Playing with Refusal

Divya Mehra at the MacKenzie
By Hagere Selam “shimby” Zegeye-Gebrehiwot
Composite from Ladder: Installation view, Divya Mehra: From India to Canada and Back to India (There is nothing I can possess which you cannot take away), 2020, MacKenzie Art Gallery. Photo by Sarah Fuller. Image courtesy the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects.

Composite from Ladder: Installation view, Divya Mehra: From India to Canada and Back to India (There is nothing I can possess which you cannot take away), 2020, MacKenzie Art Gallery. Photo by Sarah Fuller. Image courtesy the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects.

From Canada to India and back to Canada (There is nothing I can possess which you cannot take away)
Artist: Divya Mehra
August 7, 2020 - January 2, 2021
The Mackenzie Art Gallery
Regina, Saskatchewan

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I moved to Regina a few months after the opening of Divya Mehra’s solo show From Canada to India and back to Canada (There is nothing I can possess which you cannot take away).

Her work evokes a deep sense of place and I felt like I needed to inhabit the show (read: research, think about, imagine) before visiting. I let the exhibition’s ambience wash over me before I went to see it, sometimes unintentionally, like the glow from its billboard outside my apartment window for nearly six weeks. I imagined the show as a diasporic middle ground providing room for both the physical and imaginary.

The first thing I noticed was the sound. It announced its presence before I knew what I was hearing. The anti-ambience emitted from a 3x horsepower electric blower that inflated a small bouncy castle rendition of the Taj Mahal.

Green and blue with red and burgundy details, the three-dimensional cartoon begged participation, which was thwarted by a “no jumping” sign.

Mehra had exhibited previous iterations of this work. By situating it within an ongoing practice of re-titling, the fifth iteration of Mehra’s Taj Mahal continued to reveal a broader context at the intersections of race, class, and place in the geography of art institutions (see image titles).

In this exhibition context, the scale of the piece inhabited the gallery with enough room for a person to encircle the inflatable, under the aegis of “no jumping”. The sign was a boundary laden presence in the show. Its text and graphic were explicit, clashing with the sense of entitlement of the man whose art menagerie had built the institution Mehra’s show exhibited within.

A gaffer tape dotted line circled the show. The path was inspired by a children's treasure map. Mehra’s sense of scale transformed the meandering experience from a pencil traced placemat to a contemplative stroll. The playfulness remained within its many twists and turns.

Installation view, Divya Mehra: From India to Canada and Back to India (There is nothing I can possess which you cannot take away), 2020, MacKenzie Art Gallery. Photo by Sarah Fuller. Image courtesy the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects.
Installation view, Divya Mehra: From India to Canada and Back to India (There is nothing I can possess which you cannot take away), 2020, MacKenzie Art Gallery. Photo by Sarah Fuller. Image courtesy the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects.

The exhibition was marked by a sense of critical play where an all-ages audience could interact with the pieces, but only in ways the artist permitted. I wonder if security guards thought that they had to act as referees. How often did security guards have to vigilantly monitor gallery patrons? What were the factors for screening out rule breaking players? A dotted line could be walked upon, but we were forbidden to jump on the hulking Taj Mahal.

Across the floor was an enlarged, 25th anniversary edition of Edward Said’s Orientalism. In past installations, the polyester book had been robustly inflated and propped upright on gallery floors. At the MacKenzie, the slouch of the fabric overshadowed the scale, and the insufficient inflation gave the book the appearance of a forgotten vestment. The drape of the book vs. the bright and taut take on the Taj - bouncy castle - Mahal was a nice contrast. I observed a few children playing with the newly defined, vertical terrain beneath the book. I copied the kids on my last visit to the show.

Divya Mehra, The World Isn’t a Fair Place: Just Barely Adrift on your perceived Cultural Landscape (The Browning of America and the Color of Crime), 2018, inflatable polyester book. Photo by Sarah Fuller. Image courtesy the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects.
Divya Mehra, The World Isn’t a Fair Place: Just Barely Adrift on your perceived Cultural Landscape (The Browning of America and the Color of Crime), 2018, inflatable polyester book. Photo by Sarah Fuller. Image courtesy the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects.

In the fall of 2019, Mehra spent time in the MacKenzie Gallery’s Archives in preparation for the exhibition. In the vaults, Mehra’s research led to a sculpture mis-catalogued as the God Vishnu. In addition, she found that the gallery’s founder, Norman MacKenzie had looted the work. Mehra contacted Siddhartha Shah, an expert in South Asian Art History to assist with the correct identification which was confirmed to be the deity Annapurna.

Mehra included Norman MacKenzie’s account of the theft under a vitrine with enlargements of the same text on the adjacent wall. Mehra omitted the image of Annapurna from the pages that described the theft and chose not to exhibit the Sculpture in the exhibition. Instead, she developed new work as well as a call to action for the institutional repatriation of Annapurna.

Norman MacKenzie, Idols: Hindustan, Thibet, Buhrma, China, Congo, c. 1920 - 1936. MacKenzie Art Gallery Reference Collection. Photo by Sarah Fuller. Image courtesy the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects.
Norman MacKenzie, Idols: Hindustan, Thibet, Buhrma, China, Congo, c. 1920 - 1936. MacKenzie Art Gallery Reference Collection. Photo by Sarah Fuller. Image courtesy the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects.

The burden that artists (who are not afforded the neutrality of whiteness or maleness) carry is that their work can be mobilized by institutions to prop up a facade of diversity that distracts from the systemic violence that is foundational to their structure.

Joshua Vettivelu, "When We Are Welcomed into The Fold, Where Do We Keep What Is Left Behind?" C Magazine, 2017.

The homecoming of the Annapurna statue is over a century past due. Without Mehra’s research-based arts practice as catalyst, the sculpture would have remained forgotten in the archives.

The deity is in the process of repatriation. Mehra’s research has become a footnote in the bilateral process she inspired. Her new work, There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away (Not Vishnu: New ways of Darsána), 2020 takes the form of a 2.4 lbs bag. Her sculpture is the same weight as the stolen Goddess. It has been acquired by the MacKenzie Gallery as the first in an edition of ten sculptures.

Divya Mehra, There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away (Not Vishnu: New ways of Darsána), 2020, coffee, sand, chamois leather, leather cord, metal grommets, 2.4 lbs. Photo by Sarah Fuller. Image courtesy the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects.
Divya Mehra, There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away (Not Vishnu: New ways of Darsána), 2020, coffee, sand, chamois leather, leather cord, metal grommets, 2.4 lbs. Photo by Sarah Fuller. Image courtesy the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects.
Mehra’s world-building enabled a critical sense of play, but you had to abide by the rules. The gallery was transformed into a soundstage by the jungle vine green and bazaar painted walls (the actual names of the paint). A green screen-like world building gave the work and the audience room to breathe but also a sense of the artificial. If you couldn’t play by Mehra’s rules, From Canada to India and back to Canada (There is nothing I can possess which you cannot take away) wasn’t meant for you.
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Hagere Selam “shimby” Zegeye-Gebrehiwot is an artist, writer and arts administrator based between Treaty 4 and Treaty 1 territories (sometimes addis or athens too…).
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