My existence as a Punjabi-Sikh woman has always been something that I’ve hoped to better understand. Over the last couple of years of my life, I have worked at confronting my feelings of being “too Westernized,” and have tried to find a happy middle ground; one that allows me to embrace my modernized Canadian identity, while also maintaining my sense of self within my Punjabi Sikh roots.
This feeling is exactly why I found myself wanting to check out chashm-e-bulbul (or in English, Eye of the Nightingale), a new art exhibit that focuses on the stories of Sikh grandmothers and pays homage to the women of Sikhi through many installations, video essays and more. The exhibit is a celebration of the contributions of women within the Sikh Punjabi diaspora.
The exhibit, which is part of the ArtWorx TO: Toronto's Year of Public Art 2021–2022, has been curated by writer and creative director Raji Aujla and honours the women that come from Sikhi and the paths they have carved for all of us.
“Chashm-e-bulbul is an exhibition that probes the erasure of Sikh grandmothers’ visibility from historical records and explores methodologies to tell their stories through oral traditions, Punjabi textile, folk embroidery Phulkari, through the passage of time,” reads one of the first signs upon entry.
As soon as you approach the exhibit, which is being held in North York’s Bayview Shopping Centre, you see these very textiles visible in the display cases that occupy the front entrance.
We see sculptures of Sikh women in their traditional, colourful suits greeting us upon arrival, which were created by Aujla herself.
Aujla tells 5X Press that being able to curate this exhibit meant a lot to her.
"It is an honour to have been selected for this role by the City and more so, a privilege to have worked with an incredibly talented group of Sikh artists who took on the theme of this show with so much grace and intelligence,” Aujla said in a statement given to 5X Press.
“The City of Toronto has never selected a Sikh to a curatorial position before, so it's pretty awesome to have opened that door for Sikh narratives and Sikh women, specifically."
After walking inside the exhibit, the visuals start with a piece that is an ode to the women farmers that have been overlooked greatly, especially in the time of the Farmers’ Protest.
“It is important to observe Sikh farmerettes who are fighting for land rights even though they don’t have any themselves,” reads the text alongside the first piece of artwork; five large flowers that are in support of women’s contributions to Punjab.
In addition to this meaningful piece, the exhibit offers many other forms of artistry that are sure to captivate those walking through.
Artist Jagdeep Raina created illustrations that can be seen at the beginning of the exhibit, including a piece that acknowledges Afghan Sikhs, and a short film towards the end of the exhibit.
An experimental video essay by Pamila Matharu reflects on the changing and stagnant ways of diversity in programming, including words by poet Lakshmi Gill.
The work of Raina and Matharu each presents something new and thought-provoking, and nearby, there is work by other artists that come with a feeling of familiarity that is just as thought-provoking, but in a different way.
A mixed media piece by Angela Aujla honouring grandmothers is another piece in the exhibit that tugged greatly at my emotions, because connecting with my own grandmother has always been a way for me to connect to my roots.
Even if I went to school and took out my braids or even if I went into the world and put on a western performance, my relationship with her has always kept me grounded.
I’ve lived with my paternal grandmother–my Bibi– for my whole life. Many of us from Sikh Punjabi backgrounds are used to living with our Bibis. It’s part of maintaining the multigenerational homes that we often get side-eyed for.
Throughout my life, my Bibi would always speak about stories from when she was younger. It’s always been her way of keeping her lived experience alive.
She may not be able to materialize it through the written word or art but she has always used her voice and her memory to pass the tradition and history along.
Even now while she lives with dementia, she can still recall her life during the partition, her journey to Canada and her struggles as an immigrant woman working and living in Guelph, Ontario while raising four children. (Though I find she sugarcoats the latter to protect me from sadness–something she will always do for me).
As I passed by Angela Aujla’s piece titled “My Grandmother’s Dress” it was hard to fight back tears that I didn’t even know I had in me.
Even when these are stories that have been passed down to many of us, seeing them tangibly represented intensified these emotions.
It was simply being able to see these stories taking up space in an art exhibit that makes you feel seen.
There was even more familiarity in the work of Harjot Ghuman-Matharu who recreated the living room of a Sikh family home.
Chamba is an immersive installation and has everything down to an old-school TV playing old Punjabi programming. The only thing missing is the plastic coverings on the couch cushions.
This is a room that I’ve seen many times in my life. Most Punjabi Sikh people I know have seen this room.
This kind of familiarity is something that connects many Punjabi Sikh immigrants and children of immigrants, it’s something we know so well. We see a living room like this in an open space and we recognize it because it was either the exact living room our parents had or our grandparents or any number of relatives.
We’ve sat in this living room, had cha in this living room and we can all connect on that no matter what our relation is to understanding our identity.
In her artist statement, Ghuman-Matharu notes the importance of this scene which highlights the “experience of women impacted by patriarchy in creating safe spaces for themselves.”
The familiarity and the emotional intensity of the exhibit does not stop there and extends to so many other works.
Artist Keerat Kaur created an acrylic and hand embroidered piece dedicated to Sikh mothers.
There are also pieces that more overtly address relationships to Sikhi such as the many works created by Simranpreet Kaur Anand and Conner Singh Vanderbeek.
Perhaps I’m biased in my review.
I cried while walking through the exhibit and I cried sitting down to write this review. But who knew such a space would have ever existed for Sikh women.
I’ve been to many art exhibits and galleries in the past where I have had the pleasure of seeing and experiencing works that have made me feel connected and have made me feel something.
However, walking into chashm-e-bulbul felt like something I wasn’t sure I would have the pleasure of experiencing.
As I continue to better understand my identity, this exhibit drew me in closer and allowed me to connect with the history–my history, that I wanted to better understand.
And while I may still be figuring it all out, at least there are spaces that are helping me, and so many of us, to do so.
Here are some of the pieces, in the artist's words.
Artist Jagdeep Raina: My animated film, Madhur's Phulkari seeks to coexist with the the many themes explored in chashm-e-bulbul; whether it is the story of phulkari embroidery, the ruptures caused by violent transnational migrations, or the resiliency of the craft of textiles to be a space that can continue to be a place to preserve and honour our histories.
Simranpreet Kaur Anand and Conner Singh Vanderbeek: "We wanted to [touch] on wastefulness and excess in ritual practices around rumaley sahib, or Sikh sacred textiles. Due to the pressures of globalization and the replacement of slow handicrafts with mechanization and mass-production, materials that were historically made of natural fibers have been replaced with synthetic, plastic-laden fabrics that off-gas toxic fumes when cremated. This work, like the rest of chashm-e-bulbul, is critical of the consumptive popular cultures in Punjabi-Sikh diaspora that have undermined and erased countless traditional and ancestral practices."
Chashm-e-bulbul is taking place until December 31st at Bayview Village Shopping Centre in North York. Admission is free.
About the author: Monika Sidhu is a freelance multimedia journalist based out of Brampton,ON. She loves covering all things arts and culture and enjoys telling untold stories coming out of her community. Monika recently graduated from Western University receiving a Master’s of Media in Journalism and Communication. In her off-time, you can find her discovering new music, spending time with her dogs or hiding the fact that she is binging reality tv shows.
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