Sandeep Johal and her mural at The Profile Vancouver Co-Working Space, 2017

Sandeep Johal is a Canadian-born South Asian artist currently living and working in Vancouver, BC. Her practice works to integrate the aesthetics of her heritage with her present politics and aesthetic inclinations, creating a modern and precise permutation of South Asian art that is both interrogating and pleasing to look at. We spoke with Sandeep to learn more about her evolution as an artist and her process of reconciliation—paying respect her heritage while honouring her politics and beliefs today.

Tell us about yourself. What brought you to this point as an artist? Why do you think your aesthetic has evolved the way it has? I don’t even know where to start. It’s a combination of things—getting degrees I wasn’t really interested in, working jobs I wasn’t inspired by, having a child which forced me to re-evaluate my life and ultimately led to me making the leap to full-time art. As a daughter of South Asian immigrants, I was pushed towards careers that offered stability and security for obvious reasons, but my heart was always with art. I didn’t have any role models in my community to look to or to show me a career in the arts was even possible. It’s taken me a long time to get here so I’m just happy to be here. I truly believe that art can and will save the world and I hope my work can be a small part of that.

My aesthetic was shaped as a kid. I did a lot of line drawing, which was my first love. I like tight compositions, precision, and clean lines. Symmetry and geometry come so naturally to me. I’m also a maximalist. Is that even a word? I cram as much as I can into my work. I admire artists who are minimalists, make abstract work or really loose stuff because I just can’t do it. I have a very chaotic side to me but the ordered, structured part of me always wins out.

Lazy Woman, drawing and collage on paper, 2017

Lazy Woman, drawing and collage on paper, 2017

What is it like for you to reference the aesthetic of your South Asian heritage, even if the politics of your heritage are not ones you agree with today? Is there power, for you, in the evolution of these aesthetics?  I always felt like a bit of an outsider in the South Asian community I grew up in. I never fit into the role or bought into the rules laid out for Sikh women by my family and the community at large.

I shirked all things domestic, I didn’t wear makeup or feminine clothing, I had a lot of opinions (and wasn’t afraid to share them), and I constantly questioned the glaring inequality between men and women. But on the flipside, I never felt fully comfortable in the dominant culture either. It’s the age-old struggle that us first generation kids experience when we straddle two very different cultures and try to peacefully exist within both.

I may not like the politics of my heritage but I most definitely like the aesthetics. Being surrounded by the colours and patterns of Indian textiles has informed my aesthetic. Now I’m using this aesthetic that gives me so much comfort to talk about issues that give me so much discomfort. I’m using one thing from my culture to reconcile another.

Anamika Devi, acrylic on wood panel, 2016

Anamika Devi, acrylic on wood panel, 2016

Tell us more about Rest in Power. How did this project come to be? How did you select your subjects, and how did you regard creating art to restore their honour in the afterlife? I think it came about as way for me to process my rage and sadness around the inherent violence women continue to be subjected to on a daily basis. There’s no reason for it and yet it continues to happen.

Rest In Power has its roots in my first series about gender-based violence, When Honour Kills (2006), which was my response to a rash of honour killings in the lower mainland in the early to mid-2000s. It questioned this notion of honour that is so powerful families are willing to kill their daughters over it. And let’s be clear here, just daughters, never sons. The two women from that series, Jaswinder Sidhu and Amandeep Atwal, are also featured in Rest In Power.

The novel The Selector of Souls by Shauna Singh Baldwin, also provides a framework for Rest In Power. It deals with female foeticide, female infanticide, dowry, domestic abuse, rape, suicide, and misogyny in general through the lens of cultural beliefs and practices, religion, and politics.

Rest In Power began as drawing studies of a fictional goddess, Anamika Devi, based on a particular scene from the novel. I drew the first study around the time Japanese International student Natsumi Kogawa went missing and was later found dead. This one hit me hard as I had lived in Japan and taught English in Vancouver to Japanese students. As I was drawing, I couldn’t stop thinking about her and the tears just started rolling. Afterwards, I dedicated the drawing to her on Instagram and tagged it with Rest In Power. It received such a positive and emotional response from people that I decided to do several more studies and post them.

As for selecting my subjects for the project, I kind of have a murder rolodex filed away in my brain. Is that weird? I’ve always been a bit obsessed with morbidity, depravity, and the darker side of humanity, but after recently binging on the @myfavoritemurder podcast, I realize I’m not the only one. Phew! In all seriousness though, I pay extra attention to what happens to women; some stories hit me harder than others and those are the stories that ultimately end up in my work. I’d say about half of the women in Rest in Power are South Asian, and most are women of colour.

All of the women from Rest In Power were murdered. Period. Nothing about their deaths was peaceful, so suggesting that they “Rest In Peace” is problematic as well as an insult to their memories. Rest In Power moves the conversation from victimhood to empowerment. In a way, it restores their power in the afterlife.

Sandeep and her mural, Girls are Fierce Like Tigers, 2017

Sandeep and her mural, Girls are Fierce Like Tigers, 2017

You were just involved in the Vancouver Mural Festival. Can you tell us about the mural you created for the festival? Yeah, absolutely. My mural is entitled Girls Are Fierce Like Tigers.

The mural itself was inspired by a drawing I created during a recent residency at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster that really resonates with me. The lady on the tiger is a representation of Durga, the warrior goddess. It’s also a nod to the graphic novel, Priya’s Shakti, which was a response to the heart-breaking gang-rape and subsequent death of Jyoti Singh in 2012. In the novel, Priya is also gang-raped and then banished from her village to which she later returns as an unlikely superhero. Like Priya, much of the work I’m doing now revolves around empowering women and championing women’s rights so I wanted to bring a bit of that into the mural

I also took the location of my mural into consideration when creating the design. First, it’s on the side of a South Asian restaurant, Chutney Villa, so I wanted it to have a South Asian vibe (and big ups to them for feeding us the entire week—go eat there)! Second, it’s located at a high traffic pedestrian and transit hub, which I often use. Waiting for the bus on a grey, wet Vancouver day can be such a drag, so I wanted to create something fun, colourful, and bold to provide a bit of a respite. I used a palette of pinks and greens—colours I never use in my work—to keep things fresh.

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