with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
– Lucille Clifton
The grief is an ocean, no, the grief is Saturn, bobbing in the darkness, waiting to swallow the stars, with dirt between its rings, the residue of you. No, the grief is a house, a tower, a mansion, a palace for you made of what you gave and were given, a tribute to your love because you carried our love. The grief knows that we miss you so much the hurt could fill this planet and the planet could fill this urn, and it would never be enough. What we know of this life has only taught us about loss, about work, how it is neverending & oppressive and steals from our souls and breaks our hearts even when we did not think there was any love left after all of this anger and without your kindness. All we know is that hands are for holding and eyes are for tears. We’re giving up on this life but we know it has already abandoned us, as we drown in incalculable debt and irretrievable hours, a strip of asphalt so cold and unforgiving that we claw at the gravel piece by piece, wave after wave after wave, until our fingers can reach land again. There is no compass for this grief. It is only measured through absence, or the days that we have not expired from this earth, the undetermined rotations around the sun that we must be here without you. It won’t be long, you said, as we promised to each other but most importantly when the promise was made to you, that as long as we are on earth and not underneath it we will bear this grief, your grief, the generations of grief you held before you, all the grief that is both born and found that holds us to one another, that runs inside of and around us like water. We are the vessels for its remembrance, and we refuse to be released, from the sadness of yours and the grace of your mother’s, from the carelessness of ours. It possesses us, with delirious despair. It screams inside of us, with a broken larynx. We give the grief reasons to stay, to not allow it to be glaciered from our loneliness, and we do this for a year and then it becomes two, three, and before our imagination surrenders it has been ten and who we loved is beyond language and who we love is still without. This wreck of a lineage is ours, it is all we have and all we have known, and once the wave floods one dune it produces another & another & another after that. No, this wave never exhausts itself, it wears us down and calcines our bones but carries us with each crest. It spines the fiction of our dreams and unreasonable desires, the unrequited longing for a life that is not this one. A planetary plea for grief to yield this body and for time to release us both. Because it is here, at least, that we shall be free.
– Kim Nguyen
Night Gallery is pleased to present The funny things You do, a solo exhibition by Canadian artist Divya Mehra. Known for her meticulous attention to the interaction of form, medium, and site, Mehra’s work deals with her diasporic experiences and historical narratives. She incorporates found artifacts and readymade objects as active signifiers of resistance or as a reminder of the difficult realities of displacement, loss, neutrality, and oppression. Mehra works in a multitude of forms, including sculpture, print, drawing, artist books, installation, advertising, performance, video, and film.
here at least we shall be free (build yourself a Taj Mahal for common folks OR a simple set for funniest home video), 2021, takes the form of two inflatable sculptures—outsized renditions of the tidal wave and golden urn emojis. Presented in Night Gallery’s outdoor exhibition area the two symbols are transformed into towering monuments, amplifying both the emotional resonance and absurdity of the originals. In this new work Mehra offers a space to contemplate profound loss, individual and collective mourning, and the endlessness of racialized existence.
The funny things You do marks a continuation of Mehra's exploration of satire as a tool to address the impact of colonization on institutional spaces. As Natalie Haddad writes in a recent profile on Mehra for Hyperallergic, "In this time of emboldened racism, Mehra’s work encourages critical reflection. It redefines [the] 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."
BELOW: Iterations of Mehra's sculptural installation of an inflatable Taj Mahal. The work was first presented in 2018 in Vision Exchange: Perspectives from India to Canada at the Art Gallery of Alberta. As the work travels to new exhibition contexts, the title of the work is subject to change, with previous titles appearing struck through.
Mehra's recent exhibition Divya Mehra: From India to Canada back to India (There is nothing I can possess which you cannot take away) at the Mackenzie Museum of Art made headlines for the artist's discovery of a looted sculpture in the museum's collection. As Haddad explains in her article, "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." The exhibition featured a sandbag of equal weight to the repatriated sculpture, exhibited in its place, and recently acquired by the MacKenzie Gallery to fill the gap left in their collection by the repatriation.
ABOVE: Works from Mehra's 2020 postcard series The End of You, commissioned by the CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco. The postcards adapt the cartoonist Skip Morrow's 1983 book The End to address the disproportionate effects of contemporary crises on communities of color.
BELOW: A selection of Mehra's earlier works.
A selection of Mehra's earlier works. Eating Right for Your Type (bad taste =< poor taste), 2019/2015, presented chocolate bars embossed with the phrase "Enjoy Diversity,” like a neon she first produced in 2014. Despite the form, this invitation is an ardent refusal to be consumed. Mehra often employs humour as a mode of social critique. Currently Fashionable was a fundamental text-based work in Mehra’s exhibition You have to tell Them, i’m not a Racist., first presented in 2012 at La Maison des artistes visuels francophones, in St. Boniface, Manitoba, and again in 2017 at Georgia Scherman Projects, in Toronto. White vinyl text displayed directly on white walls expressed common racist or ignorant sentiments, alongside the artist’s own satirical statements. The phrases appeared in English, accompanied by crude translations in French and Hindi that were generated using Google.
Demonstrating her signature sardonic wit, Mehra points to the absurdity of this particular phrase by arranging the words in the installation so that the acronym “LOL”—meaning “laughing out loud”—may be read vertically. In her 2017 exhibition essay “Abolish, She Said,” Kendra Place forcefully sums up Mehra’s institutional critique: “Personnel changes are necessary and urgent. Where inclusion is suspect, however, Divya is holding out for something more substantial than what can sometimes be tokenizing diversity or spectacular multiculturalism, such that white people are no longer the hegemonic curatorial, editorial, and directorial influence, and people of colour are not reduced to a fleeting trend.”
Nobody pray for me, the road to hell is paved with good intentions (Mapping Identity: The Challenges of Immigrant Culture, presented by the Plug-In Institute of Contemporary Art in 2017, featured a giant illuminated Om symbol tethered to the back of a truck, which was driven around the artist's hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Haddad states that the work “morphs into a seductive glowing, cherry-red logo that evokes the symbol’s appropriation by an affluent (and largely white) wellness culture in North America and its deviation from religious to 'lifestyle' associations; as it is driven around the city on the flatbed truck, it seems as if it’s on an endless search for a destination somewhere between nightclub and yoga studio."
Divya Mehra (b. 1981) lives and works in Winnipeg, Canada. She has presented numerous solo exhibitions nationally and internationally, including her most recent national touring exhibition, 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 (2018 - 2020) where both installation and title evolved as the tour unfolded, culminating with a presentation at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ON, Canada (2022). Mehra’s work has been exhibited, screened, and commissioned by Creative Time, New York, NY; MoMA PS1, New York, NY; The Queens Museum of Art, New York, NY; MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA; The Banff Centre, Banff, AB; CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco, CA; Artspeak, Vancouver, BC; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ON; Consulate General of India in New York, NY; Georgia Scherman Projects, Toronto, ON; and the Embassy of Canada in Washington, Washington, D.C, among many others. Mehra holds an MFA from Columbia University and in 2020 Mehra was the recipient of the Wanda Koop Research Fund.
Installation photographs by Marten Elder and Nik Massey.