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Pop art at the crossroads between worlds with Ketna Patel

Born in 1968, Ketna Patel  is a British-Indian contemporary pop artist based in Singapore. She has lived in three different continents: Africa; Asia; and Europe. She is of Indian descent but is born in East Africa and holds a British citizenship.

After graduating from The Architectural Association in London with a degree in architecture, Ketna Patel moved to Singapore to begin her career as an architect. Afterwards, a disillusionment with the corporate world led her on a journey of metaphysical exploration, when she started questioning her existence, her place in the world, and society in general. Having given up a corporate career, Ketna Patel then embarked on a career as an artist.

The art of Ketna Patel reflects much of her own personal journey as an outsider and global citizen, observing, discovering and embracing one’s cultural identity and the desire to belong to a community. Reflections of socio-political and cultural identity exploration in everyday life of today and yesterday are common themes portrayed through her art. Her mission is simply to communicate the story of the lesser-known individual within these landscapes. 

In addition to having won awards such as the ASEAN Art Award in 2002, Ketna Patel’s artwork has captured attention outside the arts circles. Most recently, her Asia Pop collection was used as inspiration for fashion label AllDressedUp’s Spring/Summer 2010 collection. Ketna Patel has recently been featured in Bridget Tracy Tan’s ‘Women Artists of Singapore’ published by Select Books, Singapore.


1. Do you consider yourself as a figure of Contemporary Art ?

Ketna Patel : I feel that the term ‘Contemporary Art’ has become conveniently generalized, and often avoids the reflection and rethinking that is needed to understand our increasingly complex world.  Others call me ‘contemporary Artist’, but I straddle many realms that are independent of each other, yet connected through my world perspective.  These are:  Studio Artist, Designer, Observer / Traveller, Activist, Student, Communicator.

I think society exists in a ‘Heterotopic’ space today where Art can and should be categorized in ways that go beyond the contemporary!  We need a better critique of what Art is, and sometimes, words and limp definitions simply get in the way.


2. How would you describe your style ?

 Ketna Patel : Global. Pop. Fluid. Chameleon. Relative.

Princess Elizabeth and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, pose with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and other members of the royal family at Buckingham Palace, after their wedding, 20th November 1947. The two pageboys are Elizabeth's cousins, Prince William of Gloucester and Prince Michael of Kent, and the eight bridesmaids are Princess Margaret, Princess Alexandra of Kent, Lady Caroline Montagu-Douglas-Scott, Lady Mary Cambridge, Lady Elizabeth Lambart, Pamela Mountbatten, Margaret Elphinstone and Diana Bowes-Lyon. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


3. Could you tell us about your experience ?

Ketna Patel : We are a product of our conditioning and of original thought. For the former, my experience is my Indian background that I wear on me like a snail with a shell. Growing up in Kenya, East Africa, I always felt like I could not quite relate to all the people I was exposed to, and my inner world seemed larger than my outer. This gave way to creativity; to make things out of nothing. I was fascinated by human behaviour, and conveyor belt type lives where many individuals seemed like walking templates. It made me wonder about the opposite! Some people call it Philosophy – my favourite subject. So I was attracted to subjects that combined aesthetics and visceral expression with the rigour of thought, analysis and contemplation of life.

I studied Art, Interior Design and Architecture for a decade in London, and moved to Singapore to work as an Architect. Being trapped in an office all day for a few years brought out the rebel in me, and since then, I have become an official member of that expanding tribe of Global, cultural chameleons! Like many of us, I also belong to The older I become, all the ‘external labels’ of country, culture, nationality etc. seem to matter less compared to the geography inside of us.


4. Does your dual nationality nurture your worldview ?

Ketna Patel : Absolutely.  Most of my acute realizations taken place when I am on the ‘bridge’ between things, places and people.  That middle space which is often invisible, overlooked, taken for granted or neglected. I am an indian who grew up in Africa, and yet have had a British passport all my life. All my extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins etc. live in London, and I am very close to them. Through them, I see how the British – East African – Gujarati diaspora works, and that has made me sensitive and therefore attracted to other diasporas. All my life, I seem to have constantly oscillated from ‘first world’ to ‘third world’; poverty to wealth; chaos to over systematization.  It is in these contrasts that the wealth of my observations lie.


5. You’re living in Singapore, a good crossroad in Asia…

Ketna Patel : Singapore has been the longest I have lived anywhere, and it will always feel like home. For more than two decades, it has been the launchpad into countless travels; a myriad of lives and cultures, and has been the most cosmopolitan experience of my life thus. This is where I really discovered ‘Asia’, and ‘Asians’.  This is also where I made my closest friendships, many of which are all over the world today, and refreshed constantly.


6. Your indian roots definitely reflect in your work, it could be considered as a tribute ?

Ketna Patel : My ‘Indianess’ is such a fundamental part of me. Having cultural and linguistic access to one of the most ancient living civilizations in the world is a source of immense joy, but also a responsibility for the ‘story telling’ part of me.   Even when the experiences in India have been painful, the life lessons embedded within are throbbing with human vitality, teaching me about the shades of grey between the dark and light sides of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. I love delving into India’s history; its mythology and symbolism, and simultaneously partaking in its bewildering present day paradoxes. India and being Indian has been the biggest teacher of humility for me, and has helped me to see the whole world as a ‘stage set’, with each of our metaphysical experiences within this world as being temporal and fleeting. Its not what we do that matters so much as the state of consciousness we are in when we live our lives. That has made me see almost everything as a grand allegory, with myself being the metaphor.


7. Do you think that Art is fulfilling yet a specific mission nowadays ?

Ketna Patel : Art and the ‘value’ of Art, combined with the rigging of the presentation of Art indicates tremendous manipulation. Art also seems to have become a fashion. The ‘platforms’ that Art has to sit on in order for it to reach an audience is quite problematic in that direct communication between the Artist and the audience has been impeded by the agents in between. Even if their intentions are sincere, crazy costs get in the way, and sales and marketing becomes pre-meditated, and increasingly loses its freshness and innocence. Capitalism is killing Art, for true Art expression requires freedom. For example London has become too expensive for an artist to have a full time regular Arts practice. Artists need to be largely free to comment, criticize, make Art. Instead, I see many Artists forced to ‘hustle’ so that they can make their ends meet.  Also, there is a lot of ‘fake it until you make it’ going on….



8. Which artists have a deep impact on you work ?

Ketna Patel : The famous names are important as bookmarks in the narration of our human history, but these tend to be largely western, so apart from an educational, appreciative and respectful acknowledgement. It is Art coming out of the marginalized communities that I am fascinated by. Many a time, it is the ‘unknown’ tribal or folk artist and their expressions who leave the most lasting impressions on me. For e.g Indian truck art, graffiti by Palestinians in Israel, African street signs, newspaper caricatures, aboriginal art etc. Often, my compositions fuse both the sensibilities of ‘high art’ and ‘marginalized art’ resulting in what has been defined as ‘Pop’ Art.

Literature, more than visual Art also moves and influences me greatly. I am attracted by philosophy, so naturally gravitate towards the road less traveled; to individuals who do not have to belong to a group or organization or club to feel rooted. Forever trying to figure out how much of me is conditioned and how much original, and I delight in stumbling across / resonating with words from a book, a heartfelt story, a human wavelength that can explore the abstract; the mystical; the comic.



 9. What’s your relationship with colors ?

Ketna Patel : Every emotion, person, experience, culture, smell and memory comes with associative colours, so to ‘unpack’ these intuitively is like second nature. Colour is frozen energy; compressed emotion. I grew up with very strong expressions of colour surrounding me; from the kenyan kitenge cloth and the masaai tribes, to the sarees and clothes of the Gujarati Indian community I hail from. I use colour very deliberately in my compositions; to highlight the passion, politics and tension behind each narrative. Often, the artworks appear very ‘pretty’, but are laden with subtext and darkness upon closer inspection.


10. What kind of materials do you use ?

Ketna Patel : A lot of my work involves re-composing photographs from my travels, so my studio is often my computer! However, I love getting my hands dirty too, and this can be with found objects, paint, textiles, car bonnets….absolutely anything and everything!

300 bpi lr - 3.5 height 150610

300 bpi lr – 3.5 height 150610

11. Do you travel often ?

Ketna Patel : Yes. At least half my time seems to be ‘on the road’ or in temporary studios.


12. What is your favorite memory as an artist ?

Ketna Patel : Walking through places with strong history. Varanasi, Venice, Balbeck in Lebanon, Jerusalem, Cairo, Petra (Jordan), Cuba, Borobodur (Indonesia) to name a few. My emotional experiences are always heightened in spaces that have been painted with the patina of ‘time’.


13. Have you ever worked with fashion designers ?

Ketna Patel : Yes.  A Fashion label called ‘Alldressedup’ in Singapore recently worked with me for their spring summer collection, which was shown in 25 countries.  A fun project!


 14. Are you an optimist by nature ?

 Ketna Patel : But of course!


15. What are your future plans ?

Ketna Patel : For many years now, I have been witnessing the increasing urbanization of human society, and all the repercussions this brings.  For e.g, my studio in India is in Pune, one of the fastest growing cities.  There is a lot to analyze from just what is happenning there.

In India, where 75 % of people live in villages, 30 people leave rural environments to move to cities. What will this do to our national identity? Our policy makers seem to measure everything in terms of jobs and GDP and other such data. What about the loss in wisdom, local knowledge, our individual dignities? Rampant migration anywhere has a huge impact, and this is my main subject of enquiry.  My suitcase is always packed and on standby!


More about Ketna Patel : www.ketnapatel.com

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