The art of Ketna Patel mainly exists in two modes, macro and micro. Macro in the sense that it offers commentary on international events – general issues like the collision of cultures, the flow of capital and labour and ideas and trends across borders, and more specific ones like Brexit and the Trump presidency. On the micro level, her art celebrates the most mundane roadside signs and symbols. It tells little stories of common men and women – through instructions at the back of trucks (“Horn Please”), commands before places of worship (“Church is a Holy Place. Maintain Cleanliness”) and directions for tourists (“Milky Way Guest House and Restaurant”).
Ketna is a “third generation East African Gujarati Indian”. She was born in Uganda, brought up in Kenya and migrated to the UK when she was fourteen. After studying at the universities of Westminster and Middlesex as well as the Architectural Association in London, she moved to Singapore, where she ended up staying twenty years, working first as an architect and later as an independent visual artist. She is legally a part of three countries: she is a British Citizen, a Singaporean Permanent Resident and an Overseas Citizen of India. Her studios are all over the place.
Yet Ketna always remains on the periphery. She has struggled with questions of roots and identity, never quite feeling totally at home anywhere. This, she says, “makes the whole world into a sort of listening project”. Her discomfort is generative. Out of her anthropological and existential confusion bursts forth creativity that is chaotic, colourful and endlessly energetic.
“I unconsciously escape situations when they become too comfortable and I sense a deadening of ‘spirit’ or live enquiry,” she explains. “Most of my expression comes from zooming into the ‘in-between’ spaces of inner and outer worlds, the gaps between host and diasporic cultures, street culture, etc.”
Ketna is passionately opposed to the elitist “gallery” culture of the art world. We’ve all heard of rich tycoons obtaining pricey paintings only to wall them off within posh mansions and office towers, far away from the public. Visual storytelling, the artist maintains, must percolate through all layers of society. The production of a handful of frames or prints isn’t enough. Socially relevant design ought to be multiplied and impressed upon a variety of applications and surfaces – apparel, furniture, pillow covers, bed sheets, even automobiles.
Ketna could be easily labelled a “political artist” making bold far-reaching statements but she insists she is more interested in the vitality of day to day existence. That, she feels, is integral to a healthy, changing society. Interested in attacking latent prejudices, she observes, assimilates, digests, regurgitates, makes art and moves on. “I have never felt a deep ‘belonging’ anywhere,” she continues, “and that just underlines my ‘voyeuristic abstractness’. Similar to a fly on the wall, I eavesdrop on bits and pieces of global conversations, mixing my inner world realisations with external experiences, all making for a tasty soup which gets converted to Art.”
Ketna Patel’s work has been exhibited all over the world and can be found in both institutional and private collections. Her list of clients includes IIFA (International Indian Film Academy), the filmmaker Spike Lee, Tata Motors, and Swissotel, Singapore. Ketna is currently at work on a project called “Britindia” – a UK/India binational company dedicated to the creation and delivery of arts and heritage.
Images used with permission.
Here is a talk by Ketna Patel from April 30, 2016. She is at the AAAHA Launch (stands for “Anglo Asiatic Arts and Heritage Alliance”) at SOAS, University of London: