Marking my own body: Of masculinity as performance

(An edited version of this piece first appeared in the February 1, 2018 issue of Praxis Englisch, a magazine for Germans learning English, under the title ‘Hetain Patel, conceptual artist: A different kind of body art.” It was commissioned by the wonderful Matthew Douglas, an editor I love working with. All the images featured here are from www.hetainpatel.com)

I love the capacity of art to make us think about serious issues in playful ways. I suppose it is able to succeed where activism fails because it makes an appeal that is sensual, not only cerebral.

I hesitate to make wider generalizations but this is certainly true in the case of Hetain Patel, an artist of Indian heritage who was born and raised near Manchester in England. His work is deeply engaged with issues of identity — race and gender in particular. It uses a combination of photography, performance, body painting, and video.

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What I find most interesting about Patel’s work is how he uses his body itself as a medium for art practice, and a site for political discussion. “In the United Kingdom, where I live, just to have brown skin in your work is loaded with meaning,” he says. “Growing up here, I have seen how non-white bodies are marginalized. As a person of colour, I am acutely aware of the skin I am wearing.”

Drawing on the aesthetics of fashion magazines and contemporary advertising, he has been experimenting with materials such as mehndi and kanku as adornments for his Sacred Bodies series (2004–5). The former is a paste made from the powdered dry leaves of the henna plant, while the latter is usually a mixture of dried turmeric powder and calcium hydroxide.

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I wonder if he had to struggle with smearing mehndi and kanku on his body because they also tend to have gendered associations in India, especially Gujarat the state Patel’s family hails from. They are typically used by women, and signify beauty as well as fertility. As a man living in India, I certainly hear a lot of dogma around what is considered masculine, and what isn’t. Transgression is usually frowned upon.

“I wasn’t really thinking of the male-female binary because it didn’t exist for me in the same way it would for a man living in India,” says Patel. “However, the work is certainly critical of hypermasculinity. A torso covered in tattoos can be quite a violent act on the skin. I chose flowers because they represent beauty and life but also make me think of funerals and coffins.”

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The theme of masculinity reappears in his video work To Dance Like Your Dad (2009) wherein he offers a rehearsed imitation of his father who migrated to the UK in 1967. Patel learnt his father’s movements, mannerisms and expressions, which are performed alongside existing footage of the father.

Through this creative experiment, Patel wanted to explore the distinction between what is inherited and what is imitated, including performance of masculinity. “The inter-generational aspect helped a lot of people connect with this work even when they did not share my ethnicity. They began telling me stories of their own dads — stories of love, violence, and growing up,” says Patel.

“For many boys, their father is the first person they look up to before searching for a wider lexicon of influence outside the family.” Is this observation applicable to the boys you know? Do they tend to imitate the their fathers in the way they dress, speak, or treat people around themselves? Do they abhor and resist the influence of their fathers? Have they found a way to be at peace with their inheritance?

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