Chicken tikka for the mind

April 28, 2006

PHASE - HETAIN PATEL . Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham University.

Exhibition until May 20, performance on May 20, between 10am and 8pm.

One of the cliches about British culture today is that chicken tikka masala is the national dish. It is said to be more popular than fish and chips. It is also presumed to be one of those "inauthentic" concoctions (such as Irish coffee, which was apparently invented at Shannon Airport) created to satisfy the unsophisticated British palate while masquerading as a traditional dish.

It may be true that cultural internationalisation is a fact of life in many places round the world, but the manifestations of this phenomenon are locally determined, often by things as prosaic as immigration patterns.

Hetain Patel is a young artist from near Bolton whose increasingly sophisticated work explores his Indian heritage - his parents moved here in 1967 (about the time chicken tikka masala is said to have been invented) - in the face of his experience of growing up British. He often uses his body ("because it's, well, brown," he told me), which he decorates with traditional Indian pigments such as kanku and henna. His decorated face and body are then further mediated through photography, video and performance.

This multimedia exhibition with its pair of performances, one of which is yet to come, takes the concept of probing heritage still further as it also incorporates marathon performances of tabla drumming by Patel and his teacher, Ansuman Biswas. Indian classical music, the ubiquitous background sound of the British curry house, is therefore, like the red kanku powder traditionally used in ceremonies, one of the more or less "obviously Indian" cultural signifiers that Patel engages with in his effort to determine the resonance of his - to him, quite foreign - heritage in his practice as a contemporary British artist. What is refreshing about Patel's collisions of tradition with contemporary art practice is that they consciously complicate simple dichotomies such as traditional/contemporary and Indian/British through gestures of playful self-awareness that, ten years ago, I almost certainly would have described as "postmodern". In a series of photographs he is pictured squatting - shoulders hunched in that traditionally Indian position - wearing a baseball cap, visiting the funfair in Blackpool and purchasing a piece of Ikea furniture. This unlikely pose is clearly the more "foreign" element of the image, not only to a British audience but also to Patel himself.

Similarly, in some of his video work, it is the formal properties rather than the "Indian content" - the nods towards pop video aesthetics more than the tabla drumming - that predominate.

And while the cross-cultural identity explorations that I have just described are central to Patel's work, their treatment of this aspect of identity is ambiguous and challenging, evoking other aspects of identity formation, too, including gender (it is women who are decorated in the Indian wedding ritual) and, in this performance, the student-teacher relationship.

Chicken tikka masala and Irish coffee are now sold around the planet, including in India and Ireland, a demonstration that anxieties about ethnic purity and authenticity are not straightforward in our increasingly internationalised world. Contemporary art that addresses these complexities is refreshing, and Patel's work is truly contemporary in that it deals formally and conceptually with this, one of the most interesting phenomena of culture today.

Peter Urquhart is a lecturer in film studies at Nottingham University.

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