London artist challenges all what we take for granted - race, gender, language

Feb 04, 2018, 09:12 IST | Benita Fernando

An 'African Kung Fu' film and a Spidey intervention in a family portrait are just this London artist's ways of challenging all that we take for granted - race, gender, language

Actors Freddie Opoku-Addaie and Victoria Shulungu play groom and bride in Hetain Patel’s Don’t Look at the Finger, a film in which a wedding ceremony witnesses new twists. Pics/Hetain Patel, Chatterjee and Lal
Actors Freddie Opoku-Addaie and Victoria Shulungu play groom and bride in Hetain Patel's Don't Look at the Finger, a film in which a wedding ceremony witnesses new twists. Pics/Hetain Patel, Chatterjee and Lal

We latch on to our heroes for different reasons. I have always been a big fan of Bruce Lee. For me, Bruce Lee is a skinny Asian hero and, as a kid, I hated being skinny - it wasn't cool at all. I grew up in a white neighbourhood, and then there is this hero who is not white and is kicking everyone's a**. Everyone wants to be him, even the white kids," says Hetain Patel.

Freddie Opoku Addaie

We have been watching Patel's film, Don't Look at the Finger (2017), at gallery Chatterjee and Lal in Colaba. With a couple of hours to go for the opening, when the space will be packed to the rafters with visitors at the ongoing Mumbai Gallery Weekend, we are at a relative advantage. The cinematic scores that accompany this film, and The Jump, another work by Patel, fill the gallery in a dramatic Hollywood moment. The title, Don't Look at the Finger, will be one that Bruce Lee afficionados will be able to pick on quickly. After all, it was the great actor, the trailblazer for a whole generation that took to martial arts as a form of hobby, who commanded: Don't think. Feel.

Freddie Opoku Addaie

That may well be the case as you watch the film. A single channel work that is 16-minutes-long, Don't Look at the Finger features an all-black cast dressed in what seems like traditional West African attire. A bride walks into a hall, most likely a church, where her groom waits. The cult scene, one that we have repeatedly consumed from Hollywood, is familiar, but is quickly upturned when the minister uses sign language to communicate with the to-be couple.

Baa's House (2015) features Patel as Spiderman, with grandmother Laxmiben
Baa's House (2015) features Patel as Spiderman, with grandmother Laxmiben

And it's not just her; the families and the couple also communicate with each other through gestures. So, you think, perhaps feeling a little self-congratulatory, this should be interesting - an entire wedding ceremony that takes place in sign language. Just as you prepare yourself, the groom and the bride start combating each other, the way Bruce Lee did, and the way The Matrix series did it again. An arm outstretched, the bride challenges the groom with the iconic hand gesture: Bring it on. The marital has just met the martial - like it does in life, at times.

No, you cannot get comfortable when it's a film by Patel. He just won't let you. He describes Don't Look at the Finger, commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella with Manchester Art Gallery and QUAD, as "an African Kung Fu film". "I wanted to see how to bring all these elements that are usually considered exotic - a West African family, sign language, and East Asian martial arts - and lace them with a mode we all recognise - Hollywood. This means epic music, cinematography and choreography. I wanted to create a world where supposedly disparate elements make sense together," he says.

For that matter, the church, an actual space in London, became a nightclub in its next avatar, and will soon become a performance space. The printed tunics and dresses that the actors don, which we will easily identify with an African tribe, are actually Dutch wax prints. Yet, these diverse elements are seamlessly married together in the film.

The superhero challenge
Patel has done this before. Born and raised in the UK, the London-based artist hails from a second-generation family of migrants. The idea of identity, as a shifting concept, is one that pervades this 37-year-old's work, but it is not related to his own trans-national identity alone. In a TED performance in 2013, he demonstrated exactly this. Available online, the piece has Patel challenging all our assumptions about him - Asian, man, educated. For most of the piece, he sits on his haunches much like how we see labourers do in Mumbai.

Only, Patel's crouching stance has more to do with Spiderman. The Jump (2015) has Patel mimicking the much-adored superhero. The work is a two-channel video installation, and opens with what seems like a standard family portrait shot in the living room. The cast is Patel's family, dressed like they would for a wedding, and shot at his grandmother's house in Bolton, UK. The video slowly reveals to us a Spidey waiting to jump from the couch. It's an odd entry for the superhero - an Indian family's living room is not what you would have expected for Spidey's grand entrance.

Yet, we may have all been like Patel at some point in our lives. The way he used to leap off his grandmother's couch as a child, pretending to be Spiderman, is relatable. The domestic space is ironically the arena for fantasies to come alive, as Patel used to tie to his watch a string with a paperclip at the end of it. Shooting it at the door, a web was formed temporarily in his imagination.

"But, I didn't want my family or ethnicity to be part of both films. I want to free myself and my ethnicity from getting typecast," he says. Patel says that he often gets curated in group shows that engage with the idea of diaspora, but hardly ever in those on British identity.

Visitors may find that Don't Look at the Finger is more nuanced and layered than The Jump, but both offer evidence that Patel is not hesitant to bring pop culture into a gallery. "It hasn't always been that way. I had to give myself permission to do that, for pop culture references can be seen as a dirty thing in the art world. I used to hope that I wouldn't be discredited as an artist. But, being an artist means I can't hold myself back. I love conceptual art and archives as much as Marvel's Black Panther. You don't have to be on one side of the fence or the other. How many times have you been to an art exhibition, a well-curated one, and gone home to switch on Sex and the City?"

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