Roy Mehta's intensely observed but quietly introspective images are also a meditation-but from a different vantage-point-on what Oladele Bamboye (who co-curated Mehta's 1996 show) calls "the anxiety involved in being Asian, British and yourself". 'Distant Relations' maps the fragile connections, not only within the extended family, but between two cultures. However, it does so not as a clash of incongruous entities, but in a subtler way 'different surfaces touch each other'. His work is best characterised in terms of what it resists. It refuses the elaborate gesture, the grand narrative, the labelling and the categorisation, the strong statement, the easy answers. Especially, it infuses the 'othering' of the Asian experience. Instead, it takes the unobtrusive, more personal path by focusing on small and intimate things. Mehta goes to the places where unexpected, and often uncomfortable feelings are likely to emerge. If this leads one to expect a quiet, unobtrusive body of work, it ill prepares us for the boldly pictorial quality and strong visual impact of his images. This refining down of attention and the altercations of focus are the key strategies that allow Mehta to defamiliarize and decontextualize his subjects, enabling us to see familiar things as if for the first time.
Stuart Hall 'Different' © Phaidon Press Ltd. 2001
Roy Mehta's exhibition of colour photographs is called Distant Relations - a reference to the extended family of this Briton of Asian descent. Mehta's themes are familiar - the dialogue between cultures, the uncertainties and anomalies of being of compound identity. But what makes Mehta such an unusual and seductive talent is his decision to approach such issues tangentially - rather than didactically - choosing open-endedness in favour of closure. Mehta has opted to work within the conventions of subjective documentary photography, adapting the rules to create fascinating images that resonate across the gulf between West and East. In adopting fine art photography, Mehta chooses to ignore the much theorised associations between documentary photography and Eurocentric notions of truth and power. This is possibly less of an issue for photographers of his generation. One suspects Mehta's reverence for the expressive potential of formal colour photography lies in its austerity and the fact that it respects and rewards the curious and patient viewer. A close-up of a smouldering josstick and another of scattered petals are both rendered with all the fussiness of an advertising shot. Yet the subjects are made obscure by the skilful use of shallow focus, chiaroscuro and rich colour. Mehta uses these techniques to let his enigmatic images drift free from their referents to become mysterious cross-cultural signs. Plainly, Mehta wants us to take pleasure in his pictures too. He evokes emotional resonances and creates visual metaphors with the enigma of appearances. Grouped into an exhibition, the images combine to create a multi-layered and poetic viewing experience. Meth's synthesis of pure photographic form and hybrid cultural content revives this somewhat moribund branch of photographic practice. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.
David Brittain © Creative Camera Magazine 1997