Speaking for Ourselves

I'm A Migrant: Dipesh Pandya on being an activist through art

I'm A Migrant: Dipesh Pandya on being an activist through art

Silvia Tadiello

 Migrant Voice - I'm A Migrant: Dipesh Pandya on being an activist through art

One of Dipesh Pandya’s earliest memories is also his first experience as a migrant: at three years old, while migrating from his native Tanzania to England, he and his grandmother were held by immigration control authorities in Heathrow.  Speaking on Zoom from his home in Margate, southeast England, he describes how they “had to go through a process of proving” that they were allowed to be there.

Dipesh is an artist and activist whose work focuses on race and migration – a venture he was inspired to pursue as a result of his experiences as a migrant living in England and various other countries.

After first arriving in the UK in 1975, Dipesh settled in the Midlands, surrounded by a rich community of migrants from East Africa and South Asia. But life isn’t always easy “when you look like me, a Brown person," he says. “Growing up in England I always heard the words foreigners, immigrants, and far worse." Dipesh recalls the first time he was addressed with a racial slur, explaining: “I remember that feeling of being confrontational and being, ‘No, I’m not’, and getting into a fight.”

Dipesh’s identity as a migrant stayed with him when he moved to France after completing his studies at Central Saint Martins; it also followed him to India, where he lived between 2009 and 2016. But, he says, there are many types of migrants. We talk briefly about the difference between the words migrant and expat, where the latter implies more privilege than the former. “When I went to India I was thrown into a world of expats,” he says. “I considered myself an expat, but I also struggled with that. Actually, I considered myself an economic migrant when I moved there in 2009, right after the financial crisis.”

Dipesh worked in fashion and advertising for over two decades, but, in 2016, he decided to leave the industry. He felt it was too problematic. He could see imperial and white supremacist tropes and systems embedded in it. He moved back to the UK that same year, at a time when the narrative on migration – in mainstream media, in politics – had been shaped by the Brexit referendum, the Trump election, and the refugee crisis.

“Through the media, the TV, I was being fed messages saying, ‘You don’t belong here, we don’t want you here’,” he explains. Even as a British citizen, he felt “othered” by the bureaucracy of starting a new life in England. “I hold British nationality, but I really felt the hostile environment. I was questioned immediately about my identity and my rights to claim benefits or whatever,” he adds.

To make sense of what he was experiencing, Dipesh started writing, then shifted to other media – including in the realms of sound, installations and performance – joining Open School East, an art school and community space now based in Margate.

Dipesh’s art is a form of activism. One of his projects is called I.A.M. or I’m a Migrant, which focuses on reappropriating the words ‘migrant’ and ‘immigrant’. “The work is about combining the two words and flipping them and throwing them back at your face, and saying ‘Yes, I am a migrant’,” explains Dipesh. “These words have been weaponised by the government, the media, advertising, and racial capitalism.”

The words “I’m a migrant” and “I’m a majority” are printed on t-shirts, hoodies and even flip-flops for sale on Dipesh’s online “corner shop”, which are to be worn as a “statement of pride”. He adds: “When you’re made to feel like ‘the other’, you adapt and code switch to fit in. That creates a lot of problems, because you’re not allowing yourself to live in the world. And I.A.M. is, boom, this is who I am, this is me, this is our people, and we are the majority.”

This spring, for his Welcome to Migrate project, Dipesh printed his own versions of local road signs, with the word “Margate” changed to “Migrate”. As part of the project, he stood on a trafficked road with an aluminium road sign that said “Migrate B2021”. “The project is about provoking discussion,” he says. Although he saw positive feedback on social media, Dipesh did receive some negative remarks from members of the public. On one evening, he was approached by two police officers in a car. “From the car, they started asking all these questions, where are you going, what’s that sign, what does it say… It was really hurtful,” he says. The episode became part of the artwork.

For another project, titled There Goes the Neighbourhood, Dipesh recalls racist comments made in the US when people of colour moved into all-white areas. For the project, Dipesh collected voices from Cliftonville, Margate, and combined them into a mixtape: the result is a chorus of ages, ethnicities, and histories. Those involved in the mixtape ranged from six years old to 98, and from a plethora of countries including England, Ireland, Scotland, Sri Lanka, Italy, and Ghana. “I feel like a lot of these histories and stories are being erased by the dominant narrative,” he says. “What I’m concerned is what we’re leaving to future generations.”

Dipesh is aware that his work is part of a larger body of long-term, sustained efforts which aim to change mainstream attitudes towards migration and race. His work is closely tied to his interactions with individuals and groups of people; part of his practice involves “disseminating the work through memory creation” in his community. When he first moved back to England, he built relationships with migrants and shopkeepers in Margate, and particularly with a group of parents and their children, then aged between 7 and 11. Some of his art has been inspired by conversations he has had with the children, such as one called “Trigger Warning! Trigger Warning!”. “I would like to give the kids in my neighbourhood some sort of help, so that they can continue on their own,” says Dipesh. “I want to pass on my knowledge and skills, so that they can carry on the work.”

He compares the struggle against racism and xenophobia to the ones for civil and LGBTQ+ rights. “It’s a long process,” he says, “but I’m optimistic, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”

Dipesh Pandya’s artwork can be found at hands.up.if.you.re.brown.

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