Ali Akbar Mehta – Artist statement 2015-16

He is a Contemporary Artist working in diverse media ranging from oil painting and drawing to digital painting, photography, video, documentation and archival work.

His art practice has been concerned with creating new archetypal images involving Contemporary and Hybrid Mythologies, investigating the themes of the Hero and his/her position in contemporary society, the nature of violence, and identity. The concept of the mythic Hero and the link with a radical, transformational violence has fascinated him ever since his childhood involvement with graphic novels, cartoons and comics. A great deal of his visual vocabulary has been influenced by science fiction, manga, animation, cinema, music, mythology, philosophy and cultural anthropology.

He collaborates with robotic engineers, computer programmers, musicians, writers, theater and filmmakers and aims to found processes that would leave deep impacts on contemporary culture, technology and knowledge. He is also a poet.

In the last 10 years, he has established a multidisciplinary practice involving traditional drawing and painting, Digital painting, Photography and bookmaking. His background in 3D Animation, VFX and postproduction has facilitated an ability to support his Art practice forming a parallel body of work.

His desire to integrate these two streams of work have led to explorations in new directions of Transmedia performance installations, sound and video creation.

He is currently pursuing a Master’s Programme in Visual Contemporary Culture in Art at Aalto University’s Art, Design and Architecture Department, Helsinki, Finland; where he aims to explore digital technology in all its manifestations of audiovisual content creation, archival and documentation possibilities, and most importantly the hybridization of reality and sensory world building.

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Born August 1983.

BFA (Painting) Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai, 2005

MFA (ViCCA) Aalto University of Art, Design and Architecture, currently studying

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256 Million Colours of Violence, 2016

Visit the project: http://www.256millioncoloursofviolence.com

256 Million Colours of Violence is a survey based interactive archival research project that asks the participants to choose a colour that to them represents violence. The project started as a response to the specific events unfolding after the Malegaon Blasts 1 (2006, India). Now, a decade after the event, this response has grown to encompass several other events in a world that is radically changing.

An inquiry into colour can lead to multiple directions. Colour is troubled light – a violently oscillating frequency entering our optical system that is translated by the visual cortex of our brain. When Newton split light into the visible colour spectrum it was science.Colours have become symbolic of emotions and thoughts, taking on animate qualities and connotations that surpass their scientific properties. Colour is a central feature of social life yet its value in sociological theory is ambiguous. Colour in its perception is familiar and intuitive and subjective in its meaning where we seldom understand it beyond the parameters of our own consentual social reality.

The relationship between colour and perception is fundamental, and this project is an attempt to dismantle our selves through our understanding of colour. Perception is informed by Context. The human eye is capable of distinguishing millions of colours, but total objective colour acuity is a skill more rarified than perfect pitch (the ability to identify a single musical note without accompaniment). Most of us need context in order to make accurate colour recognition but when coupled with the proper context, we notice very subtle differences in hue, lightness, and intensity.

Colour and its perception are an unstable and contestable phenomenon shaped by personal memory and social and material factors. Similarly, Violence and its perception are an unstable and contestable phenomenon shaped by social and material factors. When colour is coupled with a subject as topical as violence, we probably have a deeply personal and unique emotional response to it. Most of us, having a sufficiently distinct understanding of things could probably assign a colour value in terms of a quick interface of the emotional quotient associated with it. This often cannot be verbalised but may be linked to a sensory memory or association – this kind of attribution is done not as an intuitive understanding but rather as a Pavlovian learning 2 or an acquired understanding. Despite having no inherited political value, colour can be made political through a sequence of contextual references. Colour can become a complex dataset presenting a person’s nuanced understanding of the world. The format of the survey is intended to gather this understanding.

Most Data mining exercises and empirical scientific surveys require a culled group in order to eradicate diversity, a standardisation of the test group to remove ‘noise’. ‘256 Million Colours of Violence’ is a celebration of that noise which represents the diversity of Human experience and collective memetic history. It is also part of an ongoing discourse to reduce effects of stereo-typification through personal scrutiny of the word and meanings of ‘Violence’ by asking how is the narrative experience of colour embodied, embedded and extended in the contexts of these meanings.

The aim of the Project is also to make the participant aware, or conscious of his/her decision regarding their choice by embedding it within series of contexts. Choice here is an active participation as well as a subliminal interfacing of several seemingly disconnected values.

Political parties and media are comfortable with the political position of attributing ‘no colour’ on religious, community or ideology based acts of violence so as to avoid issues of colour associations and its apparent, actual or perceived impacts on society. The inherent logic of the project takes their view and reverses it by stating that “Violence has a colour – it is a value of an acquired understanding unique to each individual.” The project is an artist experiment based on no previous survey or standardisation. The choice of the participants are purely their own, which is to say formed by unique combination of various elements such as parenting, religion, gender, social circles, peer group and education to name a few.

The project is addressing the notion of freely given information, conditional agreements and consent – to corporations and governments, as opposed to an artist project; that an artist may be require to profile its participants in itself seems like a joke. The survey hints at issues pertaining to equality of gender, skin colour, race and ethnicity; questions privilege, social class and problems of minimum income as well as confronts through inquiry the political-religious-socio-economic quadrangle as a constant existence in our lives today. It also acts as an introductory archive of several streams of information, and as such occupies a paradoxical position making the viewer/participant both the giver and receiver of information, if they so wish.

To this end, the viewer/participant is confronted with a question:

What according to you is a colour of violence?

If I ask you this question, chances are that you already have a colour in mind. It’s probably a very strong colour, resonating with intensity of how important this question may be to you. You probably have a specific colour in mind, you just need to pinpoint it specifically to lock it down – to triangulate its position on the map of the colour chart, as it were.

This might be easy to do in a palette of 8, or 16, or even 64 shades. As a choice, it may even fit into a colour that may be generic template for the question – but what happens if you are confronted with a digital palette of 256 million colours 3? Is your particular tint/shade/hue the exact same tint/shade/hue as the one you had in your mind – is your black / saffron / green / white / red the same as another’s?

Ali Akbar Mehta
2016


    1. The Indian Connection – The Malegaon Bomb Blasts, 2006 and ‘Saffron Terror’:
      Saffron terror is a neologism used to describe acts of violence motivated by Hindu nationalism. The acts are allegedly perpetrated by members, or alleged members of Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Abhinav Bharat. However, in some cases the motivation for the acts has not been clearly determined, and in others it has been determined to be unrelated to Hindu nationalism. The term comes from the symbolic use made of the saffron color by the Hindu nationalist organisations.
      The first known use of the term ‘Saffron Terror’ is from a 2002 article in Frontline. However it was in the aftermath of the 29 September 2008 bomb blast in the predominantly Muslim town of Malegaon in Maharashtra that it came to be used widely. In late 2008, Indian police arrested members of a Hindu terrorist cell allegedly involved in Malegaon blast. The blame for several of these attacks had been placed on radical Islamist groups.
      Former Home Minister of India P. Chidambaram urged Indians to beware of “Saffron terror” in August 2010 at a meeting of state police chiefs in New Delhi.
      Since that remark was made, a Hindu Swami in the Patan district has filed a defamation lawsuit against Chidambaram, saying that the saffron color is symbol of Hindu religion and that saints across the country wear attire of the same color. The Swami also said that saffron was a symbol of peace, sacrifice and God, and that Chidambaram has hurt the sentiments of Hindus by linking the symbol with terrorism. On 6 September 2010, a Gujarat court ordered a probe into the use of the term by Chidambaram. Chidambaram was also criticised by members of his own party (the Indian National Congress) for the use of the term.
      “Saffron or bhagwa or kesariya (Hindi equivalents of saffron) is not the issue here. The issue is terrorism. Terrorism does not have any colour other than black,” said Janardan Dwivedi, Congress general secretary and head of the party’s media department.
      Making plain the party’s disapproval of Chidambaram’s controversial formulation, Dwivedi said terrorism could not be associated with any color, “be it saffron, green, white or red”. He further said, “Terrorism is terrorism and should be opposed in whatever form it comes.” Significantly, he also stressed that “saffron colour has been part of our ancient tradition and is associated with our freedom struggle”.
      Home minister P Chidambaram did not exactly use the phrase ‘saffron terrorism’ but made it clear it was not his patent and in the past UPA and Congress leaders have found it quite expedient to refer to ‘saffronisation of education’ to target the previous NDA government.
      While vowing that he would follow the ‘party line’ as supreme, the minister said there were right-wing extremist groups and the message that they could be capable of violence should not be lost in phrases. He said, “Perhaps the use of that phrase has brought home the message. So, the purpose, in a way, has been served.”
    2. A method to cause a reflex response or behaviour by training with repetitive action. The Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov conditioned dogs to respond in what proved to be a predictable manner.
    3. Photoshop has a digital palette of 256 Million Colours.

Not on Noah’s Ark, but on the Raft of the Medusa:

Recent Works by Ali Akbar Mehta

 

Normality is the somewhat misleading name that many of us give to the present. It is often the only means of remaining sane while enduring the abrupt horrors and dehumanising provocations that surround us. The artist, however, is not obliged either to neutralise himself to these horrors and provocations; nor is he afraid of exploring the regimes of consciousness that lie beneath the sanctioned threshold of sanity.

And so the jesters, harlequins, cerecloth-swaddled zombies and explosion- flayed refugees who populate Ali Akbar Mehta’s paintings and digital works are not strangers. Not at all, for we know them intimately well, these figures who dominate the 1983-born Mehta’s first solo exhibition: they are ourselves an hour from now, a decade from now, in the near future, or at any moment. Allegories of the present, veiled thinly as a post apocalyptic future, Mehta’s works alternate, tonally, between melancholia and the ludic, between Lent and Carnival. They emerge from a long tradition of critique-through-image that turns our conventions of time, space, gravity and propriety topsy-turvy: a tradition that counts, among its major exponents, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel.

On the testimony of these works, produced between 2006 and 2011, Mehta is an explorer charting a demon-haunted world that balances precariously between compassion and oppression, instability and militarisation; the mushroom cloud of nuclear annihilation is always billowing on its horizon.

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Mehta is a member of what has been called the generation of ‘digital natives’, who grew up with personal computers, wireless telephony, and electronic retrieval systems of every size and scale. The translation of substance into immaterial form is a basic parameter of the lifeworld he inhabits; with it comes the understanding that data flows rather than being confined, and that images and episodes too are part of ongoing, vast narratives rather than remaining in guarded pools.

Having been exposed to animation as a creative form in his parents’ animation studio, Mehta also embraces comic books, graphic novels, manga and anime as cultural resources.

Ali Akbar Mehta_Harlequin Series; To Glory in Self, like some kind of New Monster, 2010, Archival print on Hahnemuhle paper, 182 x 121 cm

Naturally, then, Mehta is fascinated by the figure of the superhero: who is supremely powerful yet deeply vulnerable, benevolent yet sinister, weighed down by the knowledge of humankind’s ultimate fate yet aware of his role as a guardian of hope and renewal. If the archetype of the great hero enshrines the spirit of indomitable resilience, it also incarnates all the freight of fear and paralysing anguish to which humankind is heir. In many of Mehta’s figures, the ligaments are stretched, the bone is set at breaking point. Indeed, in Mehta’s handing, the body is often an unsettling hybrid of muscular presence and spectral apparition: it is made, seemingly, of ectoplasm or pulp that has momentarily assumed a shape which it may lose without notice.

In Mehta’s imagery of the suffering yet defiant body, we may detect an act of homage to his grandfather, the legendary artist Tyeb Mehta. We find this especially in the trussed figure, suspended from ropes, more prisoner than marionette and hung above the abyss, in ‘The Identity of Violence Series: Suffering and Rapture’(2010). That homage also animates the figure that has been twisted, knotted, folded double in ‘Triptych’ (2007) and jammed into the cage formed by the frame of the canvas.

Ali Akbar Mehta_The Identity of Violence Series; Sacrifice and Redemption, 2010, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 182 x 121 cm

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Mehta’s preparatory process involves a theatre-like ‘characterisation’ of his protagonists: a detailed imagining of their ‘inner lives’, a fleshing-out of their ‘back stories’, a calibration of their emotional temperature based on episodes deemed to have taken place in the past of their fictive present scenarios. As in theatre, this characterisation is not made wholly explicit in the articulated form of the work; nor is it meant to be. Rather, it serves the artist as the substance that confers reality upon his characters, and is the continuing material substrate from which his images and the narratives that concern them will be conjured.

Mehta delights in portraying quixotic figures of unpredictable motivation as they move through the columned halls and terraces of normality, replacing these with the weaving shapes of hallucination and phantasmagoria.

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Among his protagonists are the jester and the harlequin: the first permitted to speak truth to power, although in politically sanctioned satire and allegory; the second a shape-shifting trickster who celebrates all that is chaotic and out of joint. Accordingly, the artist favours a pictorial space that is psychedelic, its emphasis laid on the play of strange lights and pulsating auras. Indeed, to this observer, his canvases articulate the ominous psychological freight of Bikash Bhattacharya’s paintings of the 1970s.

Humankind lurches from one crisis to the next in Mehta’s post-apocalyptic ecologies, with little chance of redemption. We find predators and victims, survivors and demons, all conjoined in a common destiny, all adrift: not on a Noachic Ark so much as on a Gericauldian Raft of the Medusa. In the painting that gives this exhibition its title, ‘The Ballad of The War That Never Was’ (2010), one of the key figures is modelled on the Deposition, the enduring moment when the crucified Christ is taken down from the cross, except that this figure has no hope of resurrection; another figure in this tableau is based on Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’, except that the banner is fraying, torn to pieces by the wind.

Ballad of The War That Never Was, 2011, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 152 x 198 cm

 

Or, as with the close-packed figures in ‘War’ (2011), screaming as they flail, wrestle and fall together in a grand tapestry of the damned, Mehta’s figures strike us as a contemporary version of Dante’s eternally condemned figures in the Inferno or Michelangelo’s in the Sistine ‘Last Judgement’. The mode of the history painting manifests itself again and again in Mehta’s work, through allusion and citation. But the inspired certitudes of history painting and its heroic belief in the ability of the human will to dominate all circumstance have yielded, in Mehta’s paintings, before a more tragic awareness of human fragility. This artist does indeed take man as the measure of all things, in the classical humanist formulation; but man is here a strained measure, bent under pressure. Precisely for this reason, Mehta’s protagonists speak to us of our own anxieties and exhilarations, sing to us of our own at-once epic and intimate predicaments.

 

Ranjit Hoskote

Mumbai

2011

Pudding Manifesto for Togetherness

The Pudding manifesto (2016) is a collaborative performance installation in which is embedded a manifesto that presents in satirical humour the benefits of consuming a magical pudding that will change people, a pledge signing and a subsequent serving of Rice pudding. The pudding has a history spanning several civilisations and culture, and here we are creating a hybrid pudding based on Syrian and Finnish recipes, as a conjoining of two ways of eating and therefore a symbolic act of consumption becomes an innovative catalyst for the otherwise rhetorical discourse on refugee integration and assimilation into the homogenous social soup.

Installation view

In the post-Cold War world flags count and so do other symbols of cultural identity, including crosses, crescents, and even head coverings, because culture counts, and cultural identity is what is most meaningful to most people. People are discovering new but often old identities and marching under new but often old flags which lead to wars with new but often old enemies. One grim Weltanschauung for this new era was well expressed by the Venetian nationalist demagogue in Michael Oibdin’s novel, Dead Lagoon: “There can be no true friends without true enemies. Unless we hate what we are not, we cannot love what we are. These are the old truths we are painfully rediscovering after a century and more of sentimental cant. Those who deny them deny their family, their heritage, their culture, their birthright, their very selves! They will not lightly be forgiven.” 

In the post-Cold War world, the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural. Peoples and nations are attempting to answer the most basic question humans can face: Who are we? And they are answering that question in the traditional way human beings have answered it, by reference to the things that mean most to them. People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions. They identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations. People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity. We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.

Food has always operated in circulation between the local and the global, migration and resettlement and, with its power in defining and performing social meanings, served to construct notions of home and cultural otherness. Perhaps it can also create notions of togetherness. We don’t need politics of unification – we need politics of togetherness.

Rice Pudding is a dish made from rice mixed with water or milk and other ingredients such as cinnamon and raisins. Recipes can greatly vary even within a single country. Names of Rice Pudding in the world (alphabetical order):

Arroz con leche, Arroz con dulce, Arroz en leche, Arroz doce, Arroz de leite, Arroz-esne, Banana rice pudding, Bubur Sumsum, Budino di Riso, Сутлијаш or Благ ориз, Сутлијаш/Sutlijaš, Сутляш or Мляко с ориз, Dudhapak, Firni, Grjónagrautur, Ketan hitam , Kheer, Kiribath, Milchreis, Mlečni riž or Rižev pudding, Mliečna ryža, Moghli, Morocho, Muhalibiyya, Молочна рисова каша, Orez cu lapte, Payasam, Phinni/Paayesh, Pudding Orez, Pulut hitam, Ρυζόγαλο, Рисовый пудинг Risovwe pudding, Riisipuuro, Rijstebrij, Rijstpap, Risgrynsgröt, Risengrød, Risengrynsgrøt, Riz au lait, Riz bi haleeb, Riža na mlijeku Ryż na mleku, Shir-berenj, Shola-e zard, Şorbeşîr, Sütlaç, Sutlija, Sutlijas, Sylt(i)jash or Qumësht me Oriz, Tameloriz, Tsamporado, Teurgoule, Tejberizs and Zarda wa haleeb.

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Pudding Manifesto for Togetherness

Pudding Manifesto: Pledge

Other Readings:

Eating Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Food, Tobias Döring, Markus Heide, Susanne Muehleisen, 2003

Food Is Culture, Massimo Montanari, Columbia University Press.

A Companion to the Anthropology of Europe By Ullrich Kockel, John Wiley & Sons, 2015

Clash of Civilisations, Samuel P. Huntingdon

Design as Art, Bruno Munari, Penguin Adult, 2008

Artist Statement

I am a Transmedia Contemporary Artist exploring digital technology in its manifestations of audiovisual content creation, archival and documentation possibilities, and most importantly the hybridization of reality and sensory world building. My practice is formulated across diverse media involving drawing and painting, digital painting, photography, bookmaking, video, data mining, documentation and archival work. My background in 3D Animation, VFX and postproduction has facilitated an ability to support my Art practice forming a parallel body of work. I regularly collaborate with robotic engineers, computer programmers, musicians, writers, theater and filmmakers and I aim to found processes that would leave deep impacts on contemporary culture, technology and knowledge.

My practice is concerned with collective memetic history, narratives of memory and identity formations in relations to the ‘Other’, making visible silenced histories of violence and trauma by encoding new archetypes, hybrid mythologies, and culture jamming. My work, by shifting from practice of image-making, to that of knowledge production, confronts through inquiry the political-religious-socio-economic quadrangle as a constant existence of our lives and investigates the themes of the Hero and his/her position in contemporary society, the nature of violence, and identity; and attempt to reconcile and/or disrupt histories with necessary counter-perspectives.

Violence and its perception are an unstable and contestable phenomenon shaped by social and material factors – a fundamental condition ‘lodged in the core of human experience.’  It is simultaneously private, public, self-intimating and collective. Although trauma manifests as a physical, emotional and psychological bodily sensation, its measurability, locus and description remain ambivalent. As an intangible concept, trauma is thus difficult to define, as it ‘has no referential content,’ and resists objectification in language. Since the experience and interpretation of pain is highly subjective, its representation translates invariably between individuals, societies and cultures. Its depiction or its narration then, has the potential to serve many symbolic and metonymic functions, as a document, a record, a vision, a fact, a possibility, which can be judged, critiqued and understood within the context of its presentation. Though my work, I attempt to understand how the narrative experience of Violence, Trauma and Pain are embodied, embedded and extended in the contexts of these meanings and find ways to confront the potency of a (post) conflict space down to its basic vocabulary out of the need to ensure narratives are not erased or rendered invisible.

I am currently pursuing a Master’s in Visual Contemporary Culture in Art at Aalto University’s Art, Design and Architecture Department, Helsinki, Finland.

I live and work in Helsinki and Mumbai.

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Born August 1983.

BFA (Painting) Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai, 2005

MFA (ViCCA) Aalto University of Art, Design and Architecture, currently studying