Lakeside Arts
Part of University of Nottingham
Lakeside Arts

Mehndi by Hetain Patel


Whilst working from my kitchen table, with the Djanogly Gallery closed for the foreseeable future, I thought what better time to bring to light some of the art works in the University’s collection. Normally, these can be difficult for the general public to see because of where they’re displayed or because they are kept in store for their protection. Each week we’ll fetch one of those works ‘out of store’. – Neil Walker, Head of Visual Arts Programming

MEHNDI (2004)

By Hetain Patel (b. 1980) 

I guess if I were to categorise this work by Hetain Patel I’d have to refer to identity politics and to the tradition of Performance Art where the artist’s own body is used as material and subject. It’s also self-portraiture of sorts; this is a photograph of the artist, although it’s less a statement of ‘who I am’ than a question: ‘who am I?’

We bought this piece directly from Hetain not long after he finished his Fine Art degree at Trent University. Between 2005-7 he was the artist-in-residence at Lakeside culminating in his exhibition Sine Language at the Djanogly Gallery. During this time, influenced by the multi-disciplinary arts context in which he found himself, Hetain’s practice was encouraged down a path which led away from the making of art objects towards live performance devised in collaboration with other creative individuals. Sine Language resulted from his partnerships with Indian tabla player, Ansuman Biswas, and beatboxer, Jason Singh. He’s since gone on to work with dancers, choreographers, musicians and actors in the creation of multi-media art works at prestigious venues including Tate Modern, Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Wells.

But to return to his beginnings, this photograph belongs to a series called Sacred Bodies. In each image in this series Hetain documents his own body painted or decorated with pigments associated with Indian and Hindu culture. In this case it’s Mehndi (henna) used for the designs traditionally applied to the hands and feet of brides-to-be. In others, his body is coated or smeared with a bright red paste made from turmeric. Typically, the pigment is used for the Bindi, the coloured dot worn on the forehead.

Mehndi by Hetain Patel

Hetain has spoken of these works in terms of an investigation into his own dual heritage and identity as a British Indian and the feelings of displacement or ‘otherness’ that this can sometimes engender, a feeling of not quite belonging wholly in one camp or the other.

Using his skin as a canvas is an action charged with possible meaning since it’s the skin that is so often read as a sign of our ethnic and cultural origin.

Applied to the male torso, the Mehndi resembles a tattoo, a traditional mark of tribal allegiance, although, for me, the artist’s posture here feels more passive – perhaps more feminised – than aggressive. His work as a whole tends to be personal and domestic rather than overtly political but in one photograph his body bears a swastika (originally a Hindu symbol for good luck) reminding us of the worse kind of tribalism and the fact that tattoos have been used to mark and alienate particular religious or cultural groups.

Much of what Hetain has gone on to produce has drawn on Hollywood films and his childhood heroes – a mine of global cultural references – in his exploration of identity and our ability to connect with each other. Humour plays a big part and if he hadn’t become an artist I’m sure there was a career waiting for him as a stand-up comic. Fortunately, there’s quite a bit of his work on YouTube to see and I’d recommend you take a look at his short podcasts on How to Make a Proper Cup of Tea and What People Really Think.

If you’d like to find out more about his work you can also visit his website