The Fallacies of Whiteness

The End of You, a postcard series by Divya Mehra for the CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco, is an artwork for our times. The series is based on cartoonist Skip Morrow’s 1983 book The End, in which people (all white) go about their daily business while atomic bombs explode in the background. In Mehra’s version, white people remain oblivious while people of color bear witness to the apocalypse.

The End of You adapts Morrow’s cartoon apocalypses to the pressing question of who is most impacted by disasters. COVID-19 statistics in the United States show that infection rates are disproportionately higher among people of color. In one postcard, a white man clutches a package of toilet paper in a convenience store while the Black female cashier observes the red mushroom cloud outside. The caption on the back, “This Is Important,” signals the disparity in priorities and privilege between the two figures.

While conceived in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the police murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter uprisings have made the work all the more relevant. As the Wattis website states, “Mehra reimagines Morrow’s cartoons for these end times, with BIPOCs being witness to the end of the world as white people carry on as usual […],” yet she “reminds us that in actuality our end began long, long ago.”

Divya Mehra, “This Is Important” from the series The End of You (2020) (image courtesy the artist)

For more than a decade, Mehra has examined individual and systemic racism in ways that are both incisive and funny. Her approach has garnered deserved recognition in recent years. In 2017 she was a finalist for the Sobey Award, Canada’s biggest contemporary art prize, and the next year she graced the cover of Canadian Art magazine. In early 2020 she received the Wanda Koop Research Award for a mid-career artist; in August her solo show, From India to Canada and Back to India (There is nothing I can possess which you  can not  take away), opened at the the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan; and a solo show opens at Night Gallery in Los Angeles in January 2021.

My introduction to Mehra came in 2017 when I covered Stages: Drawing the Curtain, a site-specific group exhibition presented by Plug-In Institute of Contemporary Art in her hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her contribution, “Nobody pray for me, the road to hell is paved with good intentions (Mapping Identity: The Challenges of Immigrant Culture)” (2017), was an illuminated Om symbol on a giant, bright red sign, fastened to a flatbed truck and driven around the city. 

The Instagram-friendly work hyperbolized the symbol’s appropriation by a largely white middle- and upper-class culture of health and wellbeing. Its route charted the city’s racial and class divisions. The title makes a more subtle point: both bad and good intentions can reinforce racism and oppression.

Divya Mehra, “Nobody pray for me, the road to hell is paved with good intentions (Mapping Identity: The Challenges of Immigrant Culture)” (2017), sculpture, intacel, led lighting and flatbed trailer (photo by Karen Asher, commissioned project for Plug In ICA, Winnipeg, Canada, as a part of STAGES)

While Mehra works to bring unconscious biases to light, her focus is not on fostering antagonism, but on opening a space for dialogue. Her humor coaxes audiences into a zone between comedy and commentary, where the desire to laugh overlaps with the moral and ethical implications of the laughter.

Her 2012 video, “On Tragedy (Did you hear the one about the Indian?),” part of the Art Breaks series commissioned by MTV in conjunction with Creative Time, brilliantly exemplifies this: the artist, in a casual white outfit, buys a vanilla soft-serve cone from a vendor outside the Guggenheim Museum, but before she can taste it, the comically tall ice cream plops to the ground. The piece spoofs a 1985 video by Richard Prince for the original Art Breaks series, in which Prince, holding his intact cone, calls himself “one of the best-kept secrets in the art world.”

Mehra’s slapstick ice-cream fail is clearly linked to her status as a woman of color and member of the North American diaspora, in contrast to Prince’s white American maleness. Less explicitly, the video centers the way whiteness lends itself to invisibility in Prince’s video and visibility in Mehra’s by juxtaposing her dark skin against the vanilla ice cream, white clothing, and concrete Guggenheim building.

Prince’s “neutral” status as a white man precisely allowed him to be a “secret in the art world.” In contrast, Mehra’s presence in the art world can never be a secret because, as a woman of Indian heritage, she is marked as Other — yet she can be marginalized or tokenized in a way Prince cannot.

Divya Mehra, “Without You I’m Nothing (Eating the Other)” (2015), neon sculpture, 42” x 42” x 3” (photo by Karen Asher, installed at window winnipeg, Winnipeg, Canada)

Mehra invoked the fallacy of whiteness as neutral in her 2017 exhibition at Georgia Scherman Projects in Toronto, You have to tell Them, I’m not a Racist. Dissecting both the imperialist roots of modern museums and the language of white supremacy, the show featured racist jokes and other micro- and macro-aggressions in English, along with specious Google translations in Hindi and French. The text was printed in white on white walls, introduced by the all-caps phrase “People of Color” (the work is titled “Currently Fashionable,” 2012/2017).

One text was a quote from a white woman at a clinic in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, who insisted her son see a white doctor. Another person in the waiting room filmed the incident, including responses — all from people of color.

The exhibition rightly indicts the woman, but the white-on-white presentation points to a broader issue — that for every outspoken racist, many others quietly seek out or create all-white communities. These insidious enclaves have helped orchestrate the rise of leaders who normalize and incite racial division, from Donald Trump to Manitoba’s Premier Brian Pallister, who has been accused of enabling systemic racism in the province, where violence against Indigenous communities remains rampant.

The Orientalist myth of “Indian-ness” — and the fantastical and reductive ways that colonizing cultures consume the Other — inform her current exhibition at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. The show’s point of departure is founder Norman MacKenzie (1869–1936), a local lawyer and apparently less-than-scrupulous, Indiana Jones-type antiquities collector.  

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)

Mehra became interested in an Indian statue that someone from Benares had stolen at MacKenzie’s behest. She discovered that, while catalogued as a likeness of the male god Vishnu, it was actually Annapurna, the Hindu goddess of food and nourishment. Mehra recommended the sculpture’s repatriation to India. The MacKenzie Gallery agreed, and a repatriation ceremony took place on November 19. (In a CBC interview, the MacKenzie’s interim executive director, John Hampton, credited Mehra for uncovering the status of the statue but not for the repatriation initiative.)

In the exhibition, a sandbag of equal weight  — a reference to Indiana Jones — replaces the statue,  calling attention to its illegal acquisition and the exploitative practices of Western collectors. The display also underscores the ways that distortion and erasure of cultural symbols, in this case by theft and miscataloguing, serve to control the narrative of the non-white Other.

The exhibition’s centerpiece is a bright green and red inflatable Taj Mahal titled “Afterlife of Colonialism, a reimagining of Power: it’s possible that the Sun has set on your Empire OR Why your voice does not matter: Portrait of an Imbalanced, and yet contemporary diasporic India vis-à-vis Colonial Red, Curry Sauce Yellow, and Paradise Green, placed neatly beneath these revived medieval forms: The Challenges of entering a predominately White space (Can you get this in the gift shop?) Where all Women and Magical Elephants may know this Work” (2019). (The title is updated each time the work is exhibited, Mehra explained, and previous titles are struck through.)

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)

In an interview for CBC Arts, Mehra discussed the Taj Mahal as a selfie destination for white Western tourists: “It becomes a backdrop for what is South Asian culture so that it looks like you’re the dominant object in it.” Reimagined as a kids’ bouncy house, it conjures the kind of malleable cartoon image that feeds the Western imagination. The colors, named “Jungle Vibe” and “Bazaar” by the manufacturer, reiterate this vision of the exotic Other, flattened into a Pantone swatch. 

Two more inflatable sculptures in her upcoming Night Gallery show depart from this critique to address individual and collective mourning. The show will feature 17-foot inflatable versions of an urn, modeled on the “urn” emoji, and “The Great Wave” (c. 1830–32) by Japanese artist Hokusai. 

Mehra offers a complex view of race and identity that supplants the myth of a monolithic Other. Yet she also posits that a collective “we” is necessary among people of color and other marginalized communities; to further the conversation about race, particularly in relation to art and culture, she and writers Amy Fung and Kim Nguyen have launched the online platform Bad Society, dedicated to providing a space for BIPOC voices in art criticism.

Divya Mehra,” Contemporary South Asian Art” (2019/2010), acrylic vinyl (Pantone 17-1328 TCX Indian Tan), dimensions variable (photo by Cory Aronec, installed at Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, Canada as part of Vision Exchange: Perspectives from India to Canada)

As the Bad Society Code of Ethics explains, “… the process of recognizing and dismantling privilege and power is long, complicated, and demands a willingness for critical reflection.”

In this time of emboldened racism, Mehra’s work encourages critical reflection. It redefines this collective “we” as not merely a voice of resistance against an oppressive majority, but as a multiplicity of voices that makes up the real majority.

Divya Mehra: From India to Canada and Back to India (There is nothing I can possess which you cannot take away) continues at the MacKenzie Art Gallery (3475 Albert Street, Regina, Saskatchewan) through January 2.

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