“Working with fragments or repurposing text or playing with text and language that someone else has said – that is endless, I get so much pleasure from working like that,” says Divya Mehra. “Maybe that comes out of my lived experience, like nothing has ever been straightforward so my brain just doesn’t allow me to write like that.”
A visual artist, Divya Mehra has been making performative work since she was younger, which turned into sculpture and more recently into text-based work. While words feature heavily in her practise, she doesn’t consider herself a “writer” but instead “a visual artist that works with text” – the traditional method of writing in a linear fashion doesn’t come as naturally to her as working within “a structure that has no structure.” Nevertheless, Divya’s work brilliantly makes use of words and phrases in an interplay with font, colour, layout, and typography. Self-described writer or not, she thinks carefully about the words we use, how we use them, and the significance they hold, encouraging us to think about language, race, and identity.
Divya grew up in Winnipeg, MB in a busy home with her three brothers, parents, and grandmother. She completed her BFA in Winnipeg before going on to do an MFA at Columbia in New York. She’s been exhibiting nationally and internationally since 2006 and has been participating in artist talks and panel discussions since 2009. While based in Winnipeg, she travels often for exhibits, solo shows, and panel discussions – she recently returned from the Common Field conference in Philadelphia where she was a guest on a panel titled Race and Curation alongside Kim Nguyen, Carmen Hermo, and Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi, organized by Eunsong Kim. In 2017, Divya was shortlisted for the prestigious Sobey Art Award, in early 2018 had her work featured on the cover of the spring issue of Canadian Art magazine, and later that year was the subject of the CBC documentary series In the Making. This woman’s resume is, in a word, bananas.
It was during her undergraduate studies in Winnipeg that Divya first started working with text. Using a Digital8 camera, she would record old South Asian films on her television and add her own subtitles, playing with the idea of what was actually being said in Hindi or Punjabi. The text she would add was based on conversations and experiences drawn from her own life. “The conversation on-screen, although it was maybe a particularly dramatic scene in a film, the subtitles would reveal this whole other layer that was based purely on this imagined conversation that I would hear at my parents’ restaurant,” she explained. “A lot of the things I would hear at the restaurant were problematic ways that white people were expressing their grief of having to pay a certain amount for South Asian cuisine or that things are too spicy.” The substituted text allowed for two very different storylines to unfold on-screen, “and of course the only people that would actually understand what was happening were those that spoke in Hindi.” She continued to write about her personal experiences at her parents’ restaurant well after her focus on subtitling and video work shifted to other mediums. Divya continues to work at her family’s restaurant and told me that the Notes app on her phone is her favourite – allowing her to record exchanges or experiences she has that often get incorporated into her work.
“The whole point in making the things that we do as conceptual artists is that you’re hoping whoever is looking at your work is bringing their own personal experiences to the table.”
While her practise itself plays with text, she doesn’t produce the lengthy artist statements that often accompany visual works. Artist statements are used as an entry point for people to begin to understand a work’s deeper meaning, but after being required to write artist statements in university, Divya now avoids them altogether. “For me, because we had to do it again and again and again, I just felt like it took so much away from the work because it removed that challenge that people have when they enter a work,” she explained. “The whole point in making the things that we do as conceptual artists is that you’re hoping whoever is looking at your work is bringing their own personal experiences to the table.” Rather than having people arrive at particular conclusions, Divya is more interested in directing people to think about the issues she brings up in her works. She often does this through writing long titles for her pieces, which often turn into full paragraphs, but have less formal structure than a statement would. Her titles serve to guide a conversation, “without saying ‘you have to think about this’ but instead ‘hey, you should think about this’.”
The kinds of art works Divya creates have necessarily changed over the years, but the themes and focus remain the same. As Divya explains, her work most often deals with “identity politics, race, representation, and when I talk about those big topics I try to talk about them in as funny a way as possible.” Using humour as an entry point, Divya hopes to spark a conversation about these serious issues, or at the very least challenge people to think about the way we use words, what they mean, and why they exist in the way that they do. In a solo exhibition titled “You have to tell Them, i’m not a Racist” (first exhibited in 2012 as La Maison des Artistes in St. Boniface, and again in 2017 at Georgia Scherman Projects in Toronto), Divya thoughtfully makes use of text, lighting, and space. “The entire exhibition was made up of white vinyl text works that were syllogisms and aphorisms and jokes and headlines pulled from the news that spoke about essentially how racist Canada is,” she said. “I had the gallery painted a bright white, I installed bright fluorescents in the space, and then installed these huge vinyls.” One, titled “Currently Fashionable,” read “PEOPLE OF COLOR” and another read “White men seldom make passes at colored girls who wear glasses.”
The choice of lighting, paint colour, and vinyl colour were all quite deliberate: “Everything in these spaces for this particular exhibition was made in a way to become invisible. Often when we speak about racist acts or racism, people don’t want to talk about them. It’s something that falls by the wayside. So, I wanted to make an exhibition full of these experiences and full of these ideas that disappeared, but at the same time was completely uncomfortable to actually inhabit.” While galleries are traditionally lit in a way that flatters the artwork and encourages people to stay and spend time with the work, Divya’s choice to use daylight fluorescents resulted in lighting that was, as she put it, “disgusting – it’s the worst light.” While she still wanted people to stay and engage with the work, her goal was to make them “very aware of what was written on those walls.” She explained that because of the light and the paint, “what ended up happening was that people had to sort of move back and forth to get a good view of the text, so they almost became very large lenticular prints.”
"Often when we speak about racist acts or racism, people don’t want to talk about them ... I wanted to make an exhibition full of these experiences and full of these ideas that disappeared, but at the same time was completely uncomfortable to actually inhabit.”
Divya’s texts in this exhibition were also translated into both French and Hindi. Growing up, Divya exclusively spoke Hindi and Punjabi, learned French in a French-immersion elementary school, and in Grade Four took ESL to learn her fourth language, English. Using Google Translate, Divya created the French and Hindi versions of the texts in an effort to create “a new border tongue.” A “border tongue” – a term coined by scholar Walter D. Mignolo – emerges “in response to colonization of both sides” of a border. Because Google Translate pulls from various translations across the web, what you end up with is often mangled, inaccurate, and without necessary context. The use of this tool created “beautiful and hilarious mistakes,” which meant that “all of this importance we put into what we’re saying to one another all of a sudden fell apart and became something new, and that was a particular part of that exhibition.” By installing text that couldn’t necessarily be read at face value, Divya asks us “how are we reading these things and where is the importance lying in this particular statement?”
If you take a look at the breadth of Divya’s work – and I highly encourage you to, her work is fascinating, beautiful, and thought provoking – it hasn’t always been so heavily based in text. When I asked her why she chooses text as her medium these days, she explained that it allows her to say things she wouldn’t otherwise be comfortable saying. Growing up as a racialized woman in Winnipeg, Divya found it difficult to take up space and say the things she wanted to say. Working at her family’s restaurant, for example, often left her in difficult positions. “When I have someone telling me ‘This is too expensive for Indian food’ I’m put in a position where my response to that person is to ask them ‘What is the value of this? What are you willing to pay?’ which is something I think is only logical, but they would see as confrontational because they don’t see what they just said as problematic.” The use of text allows Divya to create and present these art works to start a new dialogue. She explained: “Text created the space for me to talk about these things and present these ideas without having to get into an argument.”
“Text created the space for me to talk about these things and present these ideas without having to get into an argument.”
Recently, Divya has started to share more of her personal writing. The Spring 2018 issue of Canadian Art, the cover of which features her in an image that plays homage to the 1980s television show, You Can’t Do That on Television, includes a six-page piece that plays with font, scale, and text in ways that emphasize various aspects of the writing. Her work, then, is just as much about its visual representation as it is about its content. That content is still derived from her lived experiences, however, which continues to inform her work.
Another piece, titled “There are Greater Tragedies” and was included in her 2014 exhibition “Pouring Water on a Drowning Man,” features a black flag with white text that reads “MY ARRIVAL IS YOUR UNDOING.” The text was inspired by a particularly harrowing experience that she endured at an institution she taught at. After experiencing institutionally based racial discrimination, she turned to her union rep for help. She had four or five meetings with this rep, but despite that was told there was nothing that the rep could do to help her. During their last meeting the rep said, “Divya, there are greater tragedies.” Divya explained, “I remember the words falling out of her mouth so easily that she in that moment didn’t see any problem with the racism and discrimination I was facing, and also in her mind couldn’t understand that there was obviously a direct relation between that kind of racism and the violence and hate that comes from it, and those words became permanently etched in my brain in that moment.” It is these intense, problematic, and often painful private experiences that inform Divya’s work, which she presents in a way that allows “people … to relate to it in a more public setting.”
Divya’s next exhibition – “Vision Exchange: Perspectives from India to Canada” – opens this Saturday, May 11, 2019 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The show features twenty contemporary South Asian artists, three of whom are part of the diaspora. The point of departure for this particular show is Divya’s personal relationship to the Partition, her family’s relationship to the Partition, and, more generally, the disapora’s relationship to the Partition (in 1947 colonial British India was partitioned into the separate states of India and Pakistan, a horrific event that resulted in the murder of over two million people and left over 14 million people without homes). “Being a part of the diaspora, I have a very different connection to India and those politics than, say, somebody who’s white and from Canada or South Asian and from India,” Divya told me. The curators of the exhibition asked Divya to show the text-based piece she created for a 2010 exhibition of South Asian artists in Brooklyn where she was asked to make “something funny.” She created a 14-foot-high vinyl text piece titled “Contemporary South Asian Art” that reads “I’M INDIAN, SO I’M IN THIS SHOW.” WAG curators wanted this specific text and her work in particular because of the way she’s engaged with post-Partition politics over the last ten years, which is not an easy dialogue to engage in. Divya explained: “It’s a really complicated space to inhabit because I don’t feel at home in India in any capacity, I’m very much outside of things. And also in Canada I very much feel like I’m on the outside as well. Those are some of the things that I try to work through in my practise.”
In addition to her text-based work, WAG visitors will also get to see Divya’s newest piece, commissioned for this exhibition in particular: a bouncy castle Taj Mahal. The exhibition launched at the Art Gallery of Alberta, moved to the Art Museum of Toronto, and then went to the Royal Ontario Museum. The exhibition opens at the WAG before moving on to the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina and finishing up at the National Gallery of Canada. When her work was first installed at the AGA, Divya took her time in choosing the paint colours for the walls of the gallery. She knew the colour palette she wanted to surround the work but was very mindful of and deliberate in the specific colours and names, eventually choosing “Colonial Red” and “Curry Sauce Yellow,” (and the Taj Mahal was constructed of a green fabric known “Paradise Green” – yes, those are actual paint and fabric colour names). “It was this hilarious, perfect miracle,” she laughed. As the bouncy castle Taj Mahal has moved from one installation to the next, the title has evolved and grown with it. Crossing out text and adding additional text specific to the exhibition’s location, you can see the way in which Divya’s use of text is fluid and intentional. Because of the work’s sheer size, and because the WAG is currently undergoing reconstruction in the development of their Inuit Art Centre, the Taj piece will be featured in a separate room, surrounded by the Gallery’s collection of decidedly white, colonial artworks.
The Taj’s title reads:
“Vision Exchange: Perspectives from India to Canada” opens at the WAG on Saturday, May 11, 2019 and runs until September 8, 2019.