films I watched. Maybe a side character that's just there to move the plot forward but never the main. The only time I ever think I was 'widely represented', per se, was when Slumdog Millionaire came out and everyone started calling me 'Latika' (Freida Pinto's character). I didn't take offense to it because honestly she's beautiful but the point was that she was the only brown girl and we don't even look the same? I never thought I had an issue with it but growing up l definitely wanted to be...well not my brown dark skin at least. In fact, I think it only really occurred to me when I was a teen.


One instance was being a young 17 year old girl, all excited about the new beauty things that were out. The neon trend was massive at that point and I was so into it. We'd all sat in the common room and school and were surrounded my different coloured nail varnishes; pinks, oranges, greens, blues, you name it. I started to paint my thumbnail orange as I'd just seen it the girl next to me doing and it look so pretty! That's when she leaned over and said 'Oh you can't wear that colour. It doesn't go with your skin colour. It looks nice on mine, see?` she said showing her hand' but not on your one.' Honestly, I didn't say anything and I don't blame her either but after that day I didn't wear a bright coloured nail polish for about 8 years. In fact, I only started wearing white nail polish in 2019 after my friends had to convince me it'll look fire! (and it does). It's hard because as much as you try to get out of the habit, it really is something that stays with you forever. That makes me extremely sad talking about it now, I wish I could give my younger self a hug and tell her how beautiful she is without all this mainstream, coveted, Caucasian beauty standard. Honestly, I love my skin now but definitely not because of mainstream media. It's because of the people I choose to surround myself with l, the people I hold near and dear to me and the people that never once in my life have said something bad about my beautiful skin."


Growing up in a westernised society, how has that impact how you view your heritage/ appearance/ ethnicity as a south Asian in London?

"Wow when I tell you I was self deprecating to try and assimilate was embarrassing. I absolutely ran with that 'Latika' thing and I'm cringing as I write this. I'm actually not even going to tell any stories about it because it's so unbelievably cringe that I genuinely kind of hate my teen self for it. Maybe hate is a strong word but I truly am disgusted that I thought if I make all the stereotypical jokes about myself then my classmates would like me. The worst thing is, it worked like a charm.


....my Ma was just trying to feed me good nutritious food with love and care and I had the audacity to throw it in the bin....


From going to no one knowing my name to year 11 and most people knew who I was (I wouldn't say popular but they knew my name at least, which had me elated from my old nerdy self). It's so painful to write about, to be honest. Also I know we've heard it time and time again but I really did hate taking any cultural food to any public place. It breaks my heart that my Ma was just trying to feed me good nutritious food with love and care and I had the audacity to throw it in the bin because of what my friends would think. Honestly not everyone I was surrounded with was rude, in fact I remember a group of girls specifically who were amazing and actually called me out on my self deprecating 'humour'. At the time, I don't know if it was my teen brain or my mainstream media fuelled goal to be popular and pretty, I dropped them. I regret it, they were good people and I should have known better but I hope they are all excelling in life. Thankfully now, I revel in my ethnicity, culture and heritage. I'm proud to share it with people and show it off but wow it took a long time to get here and recognise my shortcomings and faults."


Representation isn't fair within western media but also in south Asian too - how does this make you feel?

"AH THE COLOURISM and if you say you don't see it, you're being intentionally dense. South Asian media was somewhat an escape from me from the westernised world I grew up in, although I'd never admit it at that age. Unfortunately it could never aid me in accepting my bronze skin at all. It definitely helped me accept and appreciate the culture, languages and vibrancy of growing up Desi but even then I'd have to hear 'fair skinned girl' in every song or see dark skinned villains all the time (sometimes doing black face which is wildly inappropriate).


I'd have to hear 'fair skinned girl' in every song or see dark skinned villains all the time


Even then I could feel the knots in my stomach twisting when I watched it and sang the lyrics but I didn't know why. I say when I was growing up but even now they don't have dark skinned actors, especially women, in bollywood. The people that they consider darkskinned are at least four shades lighter than me. Ridiculous. I watched a film that came out in 2019 where the female lead donned foundation 4 shades darker than her to represent a darker skinned SA. You're telling me they couldn't get an actual dark skinned SA actor? What's laughable is the film itself is meant to be 'progressive' and the message is that everyone is beautiful etc. How can you even began to send that message with frankly insulting casting? Even going back to Mauritius for holidays was hard 'don't go out in the sun, you'll get dark.' What did I come on holiday for then, Auntie huh?! Especially since my brother was much lighter skinned than me.


...I've been extremely firm about not giving any thoughts into colourist ideals because I am beautiful, especially my dark skin...


In fact I had an epiphany once, in a situation with my niece that almost mirrored mine. Once in Mauritius with my niece and some distant family commented on how lightskinned her baby brother was and why she was so dark if that was the case. He laughed mockingly and I just saw anguish flash across her face and tears start streaming down her cheeks. My niece is so beautiful and the hurt in her eyes almost caused me physical pain. I quickly rushed to comfort her and the comparison I used was 'Hey, you think that I'm pretty right?' to which she replied 'yes' 'and we're the same colour so that must mean that you're beautiful too.' honestly, maybe it wasn't the best thing to say but in the moment, to see her have a flicker of realisation that yeah her aunt is pretty and I look the same, was worth it. 'How can you say that to a literal 6 year old child. Someone who's training for his doctorate too.' I thought but then I guess, I went through the same situations. Since then I've been extremely firm about not giving any thoughts into colourist ideals because I am beautiful especially my dark skin. I'm proud of it. Thankfully, my immediate family being my Mother, Father and Brother never perpetuated those stereotypes and prejudices. My mother constantly reassured me when I watched bollywood movies that being light skinned doesn't make anyone any prettier or any or uglier. My dad always called me a princess and my brother never even brought it up although I'm sure he defended me behind my back (as brothers do). I'm grateful for them because unfortunately some people don't even have that and honestly my heart hurts for them. I know what it does to people and I know how even the 'smaller' comments affected me."


PROJECT CREDITS:

Concept: Mathushaa Sagthidas @mathuxphotos

Creative Directors: Mathushaa Sagthidas @mathuxphotos

Photographer/ Photo editor: Mathushaa Sagthidas @mathuxphotos

Crowns/ earrings by Anisha Parmar @anishaparmarlondon

Models: Karishma Leckraz @yasitskrishy, Tabitha Mary @tabithamary_, Sheena Akkulugadu @ak_sheena, Sonali Sutharsan @sobarbiee

Make up and hair: By the models

Styled: All of us


Mathushaa Sagthidas’s photography showcases a strong interest in fine art, contemporary fashion, and styling; skills further studying fashion promotion at Ravensbourne University London and fine art photography at Camberwell College of Arts, UAL. Mathushaa’s work is often examines her identity - Tamil Eelam ethnicity and British nationality, which is a pivotal part of her work. This complex cultural identity is often reflected through traditions, history and strongly by fashion photography. Mathushaa feels that her work surrounding Tamil culture plays an important part in embracing the history and heritage. As Tamils were once considered “an enormous strain on the system” in London during the nineties, the time of mass immigration (5:48 – 6:17, Matangi/ Maya/ M.I.A, 2018). Something she finds ironic as many institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum were built and have financially grown off the backs of colonisation of the sub-Indian continent. From these few glimpses of research that has impacted her artistic growth, she begun to develop to a deeper appreciation of her parents’ background and felt luckily to learn about their history first hand. This has led to an engagement in a new process of constructing south Asian identity through that projects she creates.


View the full project here.

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