Skip to content
Interview question: What inspires you the most while working on a project? Ketna answers:
Anyone who offers ‘original thinking’. The less conditioned, the better. Thoughts that do not even have to had an ‘educational’ underpinning, but melded out of keen and authentic observations of ‘life’, and the human condition. One such person is ‘Osho’, also known as ‘Rajneesh’. Clarissa Pinkola Estes is another one. She is controversial for proposing that both assimilation and holding to ethnic traditions are the ways to contribute to creative culture and to a soul-based civility. Everyday people inspire me.
What is the relevance of 'POP ART' in Asia?
The theme of popular culture has always been topical. Mirroring contemporary life, it also provokes and reflects upon cultural change. The explosion of Pop Art in the 1960s in America was a witty homage to the burgeoning consumer society celebrated in magazines, comics and advertising. For ASIA POP, the photographic images are firmly rooted in everyday Asian life. But, painstakingly created layer upon layer, new Pop Art techniques are used deliberately to reflect Asia’s technological and economic advances.
How has the Western aesthetic influenced contemporary Asia?
Relentless consumerism and senseless aping of styles and trends have often overtaken the traditional desire to perpetuate and honour family history, cultural sensibilities and local craftsmanship. Colour, patterns, texture have been slowly bleeded out of aesthetic story telling until a habitat has become stylishly minimal, but emotionally impotent. (My answer is a generalized one; of course there are many wonderful exceptions!)
What’s the future of design?
Asia is in a vexed relationship with design. Here, the word design is often associated with a western-centric ideal. I think of Design as an interface for meaning making, a process that is quite different from buying a brand name bag or commissioning a Tudor style house. Good design should be informed by its immediate context: culture, identity, utility. It should not be a ‘veneer’ to paper over a cracked self-image. If we are not careful, we will become a Disneyland dumping ground for short sighted, greedy developers, and imported status symbols. This is the time for us to delve into our rich, complex, layered narratives and identities. We need to have the courage of conviction to tell our OWN stories to be truly modern! But first, we have to really see ourselves, and not just be fooled by our insecure projections of who we may want to be.
I see the world becoming more and more about ‘people’, and less about ‘things’. A lot of creativity today gets diluted in a commercial attempt to please everybody, with the emphasis on bottom line profits for anonymous shareholders. I can envision the future being shaped by virtual communities leaning on each other’s ‘free’ opinions rather than be the unwitting recipients of products thrust on us by the clever propaganda we are subjected to today. I foresee a return to individualism.
How do you think India is big on the international design scene when it comes to architecture and lifestyle accessories for the home?
During my travels in India, I stumble across quiet displays of ingenious creativity. However, I suspect that there is a shortage of platforms in which these ‘creative’ two way conversations can be had with the public. At the risk of generalization, I would say that Indian Design has become entangled with foreign brands and status, often substituting its own story telling with projections borne from foreign cultures and sensibilities. For a young girl to spend her whole month’s salary on a branded handbag makes no sense. Overt minimalism for a country bursting with colour and texture seems strange, yet we are all tuning into many homogenous presentations and reproductions of copies of copies from somewhere else. We are witnessing the demise of the individual. Any demonstration of the opposite of that is something I would dearly welcome, even if the end product is not finished or slick.
Has Globalization influenced how Art and Design are viewed by different cultures?
Today, we all participate in a linked reality. The average individual shares many commonalities with others far away. Trivial and iconic imagery bombards us constantly. TV and advertising hoardings selling everything from toothpaste, chocolate, political parties, credit cards, weight loss pills to internet order brides!
Traveling around the world, observing and absorbing, we can begin to see general patterns in how one side of the world perceived the other. The consequences of a few decades of our media saturated culture seemed to have resulted in some hilarious generalizations, some of which may even have provided the genesis for our social behavior.
Interview: Artist Ketna Patel “Cultivating Cultural Identity”
Meet Ketna Patel and her fantastic layered multi-media work. Her unpretentious attitude towards art is incredibly refreshing, and you cannot help but be intrigued by the artist and her work.
A British-Indian contemporary artist, her art reflects much of her own personal journey as an outsider and global citizen, observing, discovering and embracing one’s cultural identity and the desire to belong to a community. At first, you may be drawn in by the vast use of punchy colors and humorous composition of characters, but just like the layers of materials used in her collages, there are much deeper stories being told. Reflections of socio-political and cultural identity exploration in everyday life of today and yesterday are common themes portrayed through her art. Her mission is simply to communicate the story of the lesser-known individual within these landscapes.
Most known for her “Asia Pop!” series available on multiple surfaces from collages, barber chairs, fashion…..even cars!.... this is only one spectacular series of the “Planet Pop Project”. A recent rural lifestyle choice cross bordering between Pune and Wales is sure to produce yet another interesting body of work.
Please click (here) to read our Interview with Artist Ketna Patel.
Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Ketna Patel in Singapore and following are some highlights of our conversation.
INTERVIEW-ARTIST KETNA PATEL
TL: Can you tell me a little about how your personal life journey from growing up in Africa and the UK to living as a global citizen has impacted your artwork?
KP: I was born in Uganda in a rather ghettosized, conservative Gujarati Indian society; living next to yet ironically isolated from the Africans and the British communities. Exciting things were happening all around me, but I could not participate. As a result, my curiosity about the vast world behind my ‘box’ kept getting bigger…… We would get dressed up to go pick up visitors at the airport, and I was mesmerized and fascinated by the women I saw, alone, in transit, backpacking, which was so vastly different from the conventional life I knew. How fabulous was this backpackers’ life, I thought, fanaticizing about the exotic adventure they must be on. Needless to say, I felt disconnected and suffocated by my own life, where women’s identity and my role models were focused on keeping house-cooking, cleaning and caring for a family.
When I was 14, my world quickly changed as Idi Amin’s regime broke out in Uganda. The violent atmosphere and the regime’s ultimatum for Indians to leave Uganda almost immediately, resulted in my parents making an overnight decision to send me alone to the UK to live with relatives I was not familiar with, while they remained with my brother in Africa. I was nervous, but terribly excited to leave.
In the UK, after going through ) and A levels and a foundation course in Art + Design, I enrolled in architecture and interior design school. I was a clumsy, terrible student. What was trending in the design world at the time (80’s-90’s) was a “less is more” monochromatic movement. This was considered chic, elite…important. This did not resonate with me, and I felt like I had to apologize for my work, my clothes, my ideas…myself. My teacher even pulled me aside and said, “Ketna, you are really not good at this, Indians are good at math, perhaps you should consider a career in accounts.”
In 1991, when I graduated, the country was in a recession, and I worked for free just to get experience. My grandmother who I lived with was the Indian communities’ unofficial “matchmaker”. Many Sunday afternoons, eligible young men, accompanied by family members would come to her home to meet potential wifely candidates, all orchestrated by my grandmother. I served tea, observing, but not participating. The boys eventually began asking my grandmother about the girl serving tea, and with some convincing, I decide to explore the ‘marriage scene’ (as a sort of sociological test; not with the intention to marry!) Within ten dates, I was as equally unenthused, as when I was initially serving tea. These young men had been conditioned to be ambitious, but lacked any curiosity about the world. Feeling like a fish out of water, knowing this was not an option, I asked my tutor at University (now a friend) to help me find a job in a new place; any place but there.
That request brought me to Singapore where I lived for the next 23 years, working initially as an architect. Once there, I began traveling intensively throughout South East Asia. I observed many similarities between how I perceived my culture while living in Africa and how South East Asians viewed their culture. At the risk of generalizing, it seems Asians were embarrassed by their Asian identity and very concerned with being Western; understandably, as there were no Asian role models to read about in books or to celebrate in the media.
At the time, the architectural firm that I worked for was designing commercial buildings that I was not proud of coupled with a less than appealing salary, so I quit with enough money to survive for a month. A small group of artists and myself moved into a house in Chip Bee Gardens where we shared our space, served cheap wine and crackers and showed our work. My first commission was for $500 designing a program for the Singapore Repertoire Theater. We were there for 20 years, and it developed into our own studio-gallery-home-community. It was the perfect environment for ordinary people to discover art and express themselves.
TL: What do you think needs to be taught in art education that is missing today?
KP: There is too much emphasis on academic referencing, which encourages new artists to “create a one liner manufactured fashion statement, the next cool trend.”
As a result artists may adapt their work to what is in fashion and or recreate established works with a few points of difference rather than focusing on creating original art.
These works might create some initial interest, but this will be short-lived, as they lack originality.
Toady’s art curriculum would grossly benefit from courses on sociology, politics, discussions and debates on human habitats. Artists need to go deeper by connecting the dots and scrutinizing on what’s really happening in our ‘off the beaten track’ communities and the world.
TL: Soon after your marriage, your husband and you traveled for 18 months around the world. What was the most impressive place you experienced and where would you still like to explore.
KP: Cuba definitely left a strong impression on us. Conditioned by the angst of the regime, the celebration and emotional release through music is so intense. Havana was an architectural stage set where time had stood still. The patina of age and containment (human and otherwise) was insightful; compelling. In the age of globalization, I find the spaces between countries as fascinating as the caricatures that cultures eventually become. For example, the relationship between Israel and its neighbours; Cuba and America, India and Kashmir etc.
We would like to visit South America as well as remote islands, Oceanic cultures to observe how they ‘perpetuate’ their identity.
TL: What do you collect when you travel?
KP: Anything printed-tickets, receipts, and photographs. Photographs are significant for collecting memories. Once you go back and look at a photograph, it emotionally brings you back to that experience, and you see things about the scene that were not initially apparent.
TL: Now that you are splitting your time between Pune and Wales, what are you looking forward to with this new experience and how do you hope this experience will impact your art?
KP: It’s the first time that I’m living on the countryside and not a city, so it will be interesting to observe this rural culture, and the people there. Physically, the natural landscape is very different in Wales, which will certainly impact the colors I use.
My husband and I are exploring the “Slow Life Movement”. Cities are becoming more unsustainable, and identities are ending up as clichéd tours…..So many people are under pressure to have stage set lives that are like movie clips; this is obvious from even most high street shops, and what is for sale. The big question is this……’Is identity for sale’?
I have always been intrigued by information and knowledge of the ‘self’, and this only surfaces when the superficial chattering has stopped. As I slow down, my reflections on all that I have observed are more nuanced, and this informs the creativity. Its early days, but having my main studio base in rural West Wales is a decision I am delighted with. What an adventure!!
We would like to see more people and corporations embrace and revitalize “Ruralism”, not just as a weekend retreat, but the reverse of spending the majority of time in the country and retreating less regularly to the city.
TL: Your “Asia Pop!” series has been very well received, known for the vibrant color hues and layered storytelling of Asian culture. Was there a specific methodology for selecting the colors and images?
KP: Our generation is so influenced by advertising rather than fine art and craftsmanship, I wanted my art to deliberately look like a mass produced advertisement with intense color and messaging. While a lot of people look at my art and comment on how happy and vibrant my art is, there is a much deeper and sometimes darker message. I also pay special tribute to my Indian heritage.
TL: Much of your work brings awareness to the individuals and street culture of Asia. Are there any specific causes that you support?
KP: Yes, the empowerment of women and children. “Women are the glue in the family, and children are our future.”
TL: What do you want your art to be remembered for?
KP: Documenting the story of the individual whose voice has not been heard. What’s their cultural identity? What are their politics??
TL: Can you tell me about any special projects that you are working on now?
KP: My husband and I bought an old Chapel in an ex-mining village in Wales. Once a bustling mining village, it became extinct almost overnight, and this rural town lost its identity. Using this perch as a case study, we hope to play a role in re-vitalizing communities like these all over the world. That is ‘Art by intervention!’
TL: You have done several collaboration projects from multi media art- furniture-wearable fashion with brands including Haworth, Kiehls, Cathay, All Dressed Up, Bollywood, and Tata. What types of collaborations do you hope to work with in the future?
KP: I am very interested in Film, as it’s the best medium to archive stories. Collaborating with a filmmaker to tell the stories of the less known individual would be great.
Communication is most important, and we are running out of surface areas to tell stories, so we are open to non-traditional outlets to collaborate / transform and or to display and experience art…a café..a gym….even the green grocer’s in the welsh village I am in!
The Business of Art
TL: How has social media helped and hindered the creation of contemporary art?
KP: We are the first generation to experience this incredible, constant access to information and connectivity, but we are not designed to process this information or manage so many relationships available to us today.
You need to participate, but at the same time this constant access promotes conditioned mindsets rather than what makes sense for the individual. We need to continue to ask the fundamental question. “What is conditioned and what is original?”
Our lifestyles are swallowing us whole. For me, slowing down, being more in nature and small communities is the way to go. Even if only to build bridges between the rural and urban.
TL: Is there anything specific about the business of the art world that you would like to fix?
KP: While galleries and art shows are important; they are very costly for artists to participate. The elite platforms cannot be ignored, but alternative outlets and platforms are needed in the mainstream for the public and creative studio to have a more direct, fluid rapport.
TL: What non-traditional platforms, international shows, or galleries can people visit and or purchase your work?
KP: We are deliberately approachable and encourage you to email us directly if you are interested in our work practice, or Art. The website www.ketnapatel.com is the best place to find out about our current project updates.