Isobel Mehta

The Heritage Project

Isobel Mehta

For Isobel, diving into her passion meant digging deep into her roots. In a series of illustrations titled Heritage, she found inspiration in a stash of old photographs from her family’s yesteryears, and reimagined those memories, in bold, monochrome line work. The project traces her Zoroastrian family’s migration from India to the UK. The Zoroastrians, or Parsis, are one of the most rapidly shrinking communities in the world. Isobel’s series stands witness to the struggles her family faced as migrants in the UK and follows their journey as they persevere and yet give up their faith and culture to move into a new world. However, the found photographs were merely a starting point. As Isobel recreates the images, she adds subtle details, flavoring the illustrations with prints and textures reminiscent of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Somewhere between the pieces, the series moves beyond itself and becomes a socio-cultural dialogue, providing a view into one choice moment snatched from Isobel’s history. A maze of empty, impersonal cubicles; an intimate, candid dinner to a happy, laid-back party - the work is utterly intimate and at once nostalgic. The UK-based illustrator lets us in on more. 

Where and how does inspiration strike?
For me, inspiration usually strikes unexpectedly. From a conversation with a stranger to a piece of music. Also, just when I’m drifting off to sleep I’ll have a sudden thought that pieces loose ends of a project together which is actually really frustrating because then my mind will be churning and I won’t sleep at all.

Isobel Mehta

Isobel Mehta

How do your roots influence your craft?
I’ve always been close to my family but we’d never really spoken about our heritage until I started doing research for this particular series. My father's side of the family were born and lived in Mumbai as Zoroastrians until they moved to the UK in the mid 1960s. After joining the Zoroastrian Association in London and getting married here, they realised integrating their faith with British culture was too challenging at the time and made the choice to immerse themselves fully in this life. In terms of my work, I took a very narrative approach to this. I used old photographs to draw from directly so that it was like looking at a memory rather than an impression. I think this helped make it more personal for us as a family, being able to recognise characters. I have never been to India, and now that I’m discovering more and more family I have over there I really want to visit!

Heritage began with a stash of family photographs. How did the project shape up thereon?
It started with the box of photographs that hadn’t been uncovered for 40 or so years. Every picture had a very long story that came with it, and was dated and included names I’d never heard of. I wanted to keep the drawings as close to these pictures as possible whilst being relatable because they’re drawn in such a uniform style. Because of my love of patterns and textile design I went wild with creating my own interiors and clothes for the drawings. It was a chance for me to explore 1960s and 1970s pattern designs which I love and so no my Grandma didn’t have such crazy printed dresses or curtains in real life!

What informs yours sensibility when it comes to your work?
It’s hard to say, I suppose the complexity of people. I love learning about the world through other peoples creative processes. Red-Color News Soldier by Li Zhensheng is one of the only photo books that documents the Chinese cultural Revolution and it’s one of the most striking pieces of work I’ve ever come across. I also love Newsha Tavakolian’s work, for how much she teaches me about her world. Ideally, I want to tell someone’s story with my drawings as these artists do with their photographs.

Isobel Mehta

Isobel Mehta

Give me a peak into your creative process?
My creative process usually starts as a big conversation with someone, I take lots of photographs or make a short video of an area or person of interest. Then I’ll piece together a narrative and draw straight from the pictures, digitally, and I’ll embellish/alter them as I go along. I also write a lot whilst I’m working. Usually someone tells me when I’m over thinking, and then I quit while I’m ahead and so what’s left is an impression rather than something far too literal. If I have the resources, the most exciting part for me is printing the images on different paper types or even fabrics.

As an illustrator what kind of themes do you find yourself gravitating towards?
Peoples lived experiences, rapidly advancing technologies, sexuality, dystopias, politics, protecting the environment, science, dreams, generally observing every day life. And most often it’s just feeling a pull towards making something look nice aesthetically.

Where do you go from here?
I have a couple of ideas for the future, I definitely want to print more on fabrics and I also really want to get into animation! Ideally collaborating with people and bouncing ideas and tech support off each other.

Take a look at Isobel's work here. 

Text Ritupriya Basu