Born in Bolton in 1980, Hetain Patel uses his own domestic British-Indian upbringing as a starting point for his films, paintings and live performances. The formation of identity has been central to his concerns since the beginning of his career. Working collaboratively with artists, family members and non-professionals, Patel’s work is populated by characters, both fictional and real.
Baa’s Gold at Copperfield is the artist’s first exhibition of paintings, honouring his late grandmother, called ‘Baa’, which means ‘Mother’ in Gujarati.
The paintings are juxtaposed with his earlier video work To Dance Like Your Dad (2009), in which Patel restaged existing footage of his father in his Bolton-based car factory. The large-scale works in the exhibition are based on family photographs, with Baa at centre stage, as well as patterns from Baa’s house such as 1970’s floral carpets or net curtains. The outline of Patel’s family members are painted in geometrical, gold embossed lines and set against a backdrop of the high gloss black car paint used for the hearses Patel’s father produces in his garage.
Baa’s Gold recounts the story of a burglary that happened in 2015, during which a gang of masked, gloved white men broke into the 89-year-old’s home during the middle of the day. Knowing that Hindu widows are only supposed to wear real gold bangles, Baa’s home was ransacked, and her jewellery forcefully taken from her wrists. As the thieves made their escape – far from being crushed – according to Patel, his grandmother shouted after them to “get back here and tidy all this up before you leave!”
Five years after this violent event, Patel’s deeply personal paintings “seek to retrieve Baa’s Gold” – which for the artist is a metaphor for everything that has been taken from his family via the systemic racism experienced in the UK since Patel’s birth and before. From traumatic incidents such as the assault on an elderly woman to daily microaggressions that he experiences as a man of colour, Baa’s Gold highlights these discriminations and transforms them into something unexpected and new.
“The geometrical drawing style I chose references the design of the 80’s Transformers cartoons — a recurring metaphor for cultural and social transformation in my work. As for the gold, as a family survival has always been about alchemy – turning adversity into opportunity, lead into gold” is how Patel describes the meaning of his paintings. He also recounts that taking photographs at home has long been a family tradition to record history on their own terms.
Part of an ongoing interest in inserting historically marginalised narratives into mainstream culture, the aspect ratio of each painting is that of IMAX cinema, referring to film, which is Patel’s primary medium. Two panels of gold-painted text narrate different versions of the burglary written as scenes from a screenplay: one gives the real version of the traumatic ordeal, while the other diverges into cinematic language of action and thriller movies, echoing Quentin Tarantino or Bong Joon Ho.
Baa’s Gold is a timely autobiographical reflection on immigration and family in the UK, humorously connecting marginalised identities with mainstream culture. Even though the exhibition refers to a violent event Baa experienced, Patel’s cinematic storytelling effects portray his grandmother as a proud heroine in a fantastical action movie rather than a victim. By using family photography as a starting point, Patel places his family’s own recount of history within the Eurocentric canon of Western Art History.
Hetain Patel’s current and upcoming projects include British Art Show 9 in Aberdeen and a solo-show at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton. On 19 November 2021 he will do a performance at the National Gallery entitled Baa’s Gold 10.
Copperfield, 6 Copperfield Street, London SE1 0EP. Wednesday to Saturday, 12.00–18.00. Exhibition continues until 23 October 2021. www.copperfieldgallery.com