Knee deep in multi-culti splendour
15 January 2011
Pamila Matharu visits Divya Mehra
Pamila Matharu: Last summer, I headed out to the Summer Institute art residency in Winnipeg, at Plug In ICA. Not only was it professionally speaking – full throttle – I found myself an art soul-sistah, Divya Mehra! Only in its second year, it was a month chockfull of intensive fully engaged art creation and production with all its trimmings (like recent Toronto transplant, Andrew Harwood.)
Divya Mehra and I were 2 of 10 invited artists. It was exhilarating and a welcome relief for me to meet another Canadian South Asian artist knee deep in exploring life’s complexities with such poignant wit and humourous vigour. We both agreed that when living in the much-touted Canadian landscape full of multi-culti splendor, the Canuck art scene doesn’t measure up per se, or at least it develops at the rate of an IV drip. My interest in Divya began at the residency, but now that I think about it – it was slightly earlier that that. I had read about her video work but had yet to see it. She struck me as forward thinking, articulate, and funny – not the stereotypical identity based – who am I? – diatribe, she’s my artists’ artist!
So this studio visit started in August of 2010, and has continued till January 3rd, 2011. This was not my intention at all, but oddly enough, in the age of digital ease, it’s amazing that two artists don’t really have the time to meet up in a studio blog! The following visit contains excerpts from our emails, and telephone conversations, as well as some photo and video blogging that we engaged in over the last five months.
Pamila Matharu: I was introduced to your practice through your video, The Importance of Being Earnest (2009). In it, you work the Disney/Bollywood machine juxtaposing the reality and complexities of everyday world events, disasters, and catastrophes with the angelic song and dance Disney is known for. You present a camp like presence throughout, but it’s the jarring imagery behind you, that stopped my laughter in its track. Your recent videos have shifted, I found you slightly ‘undressed’ in your performance, and you come across as quite emotional. How did you arrive at this work?
Divya Mehra: I don’t know what to call the recent work. To even refer to it as work would imply that I’m taking it very seriously. I’m not. I’m really interested in the lyrics and I’m experimenting with the format. I suppose it’s like drawing in your sketchbook. It’s not made with the intention that a specific viewer will see it, or that a gallery will exhibit it. The videos are very simple performative investigations set to popular songs. I do use a device that is commonly used in Bollywood, and that is lip-syncing. The Importance of Being Earnest, although similar in its execution, is ultimately quite different. That piece was the visual beginning of my interest in matters concerning Post-Partition India and Pakistan. Following that, I began working in text and installation. These videos seemed like a natural segue into that territory. The verse that I would video myself performing stood out to me. Questions surrounding ideas of authenticity around the self and the other, as well notions of power rose to the top again and again. I made a number of these videos quickly. I never posted them to Youtube or my own site. As I mentioned before they were simply investigations, albeit I was surprised by how they turned out. Essentially all of these videos came together as material for my first solo-exhibition
Divya Mehra | The Importance of Being Earnest | 2009
Divya Mehra | Can I be fo’ Real? | 2009
Divya Mehra | You must have me confused with some Other guy. | 2009
Divya Mehra | I don’t know how fake feels | 2010
Pamila Matharu | Butter Chicken Factory | 2010
PDivya Mehra | Only Logical Response. | 2010
Divya Mehra | Exhibition invite
Lil Jon & East Side Boys | Throw it Up
Divya Mehra | The List | 2010
altered metal staircase and railing, rap music, strobe lights, champagne bottles, sporadic performance
Pamila Matharu | Oh my. | 2010
Divya Mehra | Exciting | 2010
Pamila Matharu | Welcome | 2010
PM: I felt you touched on power in a variety of ways from the personal to the political, but as well to the current
imbalance of global economic powers in I am the American Dream (still just a Paki).
Divya Mehra | I am the American Dream (still just a Paki) | 2010
1987 Gold Jaguar Vanden Plas
75″ x 192″ x 40″
You construct these notions by presenting the body of a ’87 Jaguar Vanden Plas, re-painted shiny, with windows painted black – to reiterate the exclusion, the outside not looking in. It’s noted in the exhibition pamphlet that Tata Motors Ltd. bought out the British super-brand Jaguar, the jewel fell out from the crown so to speak.
What comes to mind is how we negotiate status, class, access and how one measures success in society – especially for the first and second generation ethnic immigrant communities in most western societies. The particular tone of gold colour reminds me of the coveted 24K gold jewellery collection South Asian families have as a sign of wealth, or the brilliant shine of reflected light in shops in the gold souk of the Emerati open markets in Dubai.
I’m reminded of my family’s arrival to Canada in 1978 to Rexdale, Ontario from Birmingham, UK; grateful to leave the resistance of not being accepted in British society, ready to start their upwardly mobile plight to provide a better life for my brother and I. The title itself, reminds me of my uneasiness with the slur ‘Paki.’
My second generation students quite unabashedly celebrate their cultural stereotypes and repeatedly ask me to talk with an accent “like a Paki or Russell Peters.” Again, you explore the power in layers, from the social experience of the upwardly mobile immigrant to the exchange of global-economic brand power of Jaguar to Tata Motors, what were some influences in this work and how did you see this being viewed?
DM: Influences? A dead Bengali tiger. My family moved to the south side of the city when I was seven. I can remember visiting the house my parents had purchased, while the former residents were packing and sorting their belongings. They had invited us over for chai and small talk. The family who had owned the property were very wealthy north Indians… I think everyone was a doctor, lawyer or some kind of millionaire. While the parents sat at the dinning room table for chai and biscuits, I went for a small walk down the main hall and found myself at the bottom of a large staircase. At the very top of the flight of stairs was an immense tiger skin mounted to the wall. I looked around to make sure no adults were in sight and I climbed to the very top of the staircase. I stared at it for a moment in disbelief. Who did this and why? I closed my eyes and reached forward and then all of a sudden felt the tiger bite down, piercing the skin and crushing my tiny fingers! Finger guts everywhere. I’ll never draw again!
I opened my eyes and found the owner of the house, Mrs. MD had taken hold of my hand and said:
‘No no beti (daughter). This is Raj and he is just sleeping, don’t wake him up.’
I might have been young, but I wasn’t an idiot. I knew he was dead, and I couldn’t understand where the fascination came from in killing and mounting a once-living creature to your wall, like a trophy.
Years later I hunted and killed a Jaguar. I suppose I’m no better than those doctors. Bahot Hi Khatarnaak Hoon Main, Har Ek Pal Mein Chalaak Hoon Main Kaun.
Don | Main Hoon Don
Pamila Matharu | Inside/Out | 2010
Divya Mehra | Bitch Please | 2010
Pamila Matharu | Dough Gums | 2010
Pamila Matharu | Dough Gums | 2010
PM: Your text-based work has grown into something significant in your practice from your video work, I think I’ve read that you started working in text during grad school at Columbia. Though your humour is ever-present, was that gradual or deliberate change in mediums?
DM: Gradual & Deliberate. Everything. All. At. Once.
PM: In Real Estate Tycoon, you purchased ad space in a recent Border Crossings issue and in The Catalyst for change so often in history is War you appropriated the Facebook “friend” invitation; both are in some ways the quantifiable measures of success – you cleverly illustrate what the consumers values in either coveted art advertising and in the social media sphere. What was the process at arriving at this work?
PM: Ramu, his cousin Sanjay and I wanted to thank-you for this very long studio visit. Hugs 🙂 P
DM: Tell Ramu he owes me a chai. Sanjay better spell check this studio blog.
Thank you for the visit didi.