The Canadian Art Database

Sarindar Dhaliwal

Identity Transfers
The Art Gallery of Peterborough, Peterborough, Ontario, Sept. 9 - Oct. 11 1993

from the catalogue
[ 3,662 words ]

Illi-Maria Tamplin

A Note from the Gallery's Director:

Art-making is a primary, most important activity for Sarindar Dhaliwal and for the last ten years she has done this in the city of Kingston, Ontario. Functioning in the contemporary art scene is difficult when you live away from a large metropolis. There just aren't the same opportunities to show your work, nor are there always the contacts and intellectual stimuli necessary to push the work forward. But Dhaliwal has looked to her inner resources and has expanded her vision by focusing on her personal history and by using the experience of travel as a source for her work.

In her background, Dhaliwal shares a sense of displacement with many Canadians who have also come here from other countries. She was first uprooted when she was three years old and moved with her family from the Punjab region of India to London, England and then moved again to a small town near Carleton Place, Ontario when she was fifteen years old. For a teenager the comfort and continuity of her parents' home, now situated in a rural Ontario town, was not enough to hold her. Not being able to adapt, she left home and went to work in order to earn herself a trip back to London, England, where she stayed and worked for a year.

When Dhaliwal returned to live in Kingston, Ontario, in 1971, she began to take courses in weaving and batik. At that time she shared living quarters with students who were enrolled in the Fine Art programme at Queen's University. This is when she first encountered the arguments with the Queen's students who insisted that weaving is a craft and should not be considered fine art. Dhaliwal did not believe that the medium in which artists selected to work should be ranked in importance. In order to find out why others thought differently, she returned to England in 1974, this time to study at the Falmouth School of Art in Cornwall, graduating with an Honours BFA in 1978. This school, like many of our art schools at that time, taught a curious mix of conservative academic studio classes and extolled minimalist sculpture as the height of artistic achievement at the expense of other working methods. Dhaliwal's early work in art school dealt with sexuality, which she expressed in organic sculptures made from non-traditional media like weaving and knitting. In retrospect, she realizes that her large sculptural pieces in bright, hand-dyed colours were not accepted as sculpture because the instructors felt that 'there was just too much wool!' Looking back, we also know that the sculptures were probably dismissed as feminist work, even though her experimental techniques subverted textile traditions. So after graduating, there were still no easy answers for Dhaliwal and her search was as open ended as ever before.

However, by the late 1970s, the climate in which artists produced their work was again undergoing major changes. As artists began to consider the discipline of Western modern painting and sculpture as too confining, a new pluralism began to flourish within the Postmodern era. Some critics who favoured a more directed approach, saw this pluralism which encompassed such diverse forms of art as conceptual art, video, performance, realism, earth art, feminist art and many others, as activities which threatened the seriousness of the status of art in society. But others saw this development as part of a general trend which belonged with the flood of expanded information through electronic media and studies which focused on a wide range of subjects from archaeology, indigenous peoples, females, ecology and social issues. Much of the kind of information which had in the past been privileged to scholars, now spilled over into society as general knowledge.

The writer Lucy Lippard saw this development in a positive light when she wrote in the book Overlay, Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, 1983:

In the late 60s, after a period in which most avant-garde art was drastically divorced from social subjects or effects, many artists became disgusted with the star system and the narrowness of formal 'movements'. They began to ask themselves larger questions. When they looked up from their canvases and steel, they saw politics, nature, history, and myth out there.

These questions were indeed larger in the sense of being more encompassing. Instead of following formal art practices, artists began to look both inside and outside of themselves for material. For Dhaliwal this meant the freedom to seek out her ethnic heritage and to relate this experience to her work. She began her search by making closer contacts with family members living in Toronto. Her trip back to India was not made as a native daughter going home since such a stay with relatives would have put restrictions on her. Instead, it was again a time for valuable research which resulted in findings that continue to have a strong impact on the process of Dhaliwal's work.

Dhaliwal began to exhibit her work in Kingston in 1981 and in 1988 she wrote, 'My work is concerned with mixtures — combinations of diverse materials, figurative drawing within a geometrical structure, works which hover on the borderline between being two and three dimensional.'

Her two dimensional works on paper like Outside the Zanzibar Tea Gardens (1985), display exotic foliage and patterned tiles and screens in lush colours arranged in a collective of small images which read like miniatures full of rich detail and mystery. Dhaliwal has noticed that when it comes to viewing contemporary art, double standards are still applied and these brightly coloured works are at times, dismissed by some as 'decorative'. Yet, we tend to admire historical works, especially those from other cultures like Persian miniature illuminations, for those very reasons — for their exquisite, complex, intricately painted surfaces. In response to this criticism, Dhaliwal painted a mixed media work on paper entitled Triple Self Portrait with Pomegranates and Persimmon (1988), in which borders full of carefully designed patterns separate each miniature segment in the central portion of the work. In contrast, she randomly dabs irregular bits of colour as tests to the right and left sides of the work. These dabbed fragments represent the formal borders, departing from their rigidity in a kind of abstracted way which echoes in their diversity the images in each of the small rectangles, adding to the multi-layered meaning of the work.

In the mixed-media work on paper, Rendezvous Between an Angel and a Blackbird (1991), Dhaliwal, in the guise of a blackbird, converses with a Renaissance angel she found in Florence. Although the angel is identified by the customary golden halo, its pose, serious expression and casual contemporary dress make it appear like a female 20th century flower child. The architecture could be Italian and yet it could also be in India or some other hot place. The juxtaposition of images makes the work culturally non-specific in content as well as painting style. Actual feathers and sticks of wood coated with saffron colour are mounted on the black backgrounds which lend a preciousness to these objects as though they were in a museum display on black velvet.

In 1991, Dhaliwal presented the floor piece, Punjabi Sheets #2, in which 16 pieces of slate lie on the floor. The slate is incised with the names of members of her extended family. As a child, Dhaliwal accepted the custom of calling these family members by specific names, but the meaning of these complex kinship designations was left unexplained by her family. In her mid-thirties, she decided that it was important in her search for identity to have the names explained to her. Because these designations were so connected to India, Dhaliwal drew on the experience of visiting markets there. The colour laden profusion of bowls with fruit, pyramids of spices and cakes of coloured pigment of the Indian markets have been translated into coconut shells filled with powdered pigment in ochre, crimson and black and paired with each piece of slate. Dhaliwal again found the appropriate combination of ritual expression and aesthetic impact.

In a recent conversation, Dhaliwal talked about borrowing the idea of using loose pigment from Anish Kapoor, an artist who lives in England now, but was born in Bombay, India. His recent inclusion in the exhibition Documenta IX and this year's tour of his work in the United States and Canada has secured Kapoor's international reputation as an innovator in the field of sculpture. But there is also the work of German artist Wolfgang Laib who collects plant pollen and spreads it onto the floor for pure colour. Dhaliwal saw the magic in Laib's piece and felt that it was pivotal in reinforcing her decision to use powdered pigment. When the dye used in colouring the forms of Dhaliwal's sculptures dries, it tends to be a duller hue, so from a practical and aesthetic approach, she spreads the loose powdery pigment over the dyed surface to augment the colour, giving the work a new strength through the intensity and essence of the pure pigment.

In the summer of 1992, Dhaliwal participated in a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts which dealt with the theme 'Race & the Body Politic'. There she began to make three dimensional installation pieces which were constructed with a kind of
building 'block' formed from wood pulp and straw. Dhaliwal explains that the concept for these works was inspired by structures found in India that were made by stacking round disks of dried cow dung which is used as fuel for cooking and heat. Although this explanation takes care of the derivation for the construction of the components used in the installations, many other factors, including distinct architecturally related features, enter into the work.

For three of the new pieces created in 1993 in Vancouver, Dhaliwal connects them closely to the exhibition space by painting the gallery wall not merely as a backdrop, but with shapes that are specific and integrated with the objects before them. For instance, the five foot high arch painted in poppy red on the gallery wall with a low wall of 'brick' forms before it, because of its particular domed shape, conjures images of such shapes from the ancient temple forms of India called a Stupa. The wall in the front stands for all the outer walls which enclose and protect the sacred temples. In Eastern architecture, these walls are often constructed like lacy screens which partly reveal what is behind them. The negative spaces of Dhaliwal's walls are like the dark hollows which a strong sunlight can impose on the architecture.

Another unfilled work from 1993 is made with a succession of red disks formed from wood compound and straw and placed on a black platform which continues along the corner where the walls meet. This piece also works through a range of associations where the disks function in a ritual placement, possibly tracing the passage of a succession of burning suns across the sky. In another recent work, the gesture of making a white circle by spreading salt on the floor is startling in its simplicity. Then, on this salt circle, Dhaliwal randomly places thirty-four whitish small round balls which she has formed to fit the size of the palm of her hand. A whole self-contained universe is created within this circle that suddenly connects to the many symbolic circles which people have constructed from ancient times into the present. As Lucy Lippard illustrates in her extensive research in the chapter 'Stones' in the book cited earlier, the stone circles of contemporary artists like Robert Smithson, Vida Freeman and Gisela Fisher have a very long history behind them. Similar to pieces by these artists are Dhaliwal's installation pieces. On first encounter, they carry a contemporary minimalism about them, but then, she manages to transfer her memory of remnants of India's past and a much wider collective memory directly into the work and thereby stretches its symbolic nature into new dimensions.

Although Dhaliwal works here in Canada, her multifaceted background is very much integrated into her work. A strong link with her Eastern past was kept through her mother who died four years ago. Her travels to Egypt, Brazil and Sri Lanka have reiterated the vast cultural differences one can experience. Perhaps both the dichotomy and harmony in Dhaliwal's approach can be paralleled in a description of Eastern and Western clothing by Nakao Furue, who is from Japan and now teaches in the textile department of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. In the text, 'Transplant: Observations on Two Cultures', published in Harbour, Winter 1993, Furue says:

I think a fundamental difference between the two cultures lies in the relationship of one's self to the other, be it material, people or nature, and this difference is reflected in how we clothe ourselves. Western-style clothing is like a container, a complete and distinct form which resembles us and into which we insert ourselves. We enter our clothes . . . The kimono, on the other hand, is essentially a flat rectangular piece of cloth. Our three-dimensional body and the two-dimensional cloth together produce the final form ...

I suspect that this everyday ritualistic gesture of wrapping cultivated an attitude of receptiveness.

The observations which Dhaliwal makes in her visual art works and her writing must have come from this receptiveness which was nurtured by the gesture of allowing herself to be wrapped in her heritage.


Sarindar Dhaliwal



Midway through the monsoon season the baby became sick. Her mother and aunt took her from village to village: Goraya, Ludhiana, Phagore; from doctor to doctor.

They returned home sodden, the embroidered cuffs of their baggy pants encrusted with the gray mud of the Punjabi roads. The baby remained this side of death and never stopped whimpering.

In their grief, the sisters began to doubt their god, swearing that if the child died, they too would stop living. Meanwhile the neighbours prepared to attend to the women's imminent sorrow with ill concealed excitement. Death brings with it a busying of life.

A passing tinker stopped by the house looking for copper vessels to mend. Our pots are fine, wailed the women, but our daughter is dying. The tinker who had centuries of wisdom running through his veins told the women to take a freshly laid egg and place it in the middle of the crossroads. When the first animal, bullock cart, bicycle or rickshawallah crushed the egg, then the baby would recover.

The sisters had no hope but their blind peasant faith left and went searching under the squawking chickens. They held up an egg, still warm, its translucent shell singing in the sunlight.


London 1957

As a small child I would listen to my mother and her friends talking. They would press tea and scandal upon each other whilst sitting in a sort of rigid formality, pretending not to gossip. The folk stories of India bore into me. Some frightened me and some I asked to be told over and over again.

My mother had one friend whose face was fair and unlined. She was my favourite. I called her the green-coat-auntie. She always wore a coat cut in the fifties style of languorous curves. It had a wide, scalloped collar that lay flat and soft off her shoulders and was a rich mossy colour — a shade that still evokes the sincerity and warmth of a five-year-old's world hip deep in women, kitchen and kindergarten.

Green-coat-auntie and my mother would often chat about a woman of their acquaintance who was originally from a neighbouring village in the Punjab. Her name was Surjit Kaur. She lived in an outer suburb of London and visited us once a month or so. I can picture her sitting upstairs on the double-decker bus, right at the front in order to enjoy the view: endless rows of post-war houses with their pride of plucky little gardens punctuated by identical high streets of Sainsburys, Woolworths, cornershops and rundown greengrocers. She sat, her handbag clutched awkwardly against her stomach, her facing squirming with distaste from the cigarette smoke and the raucousness of the teddy boys seated behind her, who would be swearing, hooting and crushing out butts with the vindictive toes of their winklepickers.

She was in her mid-fifties, and apparently a notorious killer of newly-born girls. Her victims had been not only all of her own daughters but various other girl-children that she had 'disposed' of as a favour to members of her extended family. In her fervour, she never considered whether her actions would perhaps be a horrific surprise for the parents, and several of the murders were quite unexpected and unasked for. The stories about Surjit Kaur terrified and fascinated me. How could it be allowed? Where were the police? Green-coat-auntie had known of three or four deaths, and my mother recounted further incidents embellished with details of poison being administered and heartrending descriptions of hungry babies wanly crying far from the lactating breasts of their mothers. It filtered into my child's consciousness that you kept one girl child to help with the housework (one dowry was affordable) but any more girls would be a financial liability. Boys were strong sons to be proud of, whose birth would be feted with whisky and celebratory laughter. They would grow tall and handsome (sons are never ugly in the eyes of their mothers) and would provide in one's old age. I can remember Surjit Kaur asking me if I knew how to cook curries and dais. She cackled and continued 'I think all girls who don't know how to keep house should be done away with. If they don't know how to run a home I say get rid of them, otherwise they'll just grow up to be sluts and scrubbers.' A woman tittered. My mother's face became prim and stony. I looked at them blankly. Scrubbers? I didn't know what the word meant though it suggested certain images to me. But was she talking about me? I had just been fitted at infants' school that afternoon with a glittery silver halo for my part as an angel in the Christmas pageant. My friend Hilary was the other angel and we would stand on chairs (angels are tall) in the back row. I envisioned both of us stripped of our heavenly costumes and garbed in gray with sagging floral pinafores, our hair tied up with scarves in square knots like char ladies. I saw us with metal buckets and huge scrubbing brushes, on our knees cleaning the white porcelain tiles of the underground public lavatories on the pedestrian island at the Broadway. Hilary would share my fate as she didn't know how to make dal either; in fact she didn't even know how to eat it. She would wrinkle her nose and say it smelled funny.

At this time my mother gave birth to my sister. I was very proud of this little baby (though in later life we were to have the bitterest fights).

It was the custom of the Indian women to come calling, bringing sweetmeats and congratulations. When Surjit Kaur arrived with her handbag and a plastic sack full of little, brown paper packets of ladoos and jelabies I stood at the foot of the stairs, arms stretched from bannister to wall, screaming hysterically, 'Don't let her kill the baby. Don't let her kill the baby.'


What I remember best about Munni were her large sloe-shaped eyes. She had the habit as a small child of eating paper — any paper, but her favourite was wallpaper. In their house, whole rooms had areas of paper torn away where Munni had stripped the lower walls. However, despite this addiction, her marriage had been fairly easy to arrange.

At the age of twenty, Munni accompanied her mother to India to view a prospective husband. Munni's mother, who is my 'chachi' (that is the wife of my father's younger brother, my 'chacha'), had learnt of this young man from a friend, whose sister-in-law's brother he was. He seemed golden brown to Munni, handsome and good. My aunt was relieved that he still wore the turban. Her own sons' rebellion at thirteen or so had badly shaken her belief in her indisputable power and authority over her children. The boys had finally had enough of the taunts of their English schoolmates and the plaits tied up with brightly coloured ribbons had seriously hindered their soccer careers.

The matter of the marriage agreed upon, Munni and her mother returned to England, and the engaged couple began to correspond. Munni's letters, written in large rounded script, were a little childish since she'd never had occasion to write to anyone before. Gradually she warmed to the task and began to tell him about the grumpy foreman at the cosmetics factory where she worked and to relate the bizarre, convoluted storylines of the recent Indian musicals she had seen at the local cinema. His letters were full of insubstantial, polite formalities phrased in the flowery, archaic English used by the village scribe (Munni could not read or write Punjabi and he was unable to express himself in any form of English). Still, even with this middleman involved in and interpreting their communications, her heart fluttered each time the blue airmail form dropped through the letter slot onto the coconut matting. She loved him already.

From the catalogue Identity Transfers

Text: © Sarindar Dhaliwal and Illi-Maria Tamplin. All rights reserved.

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