Divya Mehra and I met briefly, almost in passing at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada a couple years back. In what seemed moments we were arguing about the role artists have in society, and the problems and difficulties of institutional support. This quickly led to a deep respect for Divya and her work.
The ideas that I’m working aren’t that funny, so I use humor to try and create a point of access for the viewer.
I chose to interview her to talk about the shifting stances between humor and political statements that is layered into her work.
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Samuel Jablon: Your work appears to exhibit conflicts. What is it that you feel needs to be addressed?
Divya Mehra: Conflict is really this amazingly serious (often terrible) experience. I like examining exactly who is involved in that experience and why. I’m not interested in declaring a winner or anything, but more so having a closer look at what’s happening, in hopes of revealing the delicate, complicated, and layered context in which these experiences arise.
SJ: I was initially drawn to your piece “The Pleasure in Hating” (2010). I find it hilarious, the man on the left is wearing a Pakistan sweatshirt, and the woman on the right is wearing an India sweatshirt. I see these people as a married couple. The humor in this piece is really smooth, and it creates an approachable entrance into a difficult dialogue. Could you talk about this piece, and how humor is or is not an important aspect in your work?
DM: That’s my parents in that photograph! I’ve been documenting (really informally) their relationship for the last ten years. Having them actually sit for a photograph was extremely challenging. The idea for the image came together as I started researching their history (originally, my father’s family is from what is now Pakistan, and my mother’s family is from India), and their (and our subsequent) connection to the Partition of India. In August 1947, we saw the end of the British Raj, through the Partition. This led to the birth of two autonomous nation-states, Pakistan and India.
The Partition was carried out over a year. Millions of people lost their lives and homes as Independence was gained. Historically, the focus is on the ‘positive’; that is the defeat of the colonizer, and his retreat to his homeland, as opposed to reflecting on what could have been. Had the nation never been divided after it gained independence, would there have been so much bloodshed? The sweatshirts and their presence, reference multiple conflicts between nations, gangs, collegiate sports teams, and of course, intimately within a partnership. The ideas that I’m working aren’t that funny, so I use humor to try and create a point of access for the viewer. I’m hoping they see the work and think: ‘Hahaha that’s so funny!‘ and then something like the thought ‘OMFG WHAT AM I LAUGHING AT’ happens. It’s sorta risky, because it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes people just laugh at you, at the work, and not with you … that self-reflective moment is lost, and they miss the point completely. Blerg.
SJ: It’s always hard when someone totally misses the point. I think it is amplified when the work is political. You do a good job of keeping the work open. There is a lot of room for the viewer to decide what they are looking at, and why it is important. It is a good quality, I am not that interested when I see heavy-handed political statements in art that are cut and dry. I think it is important to be tricked. It makes me look deeper and ask more questions. Are you still working in this mode, or have you switched gears? If so what are you working on now?
DM: ‘Tricked’ is a funny word. It’s like I’ve got a spoonful of throat medicine and I’m flavoring it Bubblegum or Banana (whatever throat medicine is flavored –– I dunno it’s all gross) so I can get you to try it. I definitely work in layers, and that first layer is humor. I am still working like this … creating (bad?) jokes and then layering work right under/over it. I recently made my first video work in almost three years for a series, Art Breaks co-curated by Creative Time and PS1, and screened on MTV Networks Worldwide. The short, On Tragedy (Did you hear the one about the Indian?) (2013) is a re-imagination of a work done by Richard Prince for the exact same series almost 30 years ago.
Like Prince, I appeared in the work, dressed in the same white on white ensemble, standing directly in front of the Guggenheim Museum. As the shot fades in, I immediately pay for an ice cream cone from a Mr. Softee truck. Seconds crawl by as I wait for the ice cream man to deliver. After what seems like an eternity, I am handed a vanilla twist cone, that unfortunately (due to the unnecessary height of the ice cream) topples over, and the video cuts to black. The. End. In the original work, Prince buys the cone right away and then sells: MTV, Art and how awesome he is in about 30 short seconds. My version of this is supposed to function in that layered sort of way we are talking about: the references, the slapstick gesture, the act of appropriation as a means to define my own practice (so, failure). Sometimes those tricks and layers worked really well, and some people got them, and were really into it. Then a bunch of others sent me really awesome, super passionate, uplifting messages about how much they hated it (the phrase ‘esto da cáncer‘ comes to mind) –– so things are clearly 100% in the world.
Right now, I am working on two things: a solo exhibition at Georgia Scherman Projects (Toronto) and I’m just wrapping production on my first publication Quit, India for the NY Art Book Fair.
SJ: Could you tell me about the text in your pieces, I Don’t Want To Be Friends, Divya Mehra Paid For This Page, and We Made It In America? They pack a punch, and I wonder why you don’t want to be friends?
DM: The first two works, “The Catalyst for change so often in history is War” (2010) and “Real Estate Tycoon” (2010) were both produced for my first solo exhibition, Turf War (2010). Both works started as jokes rooted in some sort of personal frustration. One of the works was installed in the gallery (and references social media), while the other was a full page ad I took out in Border Crossings Magazine. Much like the image of my parents, the work attempts to offer a response to the complicated nature of the Partition of India, and the resulting challenges faced by the diaspora in its aftermath. The neon “(Hollow Victory (You gotta learn to hold ya Own. They get jealous when They see ya with ya mobile phone.” (2012) was new work for Oh, Canada (2012) at MASS MoCA. That exhibition focused specifically on Canadian art practices –– something that hasn’t been done on that scale for years. The neon portion of my work that reads ‘America’ flickers on and off and ultimately never fully lights up. The Curator, Denise Markonish, hung the work right over the entrance to the exhibition, welcoming visitors under this canopy that ultimately signifies an unfulfilled cultural ideal. Oh and yea, the title is a line from my favorite Tupac song, “Changes.”
SJ: Love that song. What is your publication Quit, India?
DM: Quit, India is my first publication. It focuses on “Turf War” (2010) and “The Party is Over” (2011), neither of which originally had a catalogue. There’s three really fantastic writers, Natasha Bissonauth, Amy Fung, and Kendra Place who have all contributed new texts that revisit, expand, and make connections between the original works and exhibitions. The cover itself is also new text work I specifically created for the book (in gold foil), and lastly there’s a handful of new drawings throughout the book.