Ali Akbar Mehta in conversation with Namrata Bhawnani
Ali Akbar Mehta’s apartment in Madh Island doubles up as a studio for the artist and it’s not tough to see why he chose to make the island his base. The cosy sea-view apartment, with a balcony that overlooks a soothing green expanse, offers a sense of serenity in a chaotic city like Mumbai and is no doubt a stimulating space for an artist.
This enviable space’s resident, Mehta (29), recently showcased his lenticular series Of Men and Supermen at the India Art Festival. With five of seven works sold, Ali’s series stood out, making him an artist to watch out for. Costumes of superheroes were imposed on photographs of faces on the street. The photographs were extracted from a larger body of archival site-specific work based in Mazgaon and Wadibunder, which comprises an eclectic mix of chawls, shanties and tenements, amidst more permanent historic landmarks and its inhabitants. Mehta says, “These are characters we look at but don’t see them, they belong to the periphery of our vision. The fictional percolates into the realm of the real, generating a new urban metascape and transforming people into the Superheroes of their own narratives.”
The choice of the lenticular medium was crucial as it made the process transparent. Mehta explains, “Here people are able to see the original image and my interpretation of the work. The work is the engagement of reality and fiction.”
Mehta’s fascination with superheroes is the connecting link through his earlier works. In 2011, Tao Gallery hosted his first solo show titled The Ballad Of The War That Never Was And Other Bastardised Myths, a prolific mix of video, oil on canvas and digital art. Most of the 30 works found buyers and enthused a fresh young audience to experience the art.
The JJ school of art graduate explains why superheroes intrigue him, “The idea of the hero in the mythological context has fascinated me. The roots are from graphic novels, cartoons and comics. I’m deeply influenced by science-fiction, manga, anime, animation and so a lot of my visual vocabulary has been influenced by them. With the lenticular series, rather than me working with a very Indian popular heroic identity which may be Bollywoodish, I went with my understanding of what it means to be a superhero… Superman comics are a fable, not of strength, but of disintegration. They appeal to the preadolescent, (sic) mind not because they reiterate grandiose delusions, but because they reiterate a very deep cry for help.
Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S” – that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak… He’s unsure of himself… He’s a coward.
Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.
“Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside. The space in our heads will stretch to accommodate them all. The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need.”
Jesters, harlequins and zombies populate Mehta’s works in a surreal world of chaos, dreams and constant flux, with violence forming a strong contextual running theme in his solo show. He elaborates, “The idea of violence in all its forms became very important because within the context of mythology, the tragic is so sublime. With my oil on canvases, I was trying to create these heroic visions of ourselves in a very decontextualised format. I did not want any kind of cultural markers to distract the viewer from the idea of violence. That became important in talking about a universal identity. Hybrid cultures and mythologies emerge and the idea of new archetypes of the 21st century excites me.”
Digital art has always been a point of debate in the art world, which hasn’t been quick to embrace its onslaught. However, Mehta remains unperturbed, “The digital in all its possibilities is a fantastic medium of its age. Before oil on canvas, there were frescoes and tempura. If you forget that transition, this whole scene seems like a shortcut, which comes from not understanding the tools you’re working with. The process remains the same, just the tools change. Digital art has permeated our vocabulary in different ways but unfortunately it hasn’t permeated the art world yet. The more veteran collectors also loved the work but there is also a lifetime of not having interacted with it. The genre needs exposure and needs to be talked about.”