Content Warning: Violence and sexual assault.
Surrey has the largest Indo-Canadian population in the province, but they often feel unseen for their accomplishments.
Visual artist Sandeep Johal’s exhibit, What if? will be featured at the Surrey Art Gallery that focuses on Indian women throughout history who were role models, trailblazers, pioneers, rebels, and vigilantes. Johal chose this topic because the women featured in the exhibit failed to receive recognition for their work.
“I wanted to see Indian women in power so I could see someone else doing it, so then I didn’t think I was crazy for doing it too,” says Johal. “I chose 13 women who I wanted to embody in different ways through objects and textiles.”
The exhibit is a recreation of Johal’s teenage bedroom with the different forms of artist drawings, paintings, textiles, and animations displayed throughout her room. She reimagines how her room would have looked if she was taught about strong Indian women growing up.
“What if Sandeep saw her community being more represented? Why weren’t South Asian women celebrated in spaces?” says Suvi Bains, curator of the exhibit. “She’s taking India’s past and present of women and highlighting it in the room.”
The image of Indian women that Johal internalized as she grew up was that they cook, clean, and serve others, while men typically hold the power. She never associated herself with this portrayal and is attempting to change that narrative with What if?
Johal wants the younger generation of Indian women to learn about the powerful women in their ancestry so they can have the role models that she never got to have.
“There were a lot of honour killings happening when I was growing up so I wasn’t really looking at Indian women as role models. I was looking at what was happening to Indian women and why it was happening,” says Johal.
Pop culture was one of the means of media where Johal struggled most to find representation that she could be proud of. South Asian cultures were not being portrayed by South Asian people, which led to the wrong people profiting off stolen identities.
“A lot of the pop culture that was out there were Gwen Stefani and Madonna, who were culturally appropriating South Asian culture and exoticizing it,” says Bains.
Another section of the exhibit, called Rest in Power, features illustrations of Indian women who were brutally attacked, raped, murdered, and victims of gender-based violence.
“She really dedicates each of these drawings to the women and keeping their name and their legacy alive,” says Bains.
Johal hopes that her artwork will have an impact on Surrey and its people by showing an image of Indian women that hasn’t been seen before.
“Racialized communities in Surrey need a voice and access for exploration to see who they are so they can have pride in who they are,” says Bains.
The What if? exhibit will launch on Sept. 18 and run until Dec. 11, with no admission pricing.