A mixture of cultures is currently parked up in the foyer of the Firstsite art gallery in Colchester.

On the face of it, Lata Upadhyaya’s Transit: Identity of a White Van, looks like some one has come along and gloriously pimped up an average white Transit van and to a certain extent that’s exactly what the Thurrock-based artist has done, but in a very personal way.

Lata says: “For me the whole thing is my memories from back home. I’ve not done anything like this before and it’s been a really nice experience.”

Transit brings together two cultural links from the places Lata has called home, the stereotype of the British ‘White Van Man’, first coined in the late Nineties, and South Asian truck art, where she grew up.

Originally from Assam in India, Lata holds an MFA in Sculpture from the Slade School of Fine Art, London, and a BA Fine Arts and MFA in Sculpture from MS University, Baroda, India.

Her work reflects upon her own life and the experience of migrating from East to West, through a journey of exploration of materials, texture, colour, pattern, shape and form.

She first came to live in Essex in 2005.


Lata Upadhyaya pictured at Firstsite

“I moved here because I needed a bigger space for my sculptures,” she laughs, “and prices in north London are ridiculous.

“But since I’ve been in Essex it’s really felt like home from home for me. There’s a big sense of community like we had in India and I love just exploring the place.

“That’s where I had the idea for the white Transit van. They’re everywhere here where I live and it reminded me of the trucks and buses in India.”

In India and Pakistan, trucks and buses are decorated by their owners with elaborate patterns and calligraphy, often to remind them of home during months on the road.

Their exterior designs are intricate and unique to the individual driver, with richly painted icons of religious symbolism, popular culture and Bollywood stars, as well as political slogans and stickers.

Inspired by this tradition, Lata has created a vibrant iconographic collage that envelops the entire surface of an ordinary white Ford Transit van.

Included within the artwork are a Chinese dragon, prayer flags, a ship in a bottle and a rainbow, as well as a tree of life depicting diverse national flags as its leaves, representing the range of communities who live in Essex and the valuable contribution that immigration makes to British society.

“It’s the same in India,” she continues, “you can tell whether a bus is from north or south India by what calligraphy and designs it has on it from symbols to Bollywood actors.”


Transit builds upon Lata’s 2016 project, 6,919km: The Journey of a Rickshaw, in which the artist transformed a rickshaw with brightly coloured depictions of Indian and Essex culture, including portraits of Russell Brand, Grayson Perry and Jamie Oliver, to celebrate its incredible journey from Meerut, India, to Clacton-on-Sea.

“Someone gave me an old rusty rickshaw and I thought I would convert it, Essex style,” she tells me. “It was a couple from Clacton and it was just wasting away in their back garden. Somebody told them about me and how I work in metal and was Indian and that I might be interested in it.

“At first I think they thought I might be able to use the metal for another sculpture but when I saw the rickshaw I just couldn’t bare to scrap it and set about converting it into something bright and beautiful. I used to go to school in a rickshaw so it didn’t seem right to get rid of it.”

While Lata hand painted the rickshaw the tranist van proved to be a larger task.

“It’s a large canvas to fill,” she jokes. “I drew the design on a computer and then got it printed it on vinyl which we then put on the van itself.

“Altogether it took just over a year to complete so it was quite a job to do.

“All the details on the van have a meaning for me and with all my family back in India, i’m the only one over here, it was quite an emotional thing to do.

“They won’t come over and see it unfortunately but I’ve sent plenty of pictures to India which they all had a good laugh at.

“Unlike the rickshaw I can’t see the van travelling all the way to India but it would be nice to take it elsewhere around the country.

“It’s already planned for stop overs in Suffolk and then Southend and then who knows where it might go. It would be nice to take it to a place where the images might resonate with the community like Birmingham or Bradford.”

Although based in Essex, and having had several projects commissioned by Essex County Council, this is the first time Lata has had a piece of work shown at the Firstsite gallery in Colchester.

She says: “It’s a real thrill to have been asked to do this work for Firstsite.

“As part of the artwork there’s also an audio guide for visitors to listen to as they go round the van, which explains what the symbols and images mean.

Transit: The Identity of a White Van will be situated in the atrium of Firstsite, Lewis Gardens, Colchester, until next Sunday, June 17.