The Importance of Being Divya Mehra – Shawna Dempsey

The Importance of Being Earnest

Divya Mehra is funny. So it is not surprising that she is the only artist I know who begins her artist statement with a joke:

An Englishman, a Cuban, a Japanese man and a Pakistani were all on a train. The Cuban threw a fine Havana cigar out the window. When he was asked why, he replied: “They are ten a penny in my country.” The Japanese man threw an expensive Nikon camera out of the carriage, adding: “These are ten a penny in my country.” The Englishman then picked up the Pakistani and threw him out of the train window. When the other travellers asked him to account for his actions, he said: “They are ten a penny in my country.”

Now the joke is totally not funny. But it is a fitting introduction to Divya’s work, a body of photographic and video pieces that blend seeming naivety with cringe-worthy socio-political indictment. Her most recent vid, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is likewise a roller coaster ride of goofiness giving way to stomach-churning discomfort.

Divya often performs in her work. I first became familiar with it through the photo-series she created during the last year of her BFA at the University of Manitoba. Divya inserted herself into family portraits of the perfect white, middle class family. There she is at dinner, in the park, and on the tennis court: a short, awkwardly posed and beautifully round girl amidst towering, emotionless, pink people. The contrast is hilarious and its content clear: despite our “multi-culti” lip service, assimilation is still the name of the game, the key to “success”. And, as depicted by Divya, what a bland, heartless state to aspire to. Tennis anyone?

Her videos, likewise, reveal hypocrisy with humour. In her hands (and editing suite), pop culture icons are reframed to highlight the often-painful absurdity embedded in portrayals of racial otherness. She takes humiliating images that have been packaged as entertainment and playfully turns them upside down. By inserting herself into a redux-remake of Peter Seller’s infamous film “The Party”, she delivers a brilliantly succinct analysis of the film’s inherent racism. In “Like You”, Divya lip-synchs the Monkey King song from the “Jungle Book” while performing a soft-shoe shuffle, undermining this potential object position by the sheer force of her personality. It seems highly unlikely that this unselfconscious, self-possessed woman really wants to “be like you-oo-oo” or me. She’s got her own thing going on. In “Pants”, she redubs and resubtitles a Bollywood film of the ’70s, taunting the viewer with ethnic stereotypes while nonetheless exposing the difficult position of women in EVERY culture. The audio (in Punjabi) is a dialogue between two dufus guys describing the unruly nature of women in India; the subtitles (in English) describe the unruly nature of women in Canada.

Her latest piece, “The Important of Being Earnest”, is a response to the bombing in Mumbai. Like an earlier vid, “Wet Girl”, the soundtrack is stolen from a blockbuster kids’ flick of the ’90s. In this case, “The Importance of Being Earnest” features Divya lip-synching once again, this time to “A Whole New World”, the duet from Aladdin. The saccharine Disney animation from which the soundtrack is pulled is Orientalism at its finest and completely unselfconscious. Ah, those wacky brown-skinned folks, in a magically far away time and place (with the not so subtle subtext: where they belong). Divya mouths the female role with gusto, wind blowing through her hair, posed against picture-postcard images of the contested territory of Kashmir. “A whole new world! A dazzling place I never knew…”. And then, just when I was getting comfy, it turns ugly. The chroma keyed background shifts into images of bloody suffering as Divya keeps belting out a song that, in its original context, has the emotional weight of a piece of bubblegum stuck to the bottom of your shoe. “Unbelievable sights, indescribable feelings…”, yup, she’s got that right. Displacement, poverty, terrorism, warfare. And if for a moment I thought I could get away with mere pity, there is the map of India, before and after partition. Who has created this “whole new world” that plagues the Indian subcontinent with instability and violence? Oh, we did that. My darn, towering, emotionless pink ancestors cooked that one up. Colonization, anyone?

Divya’s arch dialogue and kitschy visuals are rooted in truths. These truths quickly turn my laughter queasy. I have participated; I am implicated. And yet, I have also been included.

There is a big-heatedness to this work. The eye candy and scathing critique overlay an emotional largess. By placing her vulnerable self in the images, she both implies and creates an empathy that runs two ways. These tapes have soul.

Fortunately for us, there’s lots of them. Divya is prolific and works fast. If you check out her website (http://www.divyamehra.com), you’re sure to catch the latest bee in her bonnet. You’ve been forewarned: she stings, but with good reason. And there’s a whole lot of pleasure, not to mention thoughtfulness, in that bite.



Shawna Dempsey wreaks artistic havoc with her collaborator Lorri Millan. She makes performances, videos, books and curatorial projects, and is known for dressing up as a giant vulva, a Lesbian Ranger, and a feminist superhero. Really, she’s got something for everyone.

Divya Mehra is a multimedia artist who recently earned a MFA from Columbia University in New York. She obtained her BFA with Honors from the University of Manitoba’s School of Art. In her practice she explores issues of cultural displacement and hybridization, deploying a humorous perspective in the execution of the works. Her work has been included in numerous exhibitions and screenings across North America.