UK based artist, Hetain Patel wants to be free. Through his work, Patel explores themes of identity and authenticity in order to break ties with the labels society often gives us. His latest work Fiesta Transformer challenges the idea of predetermined identity by literally transforming his childhood car into a transformer. The steel sculpture reminds us that we can be different things all at the same time, if we let ourselves.
Q) Tell us a bit about your latest work Fiesta Transformer.
It’s a replica of my first car, a 1988 Ford Fiesta, which my dad and I have converted into a Transformer-like robot, an inanimate sculpture that sits in a squatting position. Rather than a film homage, it’s a piece about working class, identity and transformation.
Both the car and squatting position are real markers of working class in the UK and India respectively. Its about where I come from, it’s about engaging with some of the skills that has put food on my table and a roof over my head. The process of my dad and I making it in a garage together by hand is as much the work as the final sculpture – he’s worked with cars all his life so it was a way I could engage with something that is deeply him.
Finally it’s an optimistic piece, as a huge fan of the Transformers franchise, it’s about fusing fantasy with reality – never in a million years did I think I’d make a Transformer.
Q) For many people a car is their first taste of independence. What did your Ford Fiesta mean to you and how did it influence your identity?
It too was my first taste of independence. Something more profound than being in control of deciding on my own when to turn left and right: it felt like the first step in deciding where I want to go and what I want to be. The freedom and privilege of choice. I consider this a gift from my parents. They bought me the car after all.
Q) This is your first artwork that is not directly linked to your physical appearance or ethnicity. Has it been a liberating experience?
In some respects, yes. Increasingly I try to find ways in my work that doesn’t allow a viewer/audience to define or stereotype based on an outward appearance.
In this respect, Fiesta Transformer has been great as my ethnicity is never discussed on first viewing. The Transformer-ness is unavoidable and is the first thing people encounter. However, although my skin colour is absent, the sculpture is linked to my appearance – the limbs and angles of the posture are all scaled up from my body. People who know me do recognise it is as me. Also the ethnicity is implied in the pose, for anyone familiar with Asian cultures. There is an ever bigger visual pull with this piece than in all of my other works. However as with all the others, by scratching the surface, a viewer will be rewarded with more layers.
Q) Your work often centres on themes of identity using language, ethnicity and pop culture in order to define or redefine how we perceive other people as well as ourselves. What’s the most significant thing you’ve learned from your exploration?
We don’t have to be just one thing. We can be many. We can be different things all at the same time, and this is constantly changing. This is a more accurate picture of authenticity. As Bruce Lee says, “Be formless, shapeless, like water”.
Q) In your past work you have imitated everyone from your own father to Bruce Lee. How does imitating others help define who we are as individuals and/or artists?
If you can observe yourself and be honest about it, the attempted imitation of others can help reveal our authentic selves. We can see what also feels true to us and what doesn’t. Do this a number of times, imitating lots of people, and the hope is that it starts to build a picture of who we are. It’s how we learn and develop as kids- why should we stop now?
Q) Are you constantly re-defining yourself as your artwork progresses?
I wouldn’t see my activity as redefining, but rather I’m constantly trying to undefine any labels that I find restrictive. This stands true whether it be the medium I work in, my cultural identity or who my favourite super-hero is. Ultimately, I want to be free.
Q) You worked with both your father and brother on this project, what was collaborating with your family like?
I loved every second. I’d been wanting to make a work for a while now where I could collaborate more meaningfully with my dad, and this felt like the perfect one. Having my brother on board was a great bonus too and we got to put into practice some of the Transformer conversations we had as kids. I love the idea of this being a family business, and although this may seem strange on paper, in reality, the whole process felt completely normal and practical.
Q) Can you define yourself in one sentence?
I am an artist trying to be authentic in order to be free.
Q) Finding your own visual identity is an important part of being an artist or designer. Do you have any advice for artists/designers who are currently trying to separate themselves from the crowd?
Firstly, what is wrong with the crowd? Is there anything you want to see in the world that the crowd is not already making? If so, what is that missing thing and how important is it to you? My advice would be start with the most important thing to you. Authenticity sells itself – this is not necessarily easy to find but if you want a fulfilling career it is well worth the journey (cue Rocky music).
Photography by Nicolas Giraud