For British-born Indian artist Hetain Patel, known for the play on fiction and reality in performances, videos and sculptures, the pandemic has been a period of experimentation, a period to process difficult emotions. He is exploring the process of drawing in greater depth and has just announced his first full-length feature film. Tonally, humour and satire have given way to a simmering anger.
The well-known artist, who has shown his work at the Royal Opera House, London, Frieze Art Fair, London, Tate Britain, Bodhi Art, New York, among other places, started drawing a lot when he began making animation, largely for his Instagram videos. “I really enjoyed the process and expanded my practice to painting last year,” says the 41-year-old, who showcased a performance piece, Reflex, at the India Art Fair recently as part of the British Council’s Festivals for the Future artistic exchange programme.
Earlier, he would use humour and satire to question notions of identity, masculinity and culture. For instance, Patel put up videos of himself wearing the Spider-Man costumes to address alienation and self-acceptance—he was no longer the outsider but a superhero; in Sacred Bodies, he created self-portraits of his upper body covered in henna patterns; in his first choreographed piece, Let’s Talk About This, he used a playful approach to diversity and inclusion.
His work over the past two years, though, has hints of anger. For instance, the 30-minute performance, Baa’s Gold 10, filmed at London’s National Gallery in December, is the story of a violent burglary at the home of Patel’s grandmother and tracks how she regains her agency.
The 29-minute film Trinity, which opened to critical acclaim and was showcased in India by Chatterjee & Lal in February-March, focuses on two female characters—a young British Indian woman and a garage worker, who is hearing impaired. They get into a fight, creating a unique physical language.
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For Patel, the Black Lives Matter movement was a turning point. “I realised that there was so much performativity on social media around it. It made me very angry. That brought back a lot of memories of racial discrimination that I had faced as a child, which I had forced myself to forget or to believe that it never happened,” says Patel. He realised art practice was a lot like a human being, full of contradictions—with anger coexisting with love and humour. “This is one of the times when I feel lucky to be an artist, as my work allows me to process difficult emotions,” he adds.
Reflex, for instance, looked at language as a marker of identity. “Over the last couple of years, people from my generation living in the UK began to worry about losing the first-generation immigrants,” says Patel. Covid-19 took away some of his elder relatives. “I began to wonder what we are losing in terms of language. I used to speak Gujarati with my grandparents but they are not there any more,” he adds. So he recorded an interview with his mother and wove in fragments of the video with his performance. The work—the movements, the music—responded to the rhythm of her voice. “The performance looks at how Gujarati sits in my body,” says Patel.
Since he started his formal practice in 2004, the artist has learnt to trust his instincts more with each passing year. “What works best for me is audience feedback. It makes you a little braver each time. My art practice,” he says, “is a journey and each of these works has been an important milestone in it.”