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Confetti - Do It For Real

Interview: Hetain Patel

1 July 12 interview: Darcy Summerton

Since graduating from Nottingham Trent at the turn of the century, Hetain Patel – currently exhibiting at the New Art Exchange - has become one of the strongest voices in British art by drawing upon his Indian heritage, not to mention his own skin...

What motivated you to become an artist?
It was always something I loved and was actually good at. I had great art teachers from primary school onwards who pushed and inspired me. I guess it was less about the idea of being an artist and more the idea of being free to create something.

When did you start drawing on yourself?

It was towards the end of second year at uni. I used to do a lot of sculptural works that involved me writing a lot of text - on paper, or masking tape - and then sculpted them into objects. No matter how much I wrote, it was never enough. Then one morning I just started writing on my hand, and then on my arm, and that really felt quite cathartic. If I’m honest, it was from a hangover.

How hard is it to write on your body? Do you need help?
It’s important that I do it myself; it’s about me marking myself, my identity, a second skin of some sort. It’s not as hard as you might think: I use my right hand for most of it, and then I change to my left hand which takes more concentration. I also use a mirror.

Much of your work has involved images of yourself. Do you have to be quite narcissistic, or has it become easier to disengage from images of yourself?
I don’t really connect those images with me anymore, because in some ways it’s not a picture of me. It’s not me relaxing on the sofa with my family or friends – everything’s constructed and framed. So when I look at the image, I’m seeing it as a whole. I engage more with the composition and the colour and where it fits the concept.

What’s taken you away from self-portraiture?
What I’m doing now feels like a progression or the next stage of my work. It’s still really the same thing, the starting point is still about cultural identity. My earlier works were about exploring my own questions in order to understand myself. In this exhibition the move is almost trying to learn something about myself through the interaction of others. It’s a different way to engage with issues about yourself by how you interact with the people close to you. I’m also moving more towards looking at the body’s identity.

Your At Home exhibition at the NAE - what’s the story?
My previous photography and video works had an almost exotic veneer to them, all sleekly shot on a studio background. Now I’m interested in the domestic environment: partly because it feels more real and also it because at the moment it’s where my studio is. It’s about looking at where my home life and my studio life meet and if there’s even a difference  between them. The exhibition features my wife, dad, grandmother and mum, so it’s about home in the traditional sense. Then obviously with it being here in Nottingham, where I started my art career - NAE have been a big support since the start.

You've produced photographs, video and live performance. Which one are you most comfortable with?
I don’t have a preference, to be honest. The more media I experiment with, it just widens my palette and exercises my thinking and creative output in different ways. With some work I don’t know how I should present them, so I’ll try all methods to see which is more appropriate.  With photography I’m incredibly seduced by the quality of imagery you can achieve quite easily. With video I love how easy it is to film in HD now, I also love editing and visualising playing with time; I can play with time in a performative way like I do in my exhibitions. But then there’s something really addictive about performing to a live audience and getting feedback.

Loads of people will painting themselves this month, of course. What’s your take on the English nationalist fervour that comes and goes when the international football is on?
I think it’s great for people to be proud in their national identity. The only time I fear it is when it becomes violent or intimidating. I’m not gonna lie; if I see a guy without a shirt who is painted with the English flag, I’m scared and I’m intimidated. I’ll probably avoid that person, which is a shame - they don’t necessarily fit that stereotype, but football hooliganism gives a lot of people a bad name. Equally, a lot of my friends are incredibly proud to be English and they express it differently.

The general assumption of the Indian community in the UK is that they have adapted to British life whilst retaining a strong cultural identity. Your art seems to be saying that your generation is losing sight of that...
There’s such a spectrum of people in my generation in terms of their attachment, or not, to their heritage. There are some who are hardcore and very religious, whilst others deny it completely - I’m somewhere in the middle.  I think our generation will choose things that makes sense to them from their heritage, for example, respect for your elders, the hard work ethic, how you treat people. You can choose what adds to your life in a positive way. Its evolution, a natural progression.

How important are organisations like the NAE? Is there a danger that artists from a minority background are being marginalised by having their own space?
Of course, there’s always that danger nationally and internationally - one of my fears is being typecast. Ultimately, the way to combat it is through the quality of work: with the NAE it’s about how they create a programme and who they show. If they were showing crappy artists because of their ethnicity, then that’s a problem - but if they are showing an artist like Rashid Rana whose a worldwide star making amazing art, then it’s different. I would be uncomfortable if I only showed works in contexts and theatres that are about cultural specifics, most of my work is actually shown outside of this bracket.

In your current exhibition, you reference Spiderman...
Spiderman is it, man! I was sucked into the way he was created. Stan Lee wanted to create someone that, in a way, was the antithesis of Superman; an ordinary, geeky nerd that I completely was, and probably still am. That never really leaves you. I can also relate to it in an identity perspective way; the idea that you put on a mask and pretend to be someone else and being seen as two very different things, even though you are the same person. I’ve also referenced Bruce Lee in At Home, that again comes from wanting to identify with someone - as a skinny kid, seeing someone who was a martial artist and a skinny guy, it was great. And at the time when he was massively popular in this country there was a lot of racism, but there were so many people still going to see him and thinking he was brilliant.

What advice do you give to aspiring artists?
You have to want it, and you have to have self-discipline. Most of the time at uni you might have one or two lectures and the rest of it is self-directed studio time, and it’s easy to sit at home on your arse and get away with it if you want. But if you can get up and go to the studio, make work and get excited by it, then when you leave you’ll have no problem. So a mixture of actually making work and making it visible in anyway that you can: a website, a blog, sending stuff out, exhibiting it in anyway you can and then being proactive. Professionally as well; introducing yourself to galleries, going to openings and networking events. Get in touch with me, if you want. I always wanted to get in touch with artists as a student, but I never would. I’m on Facebook - the show’s free, and I’m interested in feedback.

Hetain Patel At Home, the New Art Exchange, until 14 July

Hetain Patel website

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