Sandeep Johal has moved her bedroom into Surrey Art Gallery.
Well, not exactly her bedroom, but the artist’s re-imagination of her teen-years space in Kelowna, where the now-Vancouver-based Johal grew up subconsciously searching for more feminist South Asian role models.
This fall, the gallery’s main space features what Johal calls a “loose re-creation” of her old bedroom in the exhibit “What If?” her first in Surrey.
“What if her formative influences had been daring, defiant South Asian women?” an event advisory asks. “Why were such figures unseen and unheard of in both private and public spheres? Johal revisits, re-imagines, and reclaims her past by sharing these women’s stories through art.”
Artist Sandeep Johal’s teen bedroom re-imagined with South Asian role models at Surrey Art Gallery.
She revisits "what my life could have been like had I known about these women," growing up in Kelowna.@SurreyArtsCtre #SurreyBC
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— Tom Zillich (@TomZillich) September 28, 2021
Through textiles, paintings, drawings and animation, “Johal layers her personal history with those of South Asian women she wished she knew about as a first-generation South Asian youth – role models, pioneers, trailblazers, vigilantes and rebels,” all previously featured in Johal’s “Hard Kaur” series of portraits (“Kaur” is a typical middle name assigned to Sikh females at birth, meaning “lioness”).
“All of those women are in the wallpaper behind the bed, but then they’re also embodied in different objects and things in this bedroom,” Johal told Black Press Media.
“I was growing up with, you know, ‘90210,’ ‘My So-Called Life,’ listening to Madonna and Gwen Stefani, and there was no representation of my culture. So here, I’m going back to my teen bedroom and I’m revisiting and re-imagining what my life could have been like had I known about these women, and how that could have impacted me in different ways as I grew into an adult.”
The subject is explored at the gallery during an hour-long artist talk with Johal on Saturday, Oct. 9, starting at 2 p.m., amplifying an exhibit on view until mid-December.
“This bedroom is very true to who I was as a teen,” she revealed. “I haven’t put anything in here that I didn’t utilize or enjoy as a teen. And so, on the bulletin board there, those are fake show posters I’ve made of South Asian female bands, because there was none of that growing up either. It was Red Hot Chill Peppers and Nirvana and Alanis Morissette, you know, so that’s just a re-imagination. Those are real venues in Kelowna, and the dates are all significant to me, done in the spirit of DIY posters.”
A “Hard Kaur” jean jacket represents Johal’s teen passion for clothing modification and the equally prominent “Spice” tapestry riffs on a “girl power” British pop group of the late-1990s.
“When the Spice Girls came out, I was in my early 20s, I think, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is so amazing, these women are so cool and so empowered,’” Johal recalled. “And as adult you realize it was all fake empowerment, fake feminism and a completely manufactured band. So I looked at this as, ‘Well, who would my Spice Girls be?’ I chose five of the women from the series to be, you know, my version of the Spice Girls.”
They are “Bandit Queen” Phoolan Devi, suffragette Sophia Duleep Singh, rebel Laxmi Bai, vigilante group founder Gulabi Gang and labour-protest leader Jayaben Desai.
“My real question with all of this is, how do women endure such oppressive conditions and have the resilience and perseverance to just keep going?” Johal said. “You know, how are some people so resilient while others are not, and what creates that resilience? All of these women have that resilience, which I think is incredible. It’s having those role models that show you anything is possible. It may not be easy, but it’s possible.”
A “tomboy” growing up, Johal didn’t wear much makeup and was known as “Hoops,” for her love of basketball.
“These are real photos, but photocopies of them,” she said of images affixed to a vanity mirror. “This is a photo of me from the ’90s but I cut out my friend and put another woman from ‘Hard Kaur,’ Roshni Sharma, who was the first woman to ride a motorbike solo from the top of India to the bottom. People might not think that’s a big deal, but she was a lone woman doing that, and it’s quite an accomplishment in terms of safety alone. So that picture is of her and I palling around. I didn’t really have many brown friends growing up in a town that wasn’t very diverse.”
Scattered on the bed are teen-girl magazines with cover models now adorned with mehndi.
“These are thin, white blonde women who totally appropriated Indian culture all the time, but I thought they were so cool,” Johal emphasized. “As a teen I didn’t see myself represented in any of this pop culture. So I kind of Indian-ified the magazine covers in this way, kind of daydreaming of a time when someone like me could be on a cover like that.”
Also featured in the gallery are Johal’s “Rest in Power” series of drawings of 12 murdered women and “For Jyoti,” an animated film about the 2012 murder of Delhi student Jyoti Singh.
“Surrey has a South Asian diaspora community,” noted Suvi Bains, Surrey Art Gallery’s assistant curator. “It’s important to see our community represented through art exhibits that address difficult subjects and uplift resilient women.”