You have to tell Them, i’m not a Racist is a solo exhibition by artist Divya Mehra, presented at the Georgia Scherman Projects in Toronto. The exhibit encompasses 23 text-based works, and was first exhibited in 2012 in St. Boniface, Manitoba. The exhibit takes an entirely unique approach to art as a communication medium regarding racial discourse.
Mehra manipulates the architectural elements of the art gallery to display her work. Elements that are often overlooked or taken for granted as part of a regular art exhibition, such as the space, walls, and lighting, are used deliberately and with meticulous detail.
Initially, when you enter the gallery, a sense of confusion arises. It appears nothing is visible on the white walls in front of you. Then, the white vinyl lettering reveals itself through the fluorescent lights. As you walk up to the walls, not only do you see words appear, but you also come to the realization that you are confronted by a truth that is often hidden or dismissed by other individuals, or in the media. This seems to form an analogy to how racism is overlooked in the media, as well.
The white plastic letters that have melded into the white walls are racist statements, that almost became obscure through the whiteness of the walls and fonts, are used as a device by the artist to bring discourses about racism to a figurative and realistic light.
The texts, presented with different fonts and font sizes, consist of racist jokes, syllogisms, and aphorisms. Together, the works address casual micro aggressions and institutional racism. The writings on the walls are made up of things people have said, either to Mehra directly, or in the media.
The texts are illustrated in three languages. English is translated to French and Hindi through the Google Translate application. The application is known for its misleading translations. Mehra uses this as a tool to distort the original meanings of the writings.
The exhibition deals with racism in all its facets, and is the reason why its messages are important to discern, even through the white font.
In some cases, satirical thoughts of the artist herself are used, such as the text titled, “Set your lashes free,” written in a fairytale white font, that is set in waves on the white walls: “White men seldom make passes at coloured girls who wear glasses.” This ironic and hostile statement is only one of many in the exhibition that target the theme of white nationalist racism. The exhibition has been running for five years, and asks the question if situations are worse now.
The owner of the gallery, Georgia Scherman, describes the gallery as one of extreme importance because of the need to actively listen to the situations happening all around us. The texts also include emoticons and signs that are used in texting today, such as “<3,” the heart sign, but instead it is broken in half, “</3,” representing relevance today.
The most prominent work in the exhibition is titled “Currently Fashionable,” and is a large white wall with the words: “People of Colour.” Each word occupies its own line, and is written in large and bold font in capitals. The text asks the viewer to think and reminisce about discourse related to white supremacy, privilege, and current events in the media. The collection of texts asks the viewer to listen and change their viewpoint about the events that are happening around them.
Mehra is currently shortlisted for the 2017 Sobey Art Award for this exhibition.
“You have to tell Them, i’m not a Racist” is being held at the Georgia Scherman Projects from until October 14.