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Between Finding Indian Roots and a New American Identity
Published16 Jun 2022
In a photograph of his house, one of the many that comprises the series Do You See What I See, When I Look At Me?, Miraj Patel appears three times within the same frame: first, as a ghostly presence staring down from an upstairs window; then, with his legs dangling from a roof, his body lying out of view on the shingles; and lastly, entertaining himself behind a window on the ground floor. The multiplication of selves in different positions becomes a method Patel employs to talk about growing up in American suburbia: the repetition and monotony of the day-to-day, the isolation he experienced, not devoid of his own distinctive humor: “Look what happens when you get bored,” he says.
In another image, inside his home, geometric shapes suggest the rigidity of laws and rules that organize American society: sharp edges with little leeway. Even the house itself is square: “square walls, square ceiling, square floor, square tiles. It’s an echo chamber,” Patel says.
This is a far cry from India’s carefree sense of togetherness that he longed for while growing up in California—the Indian lifestyle he could experience only indirectly by visiting Indian relatives and friends also living on the West Coast.
He was four when his parents moved to suburban Westlake Village, an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles through the Santa Monica hills. “Pretty nice” and “really boring,” he describes it: an affluent area—and affluent they were not.
He missed the sense of community that Indian culture offered, and his childhood and adolescence were largely spent seeking some sort of balance between his Indian roots and his efforts to assimilate. “You come home and you have to be a certain person; and when you're out in the world, you're [another]. I was always in the middle of two things.”
Do You See What I See, When I Look At Me? recreates this sense of urgency and determination to strike a balance, to blend in. His photographs—at times conceptual, meditative, thoughtful but always humorous and delicate—encapsulate this volatility: “Always having something going, always having to consider something. It's never just, ‘Okay, can I just be myself?’”
In one image, Patel wears traditional Indian garb as he runs towards the camera, Malibu’s shoreline in the distance. When he was younger, he'd be embarrassed to wear traditional clothes in public, and was bullied for his culture. Now he owns it. Running towards the camera, into the frame, felt powerful to him. “I could never fully shut it down,” he says of his heritage, “but I was always running from it, trying to push it away.” Ultimately, though, he couldn’t escape from who he was. He chose to embrace it. “I exist in a brown body in America, in an Indian body. There's no way I could reject it.”
In America’s cultural landscape, Indian experience has often been simplified into a few stereotypes, Patel says: working at 7-Eleven, being a doctor, having an accent. “It's always about the gaze,” he says.
That sparked his desire to produce visual representations through an anthropological approach, to more fairly portray people of Indian background, reclaiming their role in the American landscape.
Tapping into typical images of the mainstream American West, the barren desert, cowboy imagery, dry vegetation, Patel incorporates himself into the frame, again in traditional Indian clothes, allowing a new “cultural inhabitation” of the landscape in a way that hasn’t been done before.
While exploring his identity as a young Indian-American man, he sometimes encountered an opposite sense of frustration. During a trip to India, for instance, he came to terms with feeling like an immigrant there too—a different accent, different habits.
And yet, he found a sense of resolution through his work, by bringing his parents into the frame as well. One image among many speaks to his approach. Patel appears lying between his parents, in their bedroom, the three of them under the blankets, an intimate moment of family connection. The dog joins in, too. This was a typical scene from his childhood, when he’d run to his parents’ bedroom on weekend mornings, finding his place between them.
As Patel examines his experience of growing up in America with an awareness of his Indian heritage, his work also becomes a coming-of-age tale. As he witnesses himself growing up, trying to fit in, then reclaiming his identity, he also explores his relationship with his parents, who came to the United States with questions and confusion, yet found in the ordinary a universal human way to stay close to each other.
All photos © Miraj Patel - from the series, Do you see what I see, when I look at me?
This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.