Journey Through Shrey’s Lens: Filmmaking, Culture, Art in a One-room Gallery
Closed in the Bushwick Triangle, right by the M train making its presence known, we speak with Shrey Mendiratta. The owner of Westlab + Gallery talks to us about space, Rajasthani deserts, Soviet cinema, and communal art practices in the ever changing landscape of Bushwick. The one room gallery, the roaring train, the people who come and go, the building of community is ever present.
BISKIT: Tell me about yourself, let’s start there.
SHREY MENDIRATTA: I’m originally from New Delhi, and my parents and I immigrated to the US in July 2001, so right before these big moments in American history. Even as I have immigrated here, so much of life is established back in Delhi with my family there, so there are these bits and pieces of history that I have tried to tie into my work here. The lab and gallery is now this nexus of intention that we try to move forward with and build up our community, and my mother in particular is very involved with the space. I also teach 16mm filmmaking at Mono No Aware in Downtown Brooklyn, which is a film non-profit organization. I met the founder, Steve Cossman, pretty much right when I arrived in New York, after college, and he has become a friend, mentor, and collaborator through the years. I consider their work to be a big sister organization to us, and we share that energy of inclusivity, accessibility, and directly engaging the community, especially collaborating with those who have historically been disenfranchised from film. Even though the lab is what we have to generate money, the community aspect is what we are trying to grow, by commissioning books with artists, distributing their work and all. What else is one to do other than spreading parcels of inspiration and hope now?
Shrey in his studio wearing our Reflection Hoodie
BISKIT: That’s true, it’s just trying to help one community to another in a hyper-local sense. You mentioned that you’re more focused on filmmaking, can you tell me more about that?
SHREY: Yeah, so I went to school in Berkeley, California, originally for a very hard science, but I figured quite quickly that wasn’t for me. So I ended up doing plant science, in this very naturalist way and felt really connected to the landscapes around me. I lived across the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and during my first semester I saw this Georgian film called The Color of Pomegranates by Sergei Parajanov with a few of my friends and I was immediately enchanted by that world. I went back almost every week and discovered more Soviet films, but also some African films, Iranian films, and Caucasian films. I took a summer course on 16mm film and was obsessed. After college, I enrolled in film school in Moscow, VGIK, because it made the most sense for my relationship with Soviet film and these incredible men and women who made such impactful films in my life. I was there for a year and moved back to New York, because there weren’t as many programs for filmmaking as a whole. I started teaching at Mono No Aware and made a film around that time in the Rajasthan deserts that’s based off of a Soviet short story. My film dealt with the space of reckoning with internal culture and how it streams into world cinema. It was just a two person team, my mother and I in the deserts right before the pandemic. We screened it across the city and I’ve been fortunate to get a Queens Art Council Grant for the film. In 2021, I took over Westlab from one of my close friends, keeping it in the family. Now I have put my work on the backburner to support all the artists I am curating projects for.
BISKIT: You mention how you have put your own work at a standstill to develop the projects of those around them. What’s the process and mindset it takes to figure that out?
SHREY: The way of art practices now is this view of being a solitary artist, whereas throughout the 70s and 80s, there were many more spaces and avenues for people to collaborate and showcase their work, so my take now is to bring that back. This solitary artist usually has a lot of money to support them, or even if they are receiving grants, there’s often these blurry industry connections that ties it all together, so I am trying to work in a hyper local sense with artists, mostly around this triangle of Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Ridgewood to get their projects out. And these artists are working people, not people who spend their 9-5 working on their art, and that’s a narrative that’s often missing in our contemporary spaces of the moment.
The artists with the least amount of formal training, I have found, have much more urgent stories to tell. I felt the solitariness of my work and of other artists, and to deal with that directly would be to have a space of complete collaboration.
I find this space to be similar to film: this sort of mix up of different walks and perspectives coming together to bring up all sorts of interests and questions surrounding arts practices.
BISKIT: Your space itself is very individual, very unlike most of Chelsea galleries where people tend to go to openings just to say they went to something. How do you navigate the nuances of this one room shipping container?
SHREY: I think it’s all a labor of love, and bouncing off the people around me to give me the energy to put into the space. It also involves my upbringing of coming to this country with virtually nothing, so having a storefront now means more than ever. It means we’re building a community from a grassroots level, even in this small room, we’re staying put here instead of up and moving, for the sake of our people. Even now, I haven’t collaborated with many South Asian artists, and there’s a notion of us competing with each other, so I am trying to stay put here to build relationships across the diaspora. And as I stay put, I am able to put out the works people are making here and now, and unlearning the glitz and glam of art. So the space is hyperreflective of that, we are literally in a container, so we are put in the place to truly see art and what it means to each person, instead of just making some big, glamorous space. I hope people can see that everything hits, that we’re still developing great quality photos in an enchanting space in this one container.
BISKIT: This is where the difficulties come up, but you’re in this moment of looking at such intense change within the neighborhood, based on the people coming in. What does that do to the community you are building, from the cultural shifts?]
SHREY: There are inevitabilities, because I can’t stop certain people who have the time and money to come in, and so I do my best to welcome in everyone and so all these people have the same chance to see the work we’re doing. I think my problem comes with landlords and property managers who are trying to push out the communities in the neighborhood to bring in high rises and luxury apartments, and these people with the power do not live here and do not understand the kinds of work we do or the relationships we are trying to forge, so that’s what is frustrating and helpless. We are also trying to expand what we do, especially with the gallery space because we don’t know how long the shipping containers are going to be kept in the city. But the most alienating thing is talking to the landlords who have no clue about the community, even if we have established a home here. So it’s trying to create a dialogue with the people coming in and just building a space where people can hold conversations about the shifts, instead of just being implicit to it. I find myself to be a tribalist now, taking care of my neighbors and staying enchanted with where I am, as we fight this uphill battle.
BISKIT: What’s next, now?
SHREY: Shows shows shows! We’re primarily supporting BIPOC artists and LGBTQ artists and putting up their work all around the neighborhood and bringing in more people to have conversations in the space. We’re going to do a solo show, for example in September, with a brilliant photographer named Gustavo Lopes, who moved from Brazil and has shot a lot of the drag marches that have been typically underrepresented during Pride. But it’s bringing together these small parcels of love and keeping my feet on the ground throughout the entire process.
BISKIT: At the end of the day, you are this caretaker of moments, when you’re developing everyone’s photographs.
I suppose, I am taking care of everyone’s negatives, even when I’m here at 3 in the morning and seeing all those walking out of a night at Bossa Nova, who still stop to buy some film. It’s a delightful and sensitive place to be in.
Interview by Sahana Srinivasan
Images by Suchitha