AN INTERNATIONAL PUNJABI IN BREXIT BRITAIN
To Sami Brar, Jagdish Lall, and Narvir Singh.
In June 2016, I emerged from the MFA Painting program at RISD, where I worked with professors spanning the entire kaleidoscope of the campus, and engaged in theory and criticism ranging the topics of history, the archive, identity and race. This spectrum of ideological and conceptual sources deeply informed my narrative-based art: fragile and haunting stories of marginalized histories of Sikh communities in the diaspora, the psychologically fraught landscapes of people living in unsettlingly foreign places, their melancholic private interiors, the proudly built Sikh temples, and the domestic and material cultures of the lives they have led and continue to lead.
After graduating, I wound up back in my hometown of Guelph, Ontario. And, for two peaceful months, I immersed myself in key texts following the histories of diasporic South Asian communities throughout the UK, preparing for a month-long fellowship at the Camden Arts Centre and the Slade School of Fine Art in London. I had always wanted to go to England; I felt that all roads to studying diasporic Sikh history led there. The colonialism, the British Raj, the fall of the empire, the relinquishing of India by the British and its residues—including the violent upheaval of the partition and a newly formed, bloodied Pakistan—it was all there. Whether I realized it or not, in my preparation I was already pre-constructing a utopian narrative (from within and afar) of how I thought England’s diasporic Sikh communities would be.
On August 1st, I arrived at London Gatwick Airport with a newly-formed sense of righteousness. I was a person of colour, born to immigrant parents, entering hostile, post-Brexit Britain. On this side of the pond, I wanted to scream that I was proudly making drawings depicting the histories of Sikh communities, demanding that artists, curators, writers, colleagues see how much our communities had suffered as immigrants, how marginalized we were.
My studio was close to Southall, a historic neighbourhood known all over the world as “Britain’s Little India.” As a South Asian growing up in an overwhelmingly white, small Canadian town, I had always dreamed of exploring Southall. It excited me that such a place in the West could exist: a community where you are not a stark visible minority but instead surrounded by your own people. Stepping off the worn-out train tracks, I was greeted by a sign reading Welcome to Southall, written in English and Punjabi.
My friend Sami Brar, a fellow Canadian Punjabi, and I gripped each other’s arms in excitement as we met up with Jagdish and Narvir, born and bred West London Hounslow/Southall British Sikhs, who promised to show us all of Southall’s nooks and crannies. As we walked, I plied them with questions—and learned, first hand, that night and in the weeks that followed, through interviews and my own eyes, the extraordinary, hostile class and caste divide that had taken root in the Sikh community. I heard stories of Sikh families who had immigrated to the UK in the 1950s and ‘60s in search of a better life, only to vote Leave in the Brexit referendum, a sense of hatred brewing toward newly arrived immigrants, Punjabi Sikh or not. I learned about the hierarchies of racism plaguing my community: the anti-blackness, the Islamophobia, the religious fundamentalism, the domestic violence, the rise of drug abuse and homelessness of Sikh youth, the abuse of elderly Sikh men and women, the shaming and taboo of mental illness in Sikh communities, the sense of a fractured community.
I tried holding onto my narrative of the Sikh diasporic community as a community that only faced—but did not perpetrate—marginalization. It was these notions that Jagdish and Narvir lovingly began to unravel for me. Truths I had tried to avoid, to run away from, to refuse to acknowledge, now surrounded me. The truth of self-hate saturated the remainder of my residency experience. My carefully crafted narrative, which I had worked so hard to build in graduate school, this wildly idealistic notion I had clung to, was destroyed forever.
In my confusion and sadness, I found comfort in reading, and created new drawings. I connected with Gurinder Chadha, a seasoned film-maker whose documentaries from the late 1980s and early ‘90s—focusing on narratives of Asian youth culture in Britain, Indian women cabaret performers, the birth of Bhangra Music, and the hostile experiences of neglected, elderly Punjabi immigrants living in nursing homes—had influenced me when I was in my late teens. Chadha took me back to Southall, where she exposed me to the gentrification of the town, showed me where various aspects of her films were shot, allowed me to interview her 90-year-old mother who had come to England in the 1950s, and generously connected me to Southall Black Sisters, a not-for-profit, secular and inclusive organization formed in 1979 that has aimed to highlight and challenge all forms of gender-related violence against Black (Asian and African-Caribbean) women.
Still, everything I had refused to acknowledge about my community—the flaws and the darkness—was now all I could think about. The clean, pretty narrative I had worked so long to fabricate was destroyed. So, when I arrived in Provincetown, I immersed myself in my work, furiously trying to figure out how to repair it—studying the archival stills of Chadha’s documentaries, the database of Southall Black sisters, and poring over of photographs I had taken in London, to create new drawings.
A turning point came in October, when I travelled back to RISD to hear a conversation with the Pakistani-American playwright Ayad Akhtar, who said something incredibly moving and apt:
My job is to hold a mirror not only to those who would be Islamophobic but to...my own Muslim community. I’ve got problems with my own community, which usually, when you’re an artist of any value, that’s actually where you live and breathe, is in the critique of your own community, not in the I am a victim don’t hurt me. That’s not really an interesting narrative.... It creates a binary where I’m right and you’re wrong, and I don’t think that’s art. I think that’s advocacy.
His words have stayed with me, now more than ever, as I begin to pick up the broken pieces of what “narrative” in my work really means. I am learning that perhaps narrative for me isn’t solely about the history of marginalized communities, but also about making history and solidarity intersectional in my work. And in order to do this, we need perhaps to point the fingers at ourselves and our flaws just as much as we point the fingers at others.
Jagdeep Raina received his MFA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2016, and his BFA from Western University with a major in English literature in 2013. He has participated in artist residencies at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the Camden Arts Centre/Slade School of Fine Art. His work has been featured in exhibitions throughout the United States and Canada as well as the 11th Shanghai Biennale. jagdeepraina.com