Growing up in 1970s Canada, as the great-grandchild of a first generation Sikh immigrant, Angela Aujla was keenly aware of the two disparate worlds she occupied.
One was that of a close-knit Sikh family, of school vacations spent with her grandparents in Lake Cowichan, a small town in Canada with a bustling Sikh community. “The Lake Cowichan Sikh Temple would be full of ladies cooking, kids playing, and even had hens in the backyard,” said Aujla. Her other world was back in her hometown, the city of Port Coquitlam, and a life at school with “Eurocentric curriculum”. “I didn’t have a peer group that was culturally similar to me and the disparaging and racist comments that I would experience were disheartening,” she remembered.
Episodes like these were what prompted a teenage Aujla to distance herself from her culture and religion, at least in public. The abandonment, she says, was a “coping mechanism at the time”. It gave her great relief that her father didn’t wear a turban, because its presence would have been one more thing to single her out.
In private though, Aujla nursed a deep fascination for Sikh and Indian history, especially since they weren’t part of her school curriculum. Reading about her people’s history enabled Aujla to embrace her identity as a Sikh woman and stirred the desire to further explore her culture. She eventually wrote her Masters dissertation on literature by multi-generational South Asian Canadian women.
Now 44, Aujla is a professor of sociology at the Department of Liberal Arts at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario, and a professional artist. Three years ago she started Canadian Stories, an ongoing art project which is a collection of digital collages that draw attention to the presence of the Sikh community in Canada, giving it the recognition that her history books did not.
“With Canadian Stories, I seek to emphasise the resilience and dignity of our people, particularly the women who traditionally have had the difficult task of being the keepers and transmitters of culture, language and tradition, something particularly challenging in patriarchal, diasporic contexts,” said Aujla. “I use a lot of text in my artworks because text reflects the stories of joy, strife and adversity that our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers have embodied.”
The focus on Sikh, and more generally Indian, images and stories is her way of reimagining images of her people – both within India and the diaspora – who have faced racism from the dominant culture.
History though images
Photos of Aujla’s grandparents and family feature heavily in Canadian Stories, as do archival images of those who came to Canada around the 1900s, the same time as her great-grandparents. Aujla’s great-grandparents were among the first Sikhs to arrive from Patiala and Ludhiana, and settle down in Canada. To these images are added layers to give them more meaning. Some layers are images from different generations, some have superimposed text and some have old letters that her family left behind. One image is a digitally coloured photograph of Sikhs from 1906 – the year her great-grandfather arrived – layered with a digitally-altered photo of her son at the beach wearing a hat bearing Canada’s maple leaf.
“My work explores the complexities of history, memory, culture and identity in the South Asian Canadian diaspora,” she said. “I incorporate mixed media, like archival photographs, my own photography and drawing, and historical elements by making it a collage.” Her grandmother, uncles and aunts appear in several black-and-white images that are combined with other elements such as Indian postal seals as well as Aujla’s brush strokes.
She has also used images from provincial and federal websites and city archives. Canadian Stories features images of Sikh lumber mill workers from 1910, a photograph from 1959 titled Brothers – a Sikh boy and his Caucasian friend – enjoying a drink of 7 Up on a hot day. Aujla even found a rare image in Vancouver’s city archives of a Sikh Nigar Kirtan procession in Vancouver’s Kitsilano area from 1936 and reanimated it by colouring the turbans of the children orange – the colour of the Sikh flag.
“The series of history-based collages raises questions of who qualifies as ‘real Canadians’ versus who we see and treat as perpetual foreigners,” said Aujla. “The recognition of the longstanding presence and contributions of various cultural groups to the building of Canadian culture and the Canadian nation state is crucial to a truly equitable and inclusive society.”
Representation is the focus
Over the past few years, several art and photo projects have highlighted the Sikhs’ contribution to society in Canada, United States and United Kingdom. The Sikh Project, by two London-based photographers, focuses on the life of the modern-day Sikh. It looks at the way they seek to define themselves in this world and not just by their faith alone. Jessie Kaur Lehail’s Kaur Project profiles women with the surname Kaur and tells their stories of empowerment, resilience and in some cases, nostalgia about their time in India.
“Representation is imperative, especially multiple narratives,” said Lehail. “We existed in the day-to-day history of Canada, but that is rarely discussed.” What is seen instead are typical narratives about the 1914 Komagatu Maru incident (during which a ship carrying hundreds of Indian immigrants was turned back due to discriminatory laws) or Sikhs’ success in Canada that buys into the model minority angle.
Lehail feels that Aujla’s art shouldn’t be pigeonholed as South Asian art. “In an era where identity and politics are important, Angela’s work is fascinating and beautiful but also acts as a window to today’s world,” she said. “Her works have a collage focus that has a certain narrative feel. They explore themes of ethnicity, identity and even nostalgia. I see the artist exploring her childhood, her roots, and at times even reconciling her identity. In today’s world, this interplay and interrogation of our journey is important to create awareness.”