Sobey Art Award 2022: Divya Mehra

Divya Mehra, Afterlife of Colonialism, a reimagining of Power: It’s possible that the Sun has set on your Empire OR Why your voice does not matter: Portrait of an Imbalanced, and yet contemporary diasporic celebrating an inheritance of loss through occup

Divya Mehra, Afterlife of Colonialism, a reimagining of Power: It’s possible that the Sun has set on your Empire OR Why your voice does not matter: Portrait of an Imbalanced, and yet contemporary diasporic   India vis.- vis Colonial Red, Curry Sauce Yellow, and Paradise Green, placed neatly beneath these revived medieval forms: The Challenges of entering a predominantly White space (Can you get this in the gift shop?) where all Women and Magical Elephants may know this work, here in your Winnipeg, among all my Peers, desiring to be both seen and see the loot, through this Jungle Vine camouflagecelebrating an inheritance of loss through occupation of these outmoded spaces, 2018– 22, PVC coated fabric, acrylic paint, plastic and electric components. Purchased 2019 (48651). National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Divya Mehra Photo: NGC

 

Update: Divya Mehra is the winner of the 2022 Sobey Art Award


As I write this (in June, 2022), Divya Mehra is hosting a Racism Retreat at a PWI (predominantly white institution) in Seattle, WA. Inspired by DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) rhetoric, for each of her participants she prepared an exclusive “Bravery Kit” – adorable letterpress-printed gable boxes filled with individually wrapped s’mores supplies to roast over a fire while enjoying “a life free of persecution and full of entitlement through the uniquely safe space.”

Halfway across the world from this small gathering, a goddess has been returned to the geographic location from which she was stolen; Mehra reverse-Indiana Jones’d the deity after a century of violent displacement within the collection of another PWI.

Untethered to any specific medium, Mehra works within the socio-cultural fabric. She creates deeply layered, abstracted social commentary, packaged in a seductive or humorous exterior that disarms the implicit bias and defense mechanisms of its viewers.

Divya Mehra, Bravery Kit, 2022. Letterpress-printed gable box, ribbon, graham crackers, marshmallow, milk chocolates, crinkle paper

Divya Mehra, Bravery Kit, 2022. Letterpress-printed gable box, ribbon, graham crackers, marshmallow, milk chocolates, crinkle paper, 10.2 × 15.2 × 8.9 cm; edition of 50. © Divya Mehra Photo: Courtesy the artist

On West 11th St. in Downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, a billboard depicts a cartoon rendition of Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt decrying Critical Race Theory while a black student watches the world end outside the classroom window. Remember, say NO to discomfort, guilt, anguish or psychological distress draws its title from Oklahoma state legislation, passed in May 2021, undeniably close to the race massacre anniversary. The legislation bars educators from teaching antiracist material that may be difficult for some students. This billboard is part of Mehra’s The End of You series, which reimagines cartoonist Skip Morrow’s popular 1983 illustrated book, The End. Morrow’s original comic book consistently depicted only white citizens going about mundane daily tasks, oblivious to the nuclear forces ending the world in the background of each panel. In her series, Mehra inserts racialized students and frontline workers into this apocalyptic anxiety, watching the world completely transform while white people try to carry on enforcing the status quo. Like much of Mehra’s work, The End of You series is subtly layered with references to political, artistic and social landscapes. She reflects networks of relationships that are taut with anticipation over a changing world.

Divya Mehra, Remember, say NO to discomfort, guilt, anguish or psychological distress, 2021. From the series The End of You

Divya Mehra, Remember, say NO to discomfort, guilt, anguish or psychological distress, 2021. From the series The End of You. Printed billboard, 3.2 × 6.9 m. Commissioned for Add Space/Tulsa Artist Fellowship, Tulsa, OK, 2021. © Divya Mehra Photo: Richard Zimmerman

In here at least we shall be free (build yourself a Taj Mahal for common folks OR a simple set for funniest home video), Mehra succinctly addresses grief, devastation and the evolution of language and emotional expression. She recreates two emojis, on a monumental scale, extending a societal trend of communicating heavier ideas with an ever-decreasing character count. The title suggests three responses to mass tragedy during the pandemic era: “here at least we shall be free” references satan’s version of free will through “heaven in hell” from Paradise Lost; the “Taj Mahal for common folks” pays tribute to the many who have passed without the resources (or ego) to leave a majestic mausoleum behind; and “funniest home video” alludes to a collective schadenfreude – enjoyment of watching suffering from a distance. While the pandemic has caused the loss of millions of lives, it has disproportionately impacted racialized people, frontline workers and those tasked with caring for others. Originating as expressions of cuteness, emojis have taken on increasingly more complex emotional articulations. At this monumental scale, Mehra’s inflated and carry the incredible weight of expressing mass international trauma, its disparate effects and the distance between those with and without power.

In 2019 while visiting the MacKenzie Art Gallery to prepare for an exhibition, Mehra questioned a small sculpture in the Norman MacKenzie collection labelled as Vishnu. She immediately recognized this sculpture was not likely to be Vishnu, and soon discerned – with assistance from Siddharth Shah, Curator of South Asian Art, Peabody Essex Museum – that she was actually Annapurna, the goddess of nourishment. I was the Director of Programs at the MacKenzie at the time, and she showed me an account from our own records. Dictated by Norman MacKenzie, the record documented his 1913 trip to Varanasi, India. Travelling down the Ganges river, MacKenzie stopped at a burning ghat (a sacred site for funeral rites, accessible to all – a sort of Taj Mahal for common folk). He recounts how he stole an idol from this holy city, illegally smuggled it and donated it as part of the founding bequest to the now University of Regina to help establish the future MacKenzie Art Gallery. MacKenzie was not aware of which god he had taken, but she had deep ties to the city from which she was taken: Annapurna is commonly known as the “queen of Varanasi.” The act of entitlement demonstrated in this theft is characteristic of the colonial underpinnings of the PWI that Mehra’s work critiques; she proposed a project that would directly engage with and disrupt this active history and ongoing injustice.

Divya Mehra,There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away (Not Vishnu: New Ways of Darśana), 2020

Divya Mehra,There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away (Not Vishnu: New Ways of Darśana), 2020. Coffee, sand, chamois, leather cord, metal, edition 1 of 10, British cast stone pedestal. MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina, (2020–4). © Divya Mehra Photo: NGC

Mehra’s resulting work became a central component to her solo exhibition From India to Canada and Back to India (There is nothing I can possess which you cannot take away). The exhibition adapted its title from the Indian survey exhibition from which it branched off (Vision Exchange – Perspectives: From India to Canada), as well as a line from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, creating a tension about Western fetishization of “other cultures,” theft, power, ownership and restoration. Annapurna was present, yet absent – the exhibition included a small bag of sand, weighed to match the Annapurna sculpture, offered as a replacement for the stolen statue should it be repatriated to its proper home. A leather-bound tome from the MacKenzie archives was opened to the typewritten words of Norman MacKenzie and a photograph of “his” sculpture was visibly removed, leaving a faint outline on the yellowing page. Mehra’s sculpture sat on a replica altar from Raiders of the Lost Ark, against a “Jungle Vine” green painted backdrop.

There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away (Not Vishnu: New ways of Darsána) is not exactly a sculpture, but an active intervention into history, a collection and international affairs. One year after creating this work, Mehra participated in a public repatriation ceremony and took the opportunity to underscore the importance of returning the goddess of nourishment while Indian farmers were engaging in one of the world’s largest protests in opposition to the “Farm Bills.” Several months later Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation, calling the repatriation a “proud day for all Indians.” In November 2021 Annapurna undertook a Shobha Yatra – a ceremonial four-day procession from Delhi to Varanasi – to receive the Prana Pratishtha, a ritual of re-sanctification. Hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Indians showed up to pay tribute to Annapurna on her journey, which was broadcast live across most major news outlets as she was installed in a newly renovated Annapurna Temple in the Kashi Vishwanath corridor along the very shores from which she was stolen 108 years earlier. Four days later, Prime Minister Modi announced he would repeal the Farm Bills.

In the vault of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, on a shelf marked “Oriental Antiquities,” there is a cavity carved to fit Annapurna, which now holds Mehra’s bag of sand titled There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away (Not Vishnu: New ways of Darsána). The MacKenzie purchased the work for its permanent collection, marking the place that once held a stolen idol that was not Vishnu. Darsána is a Hindu word for “looking at” or “viewing,” but more specifically it expresses looking as an act of worship. I don’t have a direct relationship with this form of active looking, but it brings to mind the museum’s secular act of aesthetic attention and contemplation. “New ways of Darsána” underscores the act of viewing “museum objects,”: provoking a shift to how we honour the works and idols in Western collections; challenging an extractive mode of viewing/consuming cultures; and suggesting a new relationship between our ethics, institutions, spirit, beliefs and ways of seeing. There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away… evokes the potential for all PWIs to participate in the project of dismantling the colonial injustices from which they have benefitted, by taking tangible steps such as the divestment of their property.

With these works and others in her recent practice, Mehra diverges from recent generations of institutional critique towards a new direction: blending activism, aesthetics, approachability and depth, while instigating lasting real-world change. Her work draws attention to absurdities, injustices and revelations hiding in plain sight. She engages institutional and social power structures as medium, presenting provocative and confrontational work that seduces its subjects into good-faith engagement. At a time when we struggle to mark the atrocities of history (or of the present) without erasure, Mehra forges a path forward with elegance and the appropriate weight; prompting meaningful restitution, shifting geopolitics and avoiding whitewashed platitudes while upsetting legacies for the future we need to work toward.

 

The 2022 Sobey Art Award Exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada,  from October 28, 2022 until March 12, 2023, with the winner announced at a gala ceremony on November 16, 2022. The Sobey Art Award is funded by the Sobey Art Foundation (SAF) and organized and presented by the National Gallery of Canada. This article first appeared in Sobey Art Award 20232 published by the National Gallery of Canada, 2022. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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