The world of mixed-media artist Ketna Patel is an eccentric one, full of life and colour.
Ketna Patel’s vibrant art studio seems almost out of place in the laid-back locale of Chip Bee Gardens in Holland Village. It’s an intensely visual feast, with swirls of brilliant colour filling every nook and cranny. But it’s not only Ketna’s work that captures the attention. The artist herself has an infectious spirit and a propensity for the whimsical – characteristics born, perhaps, from an unconventional life.
Ketna is a fourth-generation Indian born in Uganda and raised in Kenya. At the age of 14, due to political unrest in Nairobi, she was sent to live with her grandparents in London. After studying architecture and interior design, she was sent to Singapore in 1994 on a one-year contract to work on the Esplanade: Theatres on the Bay project.
What happened next was both a cultural and aesthetic awakening as she made the leap from the corporate career path to pursue a long-held dream of becoming a full-time artist.
“I was living in a commune spread over three houses,” Ketna says. “I wasn’t earning much. We had one kitchen where we’d all gather and cook together. It was a very liberating time for me.”
It was during these early years in Singapore that Ketna met Jonathan Reading, a British artist and musician, who was her neighbour at the time. After love blossomed literally over the fence, the two were married in Kenya before taking two years to travel the world, collecting inspiration for their work.
This nomadic element of Ketna’s personality is a key element to unlocking her aesthetic creativity, alongside a deep-set desire to debunk the myths surrounding the stereotypical images of Asian art.
“We covered 18 countries in two years, which allowed me to have my finger on the pulse of the world. I was so conscious of the image of Asia in the rest of the world.”
Ketna’s work centres around a diverse collection known as Asia Pop. By paying homage to the street culture of Asia, she is positioning herself as part of a new generation of artists who are drawing on their own cultures for inspiration.
Her candid portrayal of the lives of everyday Asians explores the continent’s illustrious past and its rapidly unfolding culture. She keeps the colours deliberately gaudy to reflect the exuberance of Asian life.
“I’ve always been fascinated by street culture,” she explains. “It exists in spite of itself. There is no pretension, it’s just people going about their everyday lives.”
Ketna believes art is storytelling at its best. Whether it’s literally splashed all over your living room couch or displayed on a lamp or coffee table, the message-filled imagery is a magnified version of how she views the world.
“We live in a world over-flowing with advertising and junk mail. In my work you may see a photograph, a comic-book cut-out, or a newspaper headline. Whatever I have found over the years will find its way into my work as a means of telling a story.”
Keen to portray a region that is becoming more attuned to creativity, Ketna aims to engage Asians and Westerners alike to evolve and celebrate in this new era of Asian art.
“I think there’s a need to demystify the stereotypes that surround Chinese and Indian art,” she explains. “Some of the stereotypical Asian art, in my opinion, doesn’t honour the vitality and humour of this region. I think Asia is actually very funny and eccentric and I try to use a language that is more present-day.”
Ketna believes Singapore’s harmonious, multi-cultural ethos serves as a microcosm for the world.
“Singapore is a great laboratory for me,” she says. “It’s such a crossroads for people. I love the fact that the person next to you in the queue at Cold Storage could end up inviting you back to their house for a cup of tea! This would never happen in London or New York as we’re all so suspicious of familiarity, but Singapore affords us this rare connection with strangers – and that’s when we drop our defences and really start to emerge. The flexibility of life in Singapore allows the creative process to flow easily.”
It’s these creative connections that are driving Ketna’s current projects. As well as her global work (she is currently working on hosting an exhibition in India next year and will spend three months in Africa this summer), Ketna is linking up with various Singaporean enterprises to showcase her work.
One such project is a joint venture with carpet house The Orientalist. The company will feature her designs on a new range of distinctive carpets. She will also continue to cultivate the artistic endeavours led by the Michi Artists Studios and Gallery, established in Singapore by Ketna and Jonathan in 1995. Michi, a Tao word meaning literally “the path” or “the road”, acts as an extension to Ketna’s gallery. The studio is a place of cultural union for like-minded people and regularly hosts open house shows, film nights, and art classes.
As she eases her way into 2009, Ketna’s confidence in her artistic talents is pushing even more boundaries.
“What I’ve learnt over the years is that I can and should take risks with my work,” she says. “This year for me is about experimenting. I believe the best thing to do is to go with a hunch and let that hunch develop into something – some of the best art comes from when you don’t know what’s going to happen.”