Performance by Divya Mehra at 221A Pollyanna Library
March 24, 2018
Mehra stood at the back of the room hidden behind the audience, performing through her narration of a script. Her omnipresent voice filled the room as she orated a series of poems, stories, events, thoughts, happenings, jokes, and words.
Simultaneously, a screen played short video clips, images, memes, and screenshots from Mehra's personal archive. This choice seemed intentional, she was present, but the viewers were able to get lost in her words, in the memes and visuals, and in the histories that contextualized the performance. The narration was a roller coaster, bolting between moments and stories of grief, labour, violence, sarcasm, and language. The dialogue in the performance seemed sporadic, a story here, a thought there, a quote there, however the thread tying the performance together was how each of these disparate experiences was mediated by Mehra's experiences as a South Asian woman living in the Canadian prairies.
Mehra's performance DIFFICULT PEOPLE was highly anticipated. Weeks before the event arrived it was fully booked, and people were put on a wait list. The event hosted at 221A's Pollyanna Library on March 24, 2018 in Vancouver was part of a series of performances of this work hosted by Canadian Art magazine. Additional events were held at the Art Metropole, Night Gallery, and Open Space.
The performance opened with Mehra reflecting on her first year working at her parents' restaurant after her father's recent death. The content projected onto a screen at the front of the room for everyone to see, immersed viewers into the deeply personal world of the artist.
She told a story about a woman who groans, "this is really expensive for Indian food", which Mehra responds to with her sharp inner dialogue. Most notable was her sarcasm and the tiredness in her voice.
"Would you prefer if it were free? Would that fit your budget? Would that make you more comfortable? Our groceries are donated on a weekly basis tbh. And spices are very cheap. Actually, basically free. Spices just show up at our doorstep, roasted and ground to a fine blend. Everything arrives at our restaurant ready to serve. We don't really do anything, so in fact there's no reason to pay us. Don't worry about it."
In between she noted the first time she was called a "fucking Paki", her interactions with white men on Tinder, and learning and re-learning English.
Later, a woman wanting a high-chair yells in Mehra's face just three days after Mehra's father passed away. When the woman exclaims, "do you even speak English?!", Mehra's inner dialogue jumps forward again and her inner dialogue responds, "logically murder seemed like the only apropos response to such an inquiry." She then reveals her actual cool and collected response, hoping that she had responded in a way that better reflected her thoughts.
In between she noted the first time she was called a "fucking Paki", her interactions with white men on Tinder, and learning and re-learning English. Viewers were privy to glimpses of her life including text messages screen captured from her phone, video of her crying, news articles she has read, and even memes.
Then, a white male peer in New York who tells her he, "hates Arabs."
These glimpses offer us a perspective into the origins of the script within which Mehra contextualizes her creative work. Her dialogue exemplifies the blatant and outright racism that exists in Canada. The performance is deeply personal, yet it speaks to the larger context. Mehra lists the absurd, yet very real, varieties of racism.
White supremacy and systemic racism are, and long have been, a part of the Canadian art scene.
"Unintentional, casual, accidental, unplanned, unthinking, chance, subconscious, unconscious, conscious, inadvertent, involuntary, unwitting, spontaneous, after 6:00 pm, at brunch, while shopping for an upscale handbag in Switzerland, at the BBQ, when demanding for a doctor of a specific color, when behind the wheel, walking down the street, when going to 7/11, when looking the ‘wrong' way, unthinking, unpremeditated, unforeseen, coincidental, serendipitous, and of course, intentional and deliberate."
The dialogue in Mehra's performance illustrates part of the larger picture of systemic racism in Canada. Racism has long been a part of Canada's wretched and colonial legacy. In the recent past there have been multiple attacks and hate crimes towards South Asian folks in Canada. Last year we witnessed the mass shooting at a Quebec mosque that killed six and injured nineteen. At the University of Alberta, we saw racist posters go up about Sikhs that read "fuck your turban". In November, in Vancouver, while aboard a public transit SkyTrain, a Muslim teenager wearing a hijab was verbally and physically assaulted by a man yelling about how he wanted to kill her and all Muslims. Despite Canadian national policy allowing Sikhs to wear turbans, a man was told to remove his turban and was subject to racist remarks at the Royal Canadian Legion in PEI. This systemic racism isn't unique to the South Asian community. The recent acquittal of the white farmer in Saskatchewan who shot and killed Colten Boushie provides a look into the ongoing injustice towards the indigenous community. The horrifying police killing of Abdirahman Abdi in Ottawa, reminds us of the problem of over-policing for Black Canadians.
White supremacy and systemic racism are, and long have been, a part of the Canadian art scene. Within the arts we can see the effects of systemic racism in a historically white Canadian context. We see examples of racism within institutions in Mehra's performance. As an undergrad she was asked to add arms and legs to her drawings to make them more relevant to her culture. As an instructor she was forced to apologize to students for her tone and her humour while the white teacher who slept with his students, and the white instructor who yelled at his students did not have to apologize to their students.
I realized the absurdity. I don't want to be known for the color of my skin, but I look for people that look like me
Before Mehra's performance, I eagerly waited outside the performance space and chatted with the other people who were there early. It was then that I was asked by two separate people if I was involved in some way with the performance. I honestly don't think those who asked me this meant it with malintent. Of course, there could have been a number of reasons I was asked this. While I have a regard for Mehra's work I felt like I had been pinned: this brown artist (me) must have something to do with the other brown artist (Mehra). Emblematic of the fact that there aren't that many people of colour in the room. This performance that took place in the white art world context, in a room full of academics and curators.
I realized the absurdity. I don't want to be known for the color of my skin, but I look for people that look like me, therefore pinning them as well. This action made me think of Mehra's story about her looking around for someone, anyone that was like [her] and that what she found were medical students that really had nothing in common with her other than colouring. I feel that it is important to be able to connect with others that share similar histories and that this justifies seeking others who seem to share a cultural background. What I am searching for are people who share histories of language, migration, cultural practice, and experiences of race.
While the performance was situated within an institution it did not use institutional language. The language was profane, personal, reflective, thoughtful, challenging, painful and funny. Mehra is inserting her narrative and individual voice into the current dialogue around identity politics and race. There is an agency in her voice that is conveyed in the work, her sarcastic humour and point blank calling out of racist remarks is refreshing. Mehra tackles not only the lived experience of race but the politics in which it is entangled. The everyday realities of race as a person experiencing violence, loss, labour, or even meeting men on tinder. While it was witty and humorous DIFFICULT PEOPLE was inexplicably vulnerable. The audience was enveloped into an immersed atmosphere fraught with the complexities of racial politics. This provoked a response of shock, frustration, sadness, and laughter from the audience. The performance is not a call to action or a resolved solution. It problematizes the structure and institutions we are bound to and reminds us of the ongoing struggle against white supremacy and institutional racism that many people in Canada currently face.
Excerpts from DIFFICULT PEOPLE sourced from tone in Canadian Art's Dirty Words issue. Additional text provided courtesy of the artist. I would like to thank Kiran Sunar for their conversations and feedback in thinking through this review.