Ketna Patel’s works bring together colours, cultures and countries. Here’s a look at the artist’s latest series ‘Asia Pop’

“Please do not embarrass by requesting free entry.”

You may not have noticed that sign outside the Taj Mahal, but Singapore-based pop artist Ketna Patel did. And it’s become part of her quirky, colourful ‘Asia Pop’ series of artworks — paintings, yes, but also coffee tables, couches, table lamps, and more — celebrating the lives and the narratives of the ordinary man in the streets of India, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and more.

The award-winning artist visited Chennai for the first time recently, and sat down for a chat about the ‘constantly simmering anxiety’ that fuels her work. Hers is not just pop imagery for the sake of it. There’s a strong socio-political statement behind the art, an essential story being told through kaleidoscopic images of street signs and hotel signboards, advertisement hoardings and movie posters: the story of auto drivers, tourist guides, homemakers, construction workers, and more. The story, in other words, of us, of everyday people.

“I try and capture stories so ordinary that we almost don’t notice them,” says Ketna. “But sometimes, we can stumble across ourselves, identify with something we see in their narratives.”

“Otherwise,” she adds, “historians just keep celebrating monuments and temples, and the really important stuff, and the everyday stuff, gets ignored.”

To Ketna, telling these stories is particularly essential in a Third World context. “I’m very sensitive to the fact that the West has so hijacked our mindspace that we often don’t have a voice of our own,” she says. “And our collective identity might be heading for problems if we don’t celebrate what’s intrinsically ours.”

Her life experiences have given her a unique perspective on these questions of identity and belonging. “I grew up in Uganda and Kenya, moved to London [she studied architecture and interior design there], and then to Singapore,” she says. “I’ve always been the outsider.”

She’s never lived in India, but visits it often, and has a small studio in Pune. She and her husband Jonathan, a musician, now plan to spend more time here, particularly since Jonathan is learning to play the sarod. Her visit to Chennai — one of her first forays into the Southern part of the country — was in order to launch her limited-edition collection of prints and furniture from the ‘Asia Pop’ series at Kaizen Design Accents, the home furnishing and accessories store at Chamiers, where it will be on display for the next three months.

An interesting aspect of this series is the way it melds together stylised imagery from all these Asian countries in a way that’s surprisingly seamless. Bollywood motifs, Malaysian street signs, Buddhist temple images, advertisements from Singapore, Hindu gods, Chinese lettering; you’d think these elements wouldn’t make sense together in one frame, but they end up reminding us of the cross-cultural currents that have always existed among these countries, instead.

“A lot of paths converge in these countries. The boundaries that exist today weren’t always there, but we’re so locked into our current realities that we forget that,” she comments. “Unless we get our act together and stop squabbling, the Asian narrative won’t form a strong enough counterweight to the Western.”

Building all these complex narratives into our domestic spaces is something of a specialty of Ketna’s. “I’m very conscious of the fact that the world of art is straitjacketed by the traditional art gallery scene,” Ketna says. “But home is where the individual narrative starts; it’s where we collect memories and energise ourselves. Why do we need to visit an elitist platform to see art?

Ask her why she chooses to put her art onto armchairs and coffee tables, and she counters, “Well, why should kitchen cabinets and coffee tables have blank surfaces? We end up often with very brown interiors. And brown isn’t even a proper colour. It’s the colour of refuse, really.”

Her works, on the other hand, are a burst of bright hues, reds, yellows and pinks. And they’re filled with fun, colourful characters, like the very, very old tourist guide at Jodhpur Palace whom no one can understand but everyone listens to anyway out of respect; and the sassy young Kutchi construction worker with an attitude who tells you in a speech bubble, “I am a goddess and you are a loser. Any questions?”

Her style, and in particular this popular Asian series of artwork has led some people to dub her the ‘Andy Warhol of Asia’. Tell her this, and she seems mildly horrified. “Really?” she says eyes wide, as husband Jonathan starts laughing. Then she considers it for a moment. “Well, I suppose it’s a bit of a compliment, isn’t it?” she says.

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Heterotopia

Ketna Patel’s current project is a more overtly political series of works that, in her words, take a dig at what’s happening in the world. Titled Heterotopia, it combines Renaissance art and current-day political realities in a way that’s both cheeky and hard-hitting. A sample: a reimagining of the Last Supper with politicians seated at the table, eating junk food and surrounded by litter.