Winnipeg-based artist Divya Mehra’s inflatables made a splash last weekend during Nuit Blanche 2023, Toronto’s annual public art festival. Curated by Kari Cwynar around the theme “Breaking Ground,” the festival hosted two of Mehra’s jumbo-sized soft sculptures, which used the city’s financial district on Bay Street as a backdrop to call attention to the consequences of colonialism and capitalism in Canada.
On Saturday, September 23, Mehra presented a brand-new inflatable titled “Your Wish is Your Command” (2023), which took the form of an enormous, glimmering genie lamp periodically spouting smoke within the courtyard of the Toronto-Dominion Centre office complex. Against five corporate skyscrapers, the visual incongruence of the lamp, which gently teetered back and forth while emitting puffs of vapor, initially read as humorous and whimsical. But underneath, Mehra’s lamp begged the question: Whose wishes are granted in Toronto’s financial district?
“My visual practice incorporates a lot of humor in its critique, which often creates accessible points of entry for the viewer,” Mehra told Hyperallergic in an email. “As a medium, inflatables can be comedic and draw the audience in to have a conversation about complex issues such as oppression, discrimination, and diasporic existences.”
Right at the heart of Toronto’s own Wall Street, Mehra’s genie lamp confronted passersby with the reality that the post-colonial economic structures in place ensure that some people’s wishes are granted over others.’
At the festival, Mehra also presented “A Practical Guide” (2023), which sows seeds of resistance only steps away from the head office of Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Mehra sized up the standard plastic bag from a food delivery order or a convenience store and exchanged “THANK YOU” with the word “LOOT,” an etymologically Hindi word that was repurposed by the British during their rule of India. “A Practical Guide” is anchored outside of the HBC office as a direct confrontation of the colonial company’s brimming wealth born from the fur trade industry, derived from Indigenous traditions and governance since its inception.
Canada’s First Nations populations have suffered immensely at the hands of HBC from the 17th century onwards. The company exploited their knowledge, labor, sustainable fur-trapping practices, and ecological resources in the name of profit and territorial expansion. Many First Nations cultures were entirely wiped out by smallpox and tuberculosis transmitted by European fur traders, and the endemic beaver population hunted by the company’s trappers was depleted to near extinction.
With HBC continuing to profit from its colonial legacy, Mehra intentionally substitutes the expression of gratitude with “LOOT” to invite audiences “to take what they’re owed,” she said. The soft sculpture debuted at the Frieze Los Angeles Gallery Night in February before cropping up in front of the HBC office during Nuit Blanche. “I think that the work benefits from being accessible to a broader audience,” the artist noted.
“Your Wish is Your Command” has since been dismantled, but “A Practical Guide” remains outside of the HBC head office on Bay Street until tomorrow, September 29.
Mehra began incorporating inflatables into her sardonic, multidisciplinary practice in 2018, starting with a blown-up rendition of Palestinian scholar Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism titled “The World Isn’t a Fair Place: Just Barely Adrift on your Perceived Cultural Landscape (The Browning of America and the Color of Crime).” She one-upped this sculpture with a bouncy castle Taj Mahal later that year, describing both projects as “exaggerated symbols of identity politics and the space they occupy in a White cultural imagination.”
“I was thinking of representations of ‘The East’ and how those projections and fantasies are often reduced into backdrops,” Mehra continued. She has also employed the inflatable medium to untangle her own feelings and their complexities, particularly grief after losing her father, which she depicted through sculptures of the urn and tsunami emojis.
“Although I typically foreground my research and ideas, working three-dimensionally and at that scale created this space for otherwise difficult conversations in a way that other mediums that I had previously worked in never did,” she concluded.