The Singh Twins- Bridging Sikhism and Art
What influenced you to become artists, authors and film-makers?
Even though we‘ve always had an interest in art from a very early age (as far back as we can remember our favourite past time was painting and drawing), we never actually intended to make a career out of being artists. Initially we wanted to do medicine but eventually studied for a ‘Combined Studies’ degree in World Religions, Church History and Modern Art History. Even then, art just happened to be the only subject that fitted in with the timetable so we took that by default rather than choice.Our aim then was to become lecturers in Religious Studies.
However, we faced a lot of prejudice within the Art Department because we chose to work in an Indian style of painting (the Miniature Tradition) rather than follow Western trends of Modern Art and this is what really influenced us to become artists. All our lives we had experienced pressure from Western society to conform to Western ‘norms’ of living and thinking - whether from our peers at school or through the negative images of Asian culture that you would often see on TV. And we saw the refusal of our Art tutors to accept our chosen art form (which they thought was outdated and backward) as just another example of this. It was their attack on our Indian cultural heritage, which made us determined to assert our right to express our Asian identity through our art. Using our paintings to communicate on social and political issues has always been important to us and becoming authors and film makers too was a natural progression from being just visual artists, allowing us to reach much wider audiences through the written word and moving images. The writing in particular enabled us to maintain our interest in academic research of Indian and Sikh art and history. We have loved the medium of film since childhood. We did a brief course in video and film production after University but just as fun – we thought we had missed the boat on being ‘proper’ filmmakers. But it was attending the Toronto Spinning Wheel Film Festival (the first film festival showcasing films by, about and of interest to Sikhs) in 2004 and being told by our very good film maker friend Michael Singh that it’s “never too late”, which inspired us to pick up the camera ourselves.
How have you overcome the challenges, if any, that you have faced as Sikhs?
We are fortunate that we have not really faced any challenges as Sikhs specifically. However, being Sikh is part of our wider Asian identity, and in this respect, we have had many challenges to overcome growing up in a predominately Western environment - particularly throughout our education where we were often judged according to a Western values by both teachers and classmates. For example, we were accused of being ’square’ or ‘kill joys’ for declining invitations to get involved in western social norms such as drinking, smoking, and night clubbing and seen as backward, because we chose to wear Punjabi clothes rather than jeans and a T-shirt outside of school!
We believe our chances of studying medicine were ruined by our teachers, who wrongly assumed that we were being forced to study the sciences at school (in keeping with the negative stereotype about Asian parents not allowing their children to go into the arts). In our applications to various Universities, they stated that we were “only pursuing medicine because of parental persuasion and family tradition” So it’s no wonder that we didn’t get any offers for medicine. Then, later at University, we had to fight for our degree to be reinstated when one of the art examiners seriously downgraded our end of year art dissertation. It was confided in us by another tutor, that he had not liked our theories about Western art being heavily influenced by India and other non-European traditions. It took 5 years to appeal but the judgment came down on our side in the end. On another occasion, we were told by the Producers of a BBC televised competition that our work, was “too culturally different to be considered alongside the other entrants” even though it was the judges’ favourite and fulfilled all the rules. Luckily for us, we had each other to help us through these difficult spots. We have always stuck together and formed a united front against any challenges that came our way, but it also helped that we had family support throughout and also a strong sense of pride and confidence in who we were, culturally. So, no one was able to deter us from the values and way of life we grew up with as part of a large traditional Indian family, or the path we had chosen as artists.
What are your paintings, books and films focused on?
Generally speaking our paintings focus on challenging and redefining generally accepted, narrow views of heritage and identity in art and society. In addition we explore cultural, social and political issues of global significance through our work. So our themes range from the British/Asian experience; the shared cultural heritage between East and West; the value of keeping our ancient traditions in a Modern world: the relationship between Sports, Media and Celebrity and the state of society in the 21st Century, to the impact of the Storming of the Golden Temple in 1984 and the injustice of the Iraq War. In addition we have several works that focus on purely Sikh religious and historical themes
So far our books have focused on our paintings as well as aspects of Indian art history generally.
To date we have made only two films. The first, follows the making of our painting titled “Nineteen Eighty Four” - focusing on the tragedy of 1984 (that is, the Indian Army attack on the Golden Temple, the massacre of Sikhs which followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the human rights issues surrounding these events). The other film is an animation called ‘The Making of Liverpool’ which brings to life one of our paintings (‘Liverpool 800’) and tells the story of our home city. However we have many other film ideas in the pipeline that will focus on documenting Sikh art and history.
What advice would you recommend for our upcoming generations of Sikhs?
Be respectful of others but proud of your own heritage and identity – however you define that. And never compromise your beliefs and principles for the sake of ‘fitting in’, being accepted by the majority, or, being successful in life. If others cannot value you for what you are, that is their problem! Also, always try and stand up to and overcome - rather than give in - to the challenges in life. It makes you a much stronger person and allows you to set a good role model for others to follow!