Voices

'Objects tell stories most historians would never write'

By Jasleen Kaur

23 February 2016 - 17:50

Jasleen Kaur talks about her identity as a Scottish-Indian artist, the secrets of everyday objects, and why the most interesting stories are often those we don’t hear about.

What does belonging mean to you?

I was born in Glasgow and brought up by Indian parents, so as a child I identified with two very different cultures. I had a traditional Sikh upbringing at home, but was raised in a predominantly white suburb of Glasgow where I was, almost, fully part of ‘Western society’.

In 1950, three years after the partition of India and Pakistan, my great-granddad moved from Punjab to Glasgow. Thanks to him, and the others who came before me, I feel like I’ve had an easier time being allowed to occupy the space that I do. I see myself as being somewhere in-between British, Indian, British-Asian, Glaswegian, Punjabi and something else entirely new. These multiple identities provide me with a richness that I often draw upon in my work.

Everybody has a different idea of the point at which somewhere, once foreign to them, becomes home. My gran on my mother’s side said that although she’d had children in India it was only when she gave birth in Britain that she felt she could call it home, as her child was a British citizen.

Why do you work with everyday objects?

Objects tell stories most historians would never write. My work is about the malleability of culture and the continual adaptations and subtle changes in peoples behaviour and traditions. I think everyday objects and matter that often go unnoticed can act as visual signifiers and commentaries on our social and cultural histories.

I started to use found objects for really practical reasons. The most effective and rapid way to make something was to utilise things from my immediate environment. I started to find things, hack them up and put them together in new ways – I called this process ‘bodging’. I want to re-appropriate and subvert things to give them new meanings — make things for how we actually do things, not for how we should be doing them. These hybrid objects can be comical, crude, poetic and they seem to speak for themselves. For example, I made a pair of shoes for my father from brown leather brogues, spliced with flip-flop sandals. He’s a proper business man who dresses ‘improperly’ and I wanted to reflect this in something as basic as a shoe.

Make do and mend is having a resurgence at the moment, and maker spaces, hack-spaces and repair events – places where like-minded makers can work together and directly with the public – are popping up across the UK. Various events, including the Migration Lab, are encouraging people to think, discuss and make new solutions, rather than just consume things, including information, and throw them away.

How has your family and personal history influenced your work?

My dad has got quite a makeshift way of fixing things, or bodging them, as I call it. I remember one night he was painting the top edge of the ceiling, but couldn’t prop up a ladder, as there was a stairwell in the way. Despite owning a hardware shop, Hardy’s Hardware – an Anglicisation of his name, Hardeep – he decided to give DIY a whole new meaning, by using masking tape to stick together an upside-down feather duster, a long plant cane and a paintbrush. A perfectly good tool for the job.

Can you tell us about some of your pieces?

At the moment I’m researching materials that I associate with a kind of Indian-ness, that aren’t Indian. For example, 1950s Axminster carpets feature so commonly in Sikh temples that they are perceived as a kind of Indian aesthetic – probably because they are hard-wearing and heavily patterned that they can cope with the odd turmeric stain. They are an example of what I'm calling ‘aspirational materials' that, due to heavy usage by a specific group of people, reveal stories of that community establishing themselves and finding a place in a new environment.

For my Royal College of Art (RCA) degree show I made Chai Tea Stall – a micro-business to operate in the white wall gallery space selling chai in terracotta cups using my gran's recipe. It was designed to change the culture of the formal gallery setting, enabling my parents – and other non-traditional gallery goers – to feel like they could enter that space. It took tea-drinking culture from the streets of Delhi to South Kensington but the stall could quite easily have been transported back to Delhi to operate in exactly the same way. I wanted to make something that could transcend cultural boundaries.

What is the relationship between migrants and material possessions?

It’s a façade that what you carry with you, or what you wear, say who you are. Your possessions don’t necessarily match what’s going on in your body or mind. It’s much more complex than that.

However, I’d be really interested to know what my great-grandfather brought with him when he moved to Glasgow. He didn’t bring very much, and it seems that he used the move to reinvent himself. He arrived on Scottish soil with a turban and a beard, but the only photos I’ve got of him are of him wearing tweed suits and a flat cap, sporting a well-trimmed moustache.

In some ways, the objects people own act like a comfort blanket or guise. Our possessions can be physical representations of our past and can help shape our identities. So, when migrants arrive in a new place without their things, I imagine they can lose a sense of who they are and how to navigate and function in this new world, as their memories and materials from their distant homes, that once shaped them, are completely gone. Objects from the past are precious, and I wonder what might happen to future generations of migrants and refugees who might not have photographs, or any kind of personal artefacts from their past.

In my experience, making new objects can offer a way for migrants to settle into a new culture, by creating visual representations of their own histories. It can help them remember their heritage, while adopting aspects of their new culture.

Join the Counterpoints Arts' Migration Lab at the Design Museum in London on Tuesday 23 February 2016.

Find out about upcoming events with Counterpoints Arts, Learning Lab.

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