“I was the only one who was able to draw in the whole class,” says Maya Arulpragasam, a.k.a. pop icon M.I.A., of her earliest school years in Sri Lanka. “So, when we were doing our alphabet and we had to do little illustrations, I would draw in everybody’s books… I was the go-to person in the class.”
The M.I.A. origin story — unchanged since the earliest articles about her appeared a decade ago — is not the definitive story. That tale is just a history of her career as told through interveners: Her “terrorist” dad, her Brit-pop benefactors, Peaches’ gifted drum machine, Diplo’s affection and production on those early bamboo bangers, Madonna taking her along to the Super Bowl halftime show. But this myth of M.I.A.’s pop ascent should rightfully be viewed against the dazzling backdrop of an underdog artist who started as a child in Sri Lanka, when she discovered that fastidiously sketching images gave her the ability to transcend her circumstances.
“It’s a really difficult story,” says Arulpragasam. “Basically, when I went to school in Sri Lanka from age five onward, the classes there were sometimes sorted into a hierarchy of your skin tone. So the fairer-skinned kids sat at the front row, and the darker-skinned kids sat at the back by the poor ones who played out in the street all day long. They would turn up to school with no clothes on and they sat in the back row. I’m a Tamil, so I had darker skin, so I was sat in the back row… I was very useful to all the kids because I was good at drawing, and then I could sit anywhere that I wanted. So I kind of earned my way up the seating rank.” This is how art became her passport, the origin story of Maya the Artist.
She had no formal exposure to art as a child — just what she encountered in cinema posters, and the vibrant colors and prints of clothing worn by the women around her. She grew up next door to a textile factory that made and printed saris. “I used to hang out in the yard all the time, and they chucked all the paints out in the corner of the garden. I remember the smell of it, paint of all different colors.” These color combinations and print patterns became a part of her visual vocabulary, showing up in her earliest work after she attended the public Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, and continuing up to the clashing hues of M.I.A.’s 2005 breakthrough Arular. That aesthetic still mirrors the sound of her latest album, Matangi: bright, tight, repetitive, and as busy as the Tamil Eelam’s tiger-print camouflage.