Whether you’ve recently started buying art in Singapore or you’re a seasoned collector, Ketna Patel is a name you should (or would) have heard of. Her beautifully vibrant pop art pieces are hard to miss – there are even a few of her pieces brightening up the walls of the EL office. They’re striking and thought-provoking; beneath the surface aesthetics are often much deeper cerebral meanings to each piece. Her art spills across a multitude of mediums, from wall art, to furniture, fashion and even cars; literally any surface is a vehicle for her art!
Born in Uganda, Ketna spent her early years growing up within a conservative Gujarati Indian society, before being sent to the UK for her higher education. The British-Indian artist arrived in Singapore in the early 1990s to pursue a career in architecture, but swiftly changed direction, following a new path within the art world. She spearheaded community living in Chip Bee Gardens, Holland Village, where, between two joined up houses there were ten people from assorted backgrounds living together. Those relationships became family to her, and she is still in regular contact with them.
In 2013, after more than 20 successful years in Singapore, she moved away, deciding to split her time between the UK and Pune in India. The next six years saw her travelling to and from both places, as well as Singapore, continuing to manage her art business. Other projects included purchasing and renovating a chapel in Wales (now owned by her ex-husband), focusing on village projects in India, and renovating her grandmother’s home in London (now solely her studio).
With the pandemic forcing Ketna’s pace of life to slow somewhat, we took this chance to pose ten questions to her about her life, her art, and what she’s learnt along the way.
Ketna Patel’s Singapore Art Era
Why did you first move to Singapore?
I arrived for a mere one-year stint to work on an architectural project (The Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay) and ended up staying for 20! Even though I am ethnically Indian, having grown up in East Africa and then the UK, this was my first proper encounter with Asian culture, and I was hooked.
Why did you end up making it your home for so long?
I believe that unfamiliarity is a necessary pre-requisite for creativity, otherwise we run the risk of being shackled by our conditioning. Asia was holding a mirror up to my intrinsic cultural genesis, and I got to know myself better through traversing back in time to the various histories that bind this region together.
How did your Singapore art grow?
There was so much to observe and learn for my Singapore pop art; it was the ultimate adventure for my mind, body and soul. Also, all those culinary flavours and non-stop sunshine melted my somewhat pragmatic conditioning, and I found myself bursting with the creative impulse of wanting to travel, explore and experiment. After all, how can anybody be indifferent to the visceral expressions of Asia?
The first decade was the one before internet and smart phones, so I ended up with thousands of photographs from my obsessive documentation of neighbouring countries. That led to a studied ‘unpacking’ of Asian street culture, using colours, layering, photo collage and printing techniques. The rest is history!
Relocation & Art Evolution
Why did you move back to the UK?
Well, even though I absolutely love Singapore, the creative impulse is always to challenge oneself. I had become too comfortable! My nationality has always been British (read about the East African Gujarati community in UK; it’s a compelling back story of colonisation), so it’s home to me; it’s also where all my family lives.
Having observed older friends and how difficult it was for them to assimilate into the return home after being an expatriate for so long, I decided to do this sooner rather than later. It was not going to be easy, and I needed the energy and verve to overcome the challenges of relocation.
What do you miss about Singapore?
It may sound weird, but once I move on, I tend not to ‘miss’ places. I think about them often, with great affection, but my psyche is immersed in what is going on around me right now, and that happens to be lockdown London!
Having said that, some of my closest friendships were made and nurtured in Singapore, and this ‘tribe’ lives on through all the wonderful means of communication we are so lucky to have. We visit each other, go on holidays, and cook our favourite Singaporean dishes. A friend of mine and I were even thinking of starting a Singapore expat group in the UK!
What do you love about living in the UK?
Everything! The changing of seasons, the depth of discussion and debate about current affairs, political awareness, architecture, museums, the countryside, vintage pubs, the proximity of Europe, old friends, family, and British humour! Again, it’s ultimately about getting to know yourself better. The river of life keeps flowing. Stay stuck in any one thing, and you go stale. Keep moving, keep asking, keep looking, keep feeling.
How has this life change affected your art and expression?
When I moved back to London, Britain was embroiled in the whole Brexit movement. After two decades of not participating in politics, I found myself really interested in knowing the why and how of what people were thinking and feeling. That led to my usual process of uncovering my truth, by travelling! I went to all parts of the country and Europe, and I talked to as many people as possible. Ultimately, I’m a storyteller, and as the context has changed, so has my narrative. I still have my art in Singapore and I’m still a pop artist, but the streets of Britain are telling me a different story altogether, so transmuting these complex histories means I have become a student all over again.
The concept of ‘time’ here is also different. I enjoy the blurring of lines between domesticity and work. My hands are rough with gardening and housework, but I like the DIY aspect of ‘being in touch’ with the world. Cooking, cleaning, driving – these are all ways of honouring direct participation that is not so palpable in cultures dominated with housekeepers and taxi drivers!
Learnings & Musings
Is there anything you would change about your move?
No regrets whatsoever; everything happens for a reason. When one door closes, another opens – it always does.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years and why?
I’ve been involved with initiatives that foster cultural bridges between the UK and India, so that’s going to translate into me splitting time between the two countries. In the UK, I’ve embarked on a nationwide documentation of ‘invisible’ British culture; forgotten villages and towns. For example, I’ve just returned from a week in Suffolk, where I was really taken aback by the medieval ‘pop art’ villages of Lavenham and Kersey, to name a couple. There is so much more to discover!
What advice would you give the Ketna Patel arriving in Singapore all those years ago?
Now that I am in my early fifties, I would tell her not to take time for granted. Our lives are fleeting, so make the most of them, and honour the gift of experience and change, for that’s the only way to induce inner growth. If something does not feel right, change it. Don’t squander your time.
Has this article about Ketna Patel’s art has whet your appetite for more Singapore art info? Check out this article about affordable art in Singapore, and keep an eye on our events page for exhibition news.