Deshna Shah is a dynamic young Manchester-born British Indian artist who recently held a solo exhibition at Pembroke Art Gallery, Oxford University. Here’s a review of the Emery Prize winner’s mesmerising works of art.
The famous writer Chimananda Ngozi Adichie said in her viral TED talk – there is no single story, and it is dangerous to think so. Each of us have a unique story of childhood, upbringing, migration, assimilation and adaptation. However, very rarely is this story reflected in our school textbooks, or University lectures and readings, which often try to generalize and standardize, or only reflect stories from particular cultures and languages. Race is something etched into our skin, and we cannot escape the presumptions and prejudices it creates. Children have been known to want to whiten their skin, or change their parents and food choices, just to fit in and be accepted. We also have our own very personal and intimate set of experiences, memories and music which has made us who we are, warts and all.
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Born in Manchester to a practicing Jain family, Deshna experienced the richness of the culture in the foods, the hospitality to visitors, the joint family of living with grandparents, and an open house of art, beauty and tolerance. She soaked all these experiences, eventually deciding to pursue a most unusual career for a young Indian – Fine Art. In spite of the vast ocean of art in the Jain tradition, there are hardly any living young Jain artists, dedicated to continuing it as a full-time profession, and willing to break the boundaries of race, gender and sheer ignorance that surrounds us. Deshna, “How do you spell the word Jain?”
Graduating from Oxford University in 2021 with a First class degree in Fine Art she won the prestigious Emery Prize, and was given the rare opportunity to exhibit her art over a two week period at Pembroke College, Oxford. She tackled the most fascinating and personal of subjects, communicating the unspoken between relations using the method of letter writing. Having been dyslexic from childhood, words were strange and a challenge, but in this artwork, she has decided to make words central to her expression, but on her own terms.
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For her homework for this exhibition, she asked people to write intimate personal letters to their friends and relatives, expressing that which they wanted to say but could not in person. Lots of emotion and intimacy poured out, allowing people to deal with their conflicts, without bottling it up – a compassionate self-healing, through language and communication. The letters were never sent to the recipient, but they allowed the sender to offload their stress, maybe even anger and frustration. Nelson Mandela said ‘bitterness is the poison pill you swallow, and expect the other person to die’. Family and friends create bondage, and at times frustration too. We need to deal with it somehow, as without those relationships, there is no joy in life.
For the installation, Deshna anonymised the real stories and converted them into art using her designed ‘Twilight Language’. She invited visitors to break the code and access the messages. At the same time she welcomed visitors to share their own stories over cups of chai and mithai, and encouraged them to take pride in their own narratives. Yes that is right, the hospitality she experienced was now extended to all the visitors – I have been a fortunate beneficiary of that hospitality in my visits to Manchester over many years. Her mother Monica and her dad Suken are the kindest, most creative and generous hosts, not to mention her grandfather Dr Naresh Shah, a passionate founder of the Jain community there.
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The installation was interactive, helping audience members to ‘experience’ the journey, rather than be dictated by it. And no-one wanted to leave – they came as individuals or in groups, but were sparked to unravel and share their own personal life journeys too. She also created a greenhouse filled with the smells of chai, to give people a ‘homely’ and welcoming experience, with that wafting scent which is personal and welcoming.
In Britain, art motivated by faith, which is such a significant part of the history of migrants, is rarely celebrated due to the deep suspicion of creative elites about religion, painting all religions with the same brush of dogma and fundamentalism. However, world art history is dominated by faith, and this view is very regressive and also diminishing of people’s lived experiences and beliefs. It also means that diversity is often given lip service, where a few celebrity minorities, become poster gals for the Arts. The Jains are one of the oldest and most creative living cultures of the world, yet they do not have their own creative arts community in Britain precisely because no-one has sought to encourage and support it.
Jain Dharmic science and philosophy embraces respect for all living beings, something very prescient for our inequality and climate crisis of today. Deshna’s pioneering boldness, forces us to reflect on our definitions of art and artists, and how pluralism and diverse stories can be given bigger platforms to reach those audiences and communities hitherto distant and marginalised.
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