Studio Blog: Knee deep in multi-culti splendour

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
05_agyu__pm_butterchicken


Divya Mehra | Only Logical Response. | 2010
06_agyu_dm_onlylogicalresponse


Divya Mehra | Exhibition invite
07_agyu_platform
PM: In your first solo-exhibition, Turf War., at PLATFORM: Center for Photographic + Digital Arts, this past September, you presented what I thought was a provocative installation entitled The List, which was meant to recreate a V.I.P entrance to a nightclub located below the main level of the gallery. In the installation photograph you sent, I saw a variety of textures reminiscent of a good night had by all… or maybe just a few. There are smashed champagne bottles, glasses, and, flashing strobes that momentarily light up the staircase below where a playlist thumps rap songs about nonetheless, turf wars.  You carefully topped off the spectacle with an actual bouncer guarding the only point of entry into the fictions night club. In most people’s club-going experience, bouncers make or break their evening’s fate – they ride their power on club-goers desperate hunger to by-pass the plebes in the long line.  I felt that it was successful based on how you chose to examine the theme of power; the imbalance and misuse of it in an everyday, but often overlooked experience. You orchestrated evaluating layers of understanding human behaviour – through the experience of feeling excluded or accepted in this particular situation but also in many other life’s similar scenarios. I imagined the aesthetics of power created and emphasized by the presence of the bouncer’s physical force, the crushing self-image of the people trying to get in, his strong masculine identity, which requires them to respond to aggression in at times, violent ways. What inspired you to look at this?

DM: I’m gonna let Lil Jon & the East Side Boys field this one.

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
Dimensions Variable
09_agyu_thelist


Divya Mehra | Exciting | 2010
10_agyu_dm_exciting


Pamila Matharu | Oh my. | 2010
11_agyu_pm_oh_my


Pamila Matharu | Welcome | 2010
12_agyu_pm_welcome


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″
13_agyu_americandream

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
15_agyu_pm_inside


Divya Mehra | Bitch Please | 2010
16_agyu_dm_bitch


Pamila Matharu | Dough Gums | 2010
17_agyu_pm_dough


Divya Mehra | I love me | 2010
18_agyu_mh_iloveme


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?

Divya Mehra | Text | 2010
21_agyu_dm_text


Divya Mehra | Real Estate Tycoon | 2010
Border Crossings Magazine Ad
11.75″ X 9″
19_agyu_realestate


Divya Mehra | The catalyst for change so often in history is War | 2010
Acrylic Vinyl and Acrylic Latex Deep Base Paint
48″ x 236″
20_agyu_catalyst


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.

D