Street Smart art

28th January 2007

A young Indian woman, her head covered in a yellow sari, glances over her shoulder, a slight smile forming on her lips as if she knows a secret. Nearby, a Vietnamese gentleman stoops down on the floor with his conical non bai hat in hand. Beside these two is a neglected ivory building, paint chipping off its exterior.
And where might the Indian woman and the Vietnamese man be walking together? Actually, it’s in Asia Pop, a line of contemporary Asian art by Singapore-based artist Ketna Patel.
Asia Pop is Patel’s attempt to depict globalization visually. She places globalization on display through a myriad of colorful pieces, each depicting a tale set in Asian street culture. For Patel, “The street is the most transparent mirror of where a society is at.” For that reason, Asia Pop reflects street culture: an elderly Chinese gentleman at a kopitiam (the Hokkien term for coffee shop in Malaysia and Singapore); a girl’s foot adorned with mehndi; a lotus flower, Japanese script. These are in place of the glossy skyscrapers popping up in cities such as Bangalore and Hong Kong today.

Patel’s use of color is striking. She employs vibrant tangerines, fuchsias, scarlets and azures—hues inspired not only by saris and cheongsams, but also by Indian and Malaysian sweets such as jalebis and kueh (a Malay dessert made of colorful, gelatinous layers). One of Patel’s colleagues, Maggie Traynor, says that one of her favorite aspects of the Asia Pop line is Patel’s “bold use of complementary colors, where most artists would play it safe.”
Play it safe Patel does not. She’s incorporated her art—and those vibrant colors—into her décor as well, by transposing her art onto a couch, a daybed, a coffee table. “The home is the only place where we dare to be ourselves,” Patel explains. “I wanted to inject a social conversation in your very personal place.” But Patel also had another, more practical reason for bringing art back to the boudoir. “We live in such small places today and we have run out of surface areas in which we can express ourselves.” One expression is the bright aqua daybed with a huge Chinese fan across the head in her tiny Singapore studio apartment—“funky and modern” according to Adele Hetherington, a colleague.
But Asia Pop is about more than just the pretty colors. What Patel really wants is to “invoke a conversation with the viewer… to encourage self-reflection” on our evolving society. “We currently see more advertising than we do art. [Asia Pop] is a reflection of how I see the world changing … the world is interdependent economically, politically, socially.”

As Hetherington puts it, “initially, it is the color that draws you in but once you get there, there’s a story being told …. the story that each [piece] tells is really powerful. It shows that the truth of life is not just the good side of life.” An image of a come-hither Thai prostitute, for example, is juxtaposed with one of an innocent Chinese girl; it illustrates the dilemmas of an entire continent in which some nations are racing toward the status of global superpowers while others still seek to find a stable status in the international realm.
Patel’s use of street culture in Asia Pop also reflects the way Asia is changing. The story the pieces illustrate confronts an often glamorized marketing of Asia by the West—you won’t find bikini babes on Balinese beaches or jaunty elephants in Jaipur in Asia Pop.
In fact, Patel mentions reluctantly that she finds the current boom in development in India “a bit scary. There is a part of me that doesn’t agree with capitalism … India is on a conveyor belt right now but I am not sure if that is progress.” Her skepticism regarding commercialization in Asia has drawn her to preserve the simplicity of Asian culture. One imagines that the images Patel captures today are similar in many ways to impressions that a traveler would have captured 50 years ago trekking across Asia.

In fact, it is Patel’s own treks—in Singapore and across Asia—that inspire the images. She organizes the images in her studio and begins to “compose” her piece into “a visual jazz.” Then Patel incorporates both traditional and modern elements of art, utilizing both paint and digital photography and imaging to transfer the images onto silk-screened vinyl.
At the moment, Patel plans to add new pieces to the Asia Pop line for at least a few more years. Although she currently resides in Singapore, she is hardly settled there, frequently traveling the world to seek additional inspiration for her art and to chronicle the changing face of globalization.

By Sucheta Misra Read more

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