South Asian art spices up Lunar New Year lanterns in Vancouver

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      This year’s LunarFest celebrations in Vancouver will have a touch of masala.

      That’s because two celebrated Vancouver artists of Punjabi ancestry, Jag Nagra and Sandeep Johal, have created lanterns that will be on display in šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl'e7énḵ Square on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery from Thursday (January 27) to February 9.

      The Lantern City exhibition, called We Are Family, is a collaboration of the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association and the Society of We Are Canadians Too.

      “I’m really grateful that they are including South Asian voices and stories this year,” Nagra, creative director of the Punjabi Market Collective, tells the Straight by phone.

      Last year, Nagra generated nationwide attention for designing a colourful Vancouver Canucks practise jersey timed for Diwali. Nagra’s work for Lantern City, Nazar Battu, features vibrantly painted masks, which are sometimes left at the entrances of South Asian people’s homes or businesses to ward off the “evil eye”.

      “Most of my artwork that I typically do—if you’ve seen it—is very bright,” Nagra says. “And the reason I do that is because I suffer from seasonal depression.… For my own mental health, I like to saturate my artwork really heavily with colours.”

      Jag Nagra says she likes incorporating vibrant colours in her artwork as a way of beating back seasonal depression.

      Tigers inspire Johal

      Johal had an exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery last year celebrating trailblazing South Asian women.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, she says that she features a great deal of tiger imagery in her work, so it made sense to incorporate one of these paintings into a Year of the Tiger lantern.

      Her piece, One Day, features a multicoloured big cat on a branch leaning into a woman wearing a bold black-and-white pattern. They’re holding hands, completely comfortable with one another.

      According to Johal, the painting was done at a time when people were being told to stay away from each other and not to touch, due to the pandemic.

      “So I titled it One Day, thinking about that day when this would end and we would all be together again,” she says.

      Artist Sandeep Johal offers a reminder that we're about to enter the Year of the Tiger on another lantern at šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl'e7énḵ Square on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

      The initial drawing was auctioned off by the B.C. Women’s Health Foundation. And there’s a reason why Johal is attracted to the juxtaposition of women and tigers.

      “I think about them all the time,” she says. “When I did my first mural for the Vancouver Mural Festival, I had a black-and-white woman standing on a tiger.”

      Even though Johal is Sikh, she’s been drawn to tigers in part because of the Hindu goddess Durga, who is the protective mother of the universe. Durga is represented in Hindu mythology as riding on a tiger, unleashing her divine wrath against oppressors.

      The Vancouver Mural Festival piece, Johal says, was a “loose embodiment of Durga”.

      “The title of the mural was Fierce Like Tigers, and I found that quote on the side of a convenience store,” she recalls “It was on some kind of poster. It said, ‘Girls are fierce like tigers.’ I thought that was an incredible sentiment.”

      Sandeep Johal is no stranger to painting images of tigers and women together.
      LAARA CERMAN

      Some of her work addresses men’s violence against women. And in South Asia, the tiger has come to represent women’s liberation, including in the graphic novel Priya’s Shakti, which left a lasting impression on Johal.

      “I mean, 2022 is the Year of the Tiger,” Johal says. “And I really hope that encourages people to really sit in their power and make good choices and be generous and support one another as we navigate this global pandemic.”

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