Conversation with Ali Akbar Mehta

Posted by Steve Maher on 04 Apr 23:00


Arlene Tucker (AT): Hi Ali!  You have been busy traveling.  When you think of your recent travels, what image pops into your mind.  Could you describe that?

While you were away, I had asked you, “where you are, what does night time sound like? What did you do yesterday?”  How would you respond to that now- now that we are in another space and time?

Ali Akbar Mehta (AAM): Well, the most vivid memories for me are always flashes (or flashbacks) of colours, sounds and smells. I recently travelled to India, where I attended the Kochi Biennale, and home to Mumbai.

Photo 1: Family and friends: (clockwise from the top) Koshy Brahmatmaj, Ajay Brahmatmaj, Raza hussain Mehta, Vidha Saumya, Vibha Rani, Ali Akbar Mehta, Simo Alitalo, Tuike Alitalo, Fatima Mehta, and Yusuf Mehta

If I'm to focus on anything in particular, images of people we met, and of food we ate tend to come into focus first. To selectively describe one of them, I would choose the image of a Sunday lunch, consisting of our family recipe of Biryani and Beer (to be accompanied by a siesta and a movie later), sitting around with my parents, my partner, my brother, and friends – laughing and talking about something…


Photo 2: Otherwise quiet, the bit of blue patch amidst the green is a swimming pool belonging to a villa, where the techno parties happen...

When you had asked me previously, night time in my parents home is always quiet, which is a stark difference to the night sounds in most parts of Mumbai, which is a city that rarely sleeps. This is because their home by the sea, on an island, called 'Madh Island’, removed from the 'mainland’ by a ferry on on end and a road on the other… there are only the sounds of the sea, an occasional vehicle passing by, the wind, and sometimes the sounds of crickets chirping. But there are techno parties in some of the villas nearby on the weekends, so all of that changes.

At the time we began our correspondence my main agenda was to eat as much of Mumbai specialities as I could before leaving, and packing. Food has always been one of our priorities. One of my favourite street food is 'Paani Puri’, which can be literally translated as ‘water pockets’. It consists of fried bread which fluff up into crisp balls, which you crack from the top and fill with potato and chickpea or bean filling, sweet and some spicy chutneys, and then dip into ice cold water that is infused with coriander, cumin and other spices. It can of course with eaten in a restaurant, but the best way to eat this is in the streets where, the person selling them makes them as you eat them (or is it the other way around). There are nearly infinite variations based on each individual seller's blend of chutneys and fillings, and regional preferences, so one usually picks out a favourite place to go and sticks with it.

One never gets enough of them.

AT: What’s something you could get enough of?  Something you don’t want to do again? Eat again? See again? Feel again?

AAM: I think I've had enough of bittergourd (I don't like it very much). And I think we've had enough of ignorant prejudices. And of thinking that the goals and ideals we would like to set ourselves are from the outset considered unachievable, while that which is undesirable and unneeded is ‘normal’.

AT:When I read your message about the sounds and laughing I saw so many colours and crackles around the eyes and heard a cacophony of cackles.  It was a really good image. Something you can only find in particular mixtures of place, people, and time. Do you feel like those moments have been recreated in your current phase of living in Finland?  Or how are those moments translated to this part of the world?

AAM: Well, I have been particularly lucky in that respect: of recreating moments like that in Finland. Coming to Helsinki to study in the Visual Culture and Contemporary Art (ViCCA), at Aalto University, made a world of a difference. The fact that ViCCA’s 30 odd students per year, or approximately 100 students (including the seniors who just don’t want to get out: for good reason!), is a community of people literally ranging from Ecuador to Japan, meant that ViCCA is the most densely diverse population of students that I have seen. Where each student has their own interests, practices and research to pursue means that nobody is interested in stepping over anyone’s toes. With super-chill professors, the ViCCA during my time in Aalto was amazing. It was a family away from home. So much so, that my partner got jealous enough to join the program, which was amazing. To confess, it was not a space I had expected or sought to seek out. My own experience with ‘family’ (beyond my parents and sibling) haven’t always been great. A bit of an introvert and a recluse, I have always been most comfortable by myself, in my own space. But ViCCA has been like a unavoidable bomb of cheer and friendship and solidarity, that I kind of just got swept away in it. ViCCA has provided for lasting friendships and for me, been transformative beyond the academics. I have also made several friends outside of the University, who work, think, cook and eat together… There is a lot of family here, and it will be tough if one has to leave Helsinki.

Photo 3: One of the first dinners Vidha and I hosted at the Arthouse, ViCCA, 2016. From (L): Saša Nemec, Jernej Čuček Gerbec, Hasnan Habib, Marthen Jessen, Jakub Bobrowski, Paula, Parsa Khamehkosh, Ali Akbar Mehta and Vidha Saumya

AT: It is pretty amazing how there are these small pockets where you can find somebody from some place you’ve never heard of before in Helsinki. I like that about Helsinki too. You seem good here.  Really content.

How has life been after ViCCA or are you still there?

AMM: No, I graduated from ViCCA last year. In 2016, Museum of Impossible Forms (M{if}) as a collective of seven individuals received a grant from Kone to start a specs. I have been involved with that since it's beginning. Now, along with Marianne Niemalä, I am the co-artistic Director of the space. So there is that. My own practice as an artist has taken a turn towards more collaborative works, where with Vidha Saumya, we do projects such as the one at Pixelache Festival; or with Palash Mukhopadhyay, working together to develop ‘256 million colours of Violence’, a survey-based participatory online archive, that asks viewers to choose a colour that to them represents a colour of violence. It is a work situated in the space of the internet and uses the political potential of the internet as a space that connects and divides us.

Photo 4: The first iteration of 256 Million Colours of Violence was exhibited in Third Space, Helsinki, 2016

Both these directions of work for me constitutes the need to build communities through communication, in both online and offline spaces, through archiving as a ‘digital performance’. Although the seeds of these practices existed in my work before I applied to ViCCA and came to Helsinki, it is only in Helsinki, in ViCCA, in M{if}, that I feel these have matured.

AT: Timing. It’s all about finding the right mix of people, place and time. No?

AMM: Yes, it definitely is…

AT: What do you think motivates you or inspires you to make the work that you do?  

AMM: whenever I think about what motivates me, and to source the points of time that I can say have been defining moments for me – to think about the work I do – I am always taken back to memories of being an outsider, and of feeling alienated. These emotions and their events they accompany, whether of being bullied and ostracised in school, or being seen as a Muslim but identifying as an atheist, the subconscious self-censorship and the difficulties of ‘fitting in' they entailed have been ongoing central emotions of growing up. The Godhra riots in Gujarat (2002) were a defining period of time for me. At the time I was a student at the Sir J.J. School of Art, and was assisting director Yusuf Mehta on a documentary about the riots, using primarily the on-the-ground reporting of journalists and amatuer videographers who had taken to the streets documenting indescribable horrors being committed. Those images and testimonials pushed me in the current direction of work. I realised (much later) that growing up as a member of an unspoken minority, of being an atheist and its anxieties have been an acutely political upbringing. I grew to be politically conscious, and my political position continually affirms the need for my practice to  “envisage the creation of a vibrant ‘agonistic’ public sphere of contestation where different hegemonic political projects can be confronted.”

The question I am interested in now is, “can  our Archives provide us with the performative  agency to define our commons in our media saturated,  socially omnipresent, politically fractured, economically segregated,  xenophobic, disembodied world?” I find that creating and working with Archives facilitates both the archive itself as well as it's participants/audience to bear witness. ‘Bearing  witness’ (to violence) moves individuals from the personal act of ‘seeing’ to the adoption of a public (ethical and political) stance by which they become part of  a collective, a community, working together.

Photo 5: Will the new generation of (cyber) archives be accessible, decolonised, norm critical, and counter hegemonic to dominant forms of knowledge? From the series: Archiving Knowledge, hand engraved marble, 2018

AT: How did you and Palash start developing ‘256 million colours of Violence’?  

AMM: 256 Million Colours of Violence, for example had been an idea that I have been wanting to realise since 2012, but it was difficult for me to find a person to collaborate with. When I came to Helsinki, and Aalto, I tried to attend several MediaLab courses because those are the skills I needed to get several of my projects going. Coming to Helsinki has allowed for these kind of collaborations, because here people are more receptive to the idea of doing things otherwise not required or expected of them.

The project is based on the fact that in India the two main religious-cultural groups, Hindus and Muslims have very strong colour identities – Saffron and Green. In 2007, Hindu extremists carried out bomb blasts in India, now known as ‘The Malegaon Bomb Blasts’. In the wake of the incident, the then Home Minister Mr. P. Chidambaram addressed the country and stated that “We should all beware of Saffron Terror”. This statement was met with protests, where anti-defamation lawsuits were filed against Chidambaram, and even members of his own part condemned the statement, saying that “there is no colour of violence or terrorism, and if there is, it is black”. The project takes the logic of this statement and upturns it, claiming that there is in fact a colour of violence, but that it is unique to each individual and their own lived experience – a combination of experiences that are cultural, religious, gendered, educational, economic, political and so on. So in order to map these the project is presented as an online survey, where the participant would find a series of familiar questions – questions that you would find while signing up on Facebook, Google etc., or on a form for if you would want to start a bank account, or get a passport made… The questions are ubiquitous and familiar, that is the point. The last question, presented along with a Photoshop styled ‘Colour Picker’, is ‘what according to you is the Colour of Violence?’ Since it is a digital questionnaire, each question contains a drop down menu containing several possible answers, making it an archive of various important subjects and information. For example, most forms have options for 'gender’ as ‘male/female/other’, but did you know that the UNHRC recognises 67 different forms of gender? This subverts the format of the survey form, generally used as a tool for bureaucracy and governments, and of one way information - into a tool for reflection and critical praxis, and an encounter of equal exchange of information.

Photo 6: Screenshots of the online survey questionnaire on the website,

AT: Such a powerful and personal project.  What challenges have you faced with the interface, but also the political presence it embodies?  How have people reacted to it? Who did you make this project for? Has it been accessible to them?

AAM: Politically yes, the project has been more difficult for everyone to accept than I had originally imagined, and that is primarily because we have decided that it is normal for big-data to be farmed in the way it is today - because suddenly, an artist project is asking people to disclose information -  organisations and corporations no longer ask for it, the information is simply farmed and taken for free. So when it is not taken for granted, and a choice is presented, people have difficulty divulging information that they have given away previously, for free. These preconceived notions about bureaucratic and corporate legitimacy and individual authenticity is a difficult dynamic to tackle. But the project has a strong emotional presence as well - People have reacted to this project in a spectrum of different ways – from incredulousness of having to answer these questions, to feeling that participating in this project has fundamentally changed their perspectives and how they approach their lives – a person told me that they took 6 hours to go through the entire project, and that it gave them the opportunity to learn by looking up each of the terms they were unaware of. For me, that is the beauty of the project – of equal exchange. And the refusal to participate in the project is also very telling - one person refused to participate because they thought that disclosing their annual earning was a problem; another thought that five questions was more appropriate. Many people have come saying that can't they simply submit a colour rather than fill the questionnaire. So I think convincing people to give time is the most challenging aspects of the project.

I think it would be cool if everyone would participate – those interested or not interested in it as an artist’s project; ‘users’ of the Internet, ‘students’ – those interested in learning and knowledge, the ‘Presidents’ and ‘Prime Ministers’, politicians and activists and lay-people of the world – this project is for everyone to participate in. The project creates a digital community of people who, through participation, allow themselves time and space to think about the embedded and extended forms of violence in our personal, private, public and collective spaces.

But I also recognise that a project like this already excludes a lot of people from itself – people, who don’t use or have access to the net, people who don’t speak English, or those who do not wish to / or are able to think in terms of a visuality that a project like this is hinged on. My aim is to start translating this in multiple languages – Finnish and Hindi, to start with. And to continue to make it more accessible.

AT: Any way that we can see this project or contribute?

AAM: Yes the project is online and can be accessed, at

AT: Just curious, what colour represents your spirit?  How would you describe this colour?

AAM: I’m not really sure about such associations. Especially after being immersed in this project, I feel that most associative understandings of how I have perceived colours throughout life, whatever symbolic value I have built up is undergoing a radical shift. But black is a colour I feel most comfortable with.

AT: Trying to be as neutral, non-attaching, non-contextual as possible, let’s leave it at that.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us.  For more information about Ali and Vidha’s work, as part of Pixelache, please click here. 

and Ali's personal website here.