One of kung fu master Bruce Lee’s most celebrated sayings, voiced in a key scene in his magnum opus Enter the Dragon, warns us never to be distracted by a finger that is pointing at something lest we miss what it is pointing at. This maxim seems especially relevant to the art of Hetain Patel, which frequently beckons us in one direction, only to reveal, after a series of feints and swerves, that its real substance lies elsewhere. Two protagonists, male and female, flanked by a small coterie of companions, all dressed in vibrantly patterned West African robes, gather in a church for a ceremony, which might be assumed to be a wedding ceremony. The proceedings are conducted in sign language – each gesture, extravagant or small, possessing an intimacy and tactility that seems to both presage and magnify the union that is about to take place.
Any gesture, extravagant or small, can be open to misinterpretation, however – and it is this potential for confusion that lurks behind apparently familiar signifiers that Patel brings to the fore. As if mimicking a magician’s sleight of hand in conjuring a bird from within deceptive folds of silk, Patel uses the shape-shifting swirl of his characters’ robes to kick the performance to a different level – the wedding garb miraculously metamorphosing into full-blown kung fu costume; the marital tableau now suddenly striking a martial pose. All is fair in love and war, as the saying goes; and it may be that the couple’s hand-to-hand combat infers both the ever-shifting power struggles of an archetypal battle of the sexes as well as the passionate exchanges of the conjugal bed. This may indeed be where Patel is pointing, but, then again, possibly not. Under the cover of the near-universal ritual of a couple joining together in marriage, we are also witnessing the sight of symbols and icons from the so-called margins joining together, freely and uninhibitedly, in the cultural mainstream – and how this, too, is a cause for celebration.