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LunarFest 2023: Jessie Sohpaul infuses his artistic practice with history, curiosity, and a passion for equality

Jessie Sohpaul
Jessie Sohpaul's art has been inspired by historical injustice, including the theft of the Kohinoor diamond.

East Vancouver artist Jessie Sohpaul likes to take risks.

Whereas many painters and illustrators play with colours, he prefers creating images in black and white, sometimes accented with a splash of gold or red.

“I kind of dress like that,” Sohpaul quips to Pancouver over Zoom. “I wear gold chains and black T-shirts.”

He also likes injecting Punjabi script as patterns in his pieces. Sohpaul is creative director of the Punjabi Market Collective and this speaks to his ancestral heritage as the son of Punjabi immigrants.

Sohpaul demonstrates all of this in his new illustration for LunarFest Vancouver to usher in the Year of the Rabbit. The image shows two young women performing a Punjabi Kikkli dance under the blazing sun.

Because it’s Lunar New Year, Sohpaul aimed for a festive, optimistic, and fresh-faced illustration.

The artist explains that in a Kikkli dance, two women dress in traditional attire, hold hands, and spin around rapidly. His illustration features a golden setting to capture the feel of agrarian Punjab.

“I thought that this was the best way to portray this youthful energy,” Sohpaul says.

Kikklee dance
Jessie Sohpaul’s lantern at Granville Island will feature two women performing a traditional Punjabi dance.

He created this piece digitally for maximum flexibility.

“Once the festival starts and the lantern is up, I’m going to make a print of this as well,” he adds. “It will be available for purchase as well.”

From January 20 to February 20, the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association will present Sohpaul’s design on a large lantern at the Ocean Artworks outdoor pavilion on Granville Island. It will stand alongside lantern designs by two Indigenous artists, Richard Hunt and Rachel Smith, and students at Arts Umbrella.

Kohinoor, where are you?
Jessie Sohpaul’s Kohinoor, where are you? can be seen in an alley behind 6560 Main Street.

Sohpaul mural focuses on diamond

It’s one of three “Lantern City” exhibitions—the other two are at Jack Poole Plaza and at šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

One of Sohpaul’s best-known works is his mural Kohinoor, where are you?, in Vancouver’s Punjabi Market. He painted this black-and-white image in the lane behind 6560 Main Street as part of the Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts.

In the video below, Sohpaul describes this piece as an ode to the enormous Kohinoor diamond, which was discovered in India and is now part of the British Crown jewels.

“The Moghuls had it at one point,” he says. “The Sikh empire got it through Ranjit Singh. Then, eventually, through Duleep Singh, it was handed over to the British.”

Singh was the 10-year-old heir to the Sikh empire when the British-controlled East India Company forced him to give up the diamond as part of the 1849 Treaty of Lahore.

“All Indians know that it was kind of stolen,” Sohpaul declares.

Video: Jessie Sohpaul discusses his mural in the Punjabi Market.

Grandfather shaped his views

There’s also a deeper story behind the artist’s preference for black-and-white imagery.

Sohpaul learned a great deal about Indian history from his grandfather.

For hundreds of millions of people at the bottom of the caste system or victimized by communal violence, this history hasn’t been joyful. And in Sohpaul’s mind, it isn’t deserving of a brilliant kaleidoscope of colours, even though that’s how India is often depicted in art.

“For me, the colours never represented what India is actually about,” Sohpaul says. “So, I always show the black-and-white nature literally by using black and white.”

His grandfather was born in the part of Punjab that now belongs to Pakistan. He taught Sohpaul about the tragedy of Partition—with upward of a million people killed—after the British divided the subcontinent into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India.

His grandfather moved to Delhi, where more horrors ensued in 1984. At that time, the ruling party encouraged majoritarian mobs to murder thousands of Sikhs following the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi.

“We were always aware of atrocities that came with Indian history,” Sohpaul continues. “So, for me, if I use a lot of colour, I almost feel a little bit like I’m celebrating what I wouldn’t celebrate.”

Jessie Sohpaul
Jessie Sohpaul designs clothing in addition to creating paintings and illustrations.

Ambedkar versus Gandhi

Sohpaul’s family is Sikh, but he acknowledges that there’s a Dalit connection to his family history. The Dalits, often referred to as “Untouchables”, are the lowest caste of Hinduism and have been treated abominably by higher castes through the centuries.

Even though his grandfather shared many positive stories about India, they also discussed this very dark cloud that continues to hang over the country.

Moreover, his grandpa educated him about Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the great leader of the Dalits who wrote India’s constitution. Sohpaul even has a copy of Ambedkar’s landmark 1936 treatise, The Annihilation of Caste.

Ambedkar had planned to deliver this as a speech to a gathering of liberal-minded Hindus in Lahore. However, they blocked him from doing this after they learned what he was going to say.

Later, the leader of India’s independence movement, Mohandas K. Gandhi, accused Ambedkar of misinterpreting Hindu scriptures. It was one of several times they publicly disagreed over the caste system. (This was outlined in writer Arundhati Roy’s introduction to a 2014 edition of The Annihilation of Caste.)

Today, the western world reveres Gandhi whereas Ambedkar’s contribution to the struggle for equality is not nearly as well known outside of India.

“I think the narrative in India is really led by the upper castes,” Sohpaul says. “And I think they would push for Gandhi much more than Ambedkar, even if they don’t believe it.”

Jessie Sohpaul's Do Not Touch brand
Jessie Sohpaul has created T-shirts that turn the Indian concept of “untouchability” upside-down.

Creating the Do Not Touch brand

Sohpaul points out that some in the Indian diaspora will tell non-Indians that the caste system no longer exists. But he argues that many people who immigrate had the privilege and the means to leave India.

Therefore, he maintains that they aren’t fully aware of what it’s like for Dalits living at bottom of the caste system.

In response to this, he subtly and subversively expresses his views through his art. For example, he created a brand, Do Not Touch.

“That’s sort of a play on the ‘untouchables’,” Sohpaul says.

In effect, he’s rebranding the term from being the lowest to the highest form of acknowledgement through art.

This reflects his deep commitment to equality, which was articulated so well by the founder of Sikhi, Guru Nanak, more than 500 years ago.

“I would say I’ve read more of his writing than all the other gurus,” Sohpaul says. “He was so poetic and so provocative.”

Cover design for the official Tiësto remix.
Jessie Sohpaul designed this cover for an official Tiësto remix with Jaz Dhami.

Engaging across cultures

In 2015, Sohpaul graduated with honours in design and media arts from Simon Fraser University. His education included a six-month stint in the Netherlands at a Dutch design field school. After that, he moved to San Francisco for five years, where he worked in UX and app design.

During this period, he lived in a district with a large Latinx population. And he noticed many similarities between their culture and Indian culture.

“That area had a lot of street art and graffiti,” Sohpaul recalls. “The moment you stepped outside, you would be inspired. There were always people making things. That definitely rubbed off on me.”

Three American artists left a lasting impression on him: muralist and graphic artist Shepard Fairey, painter Cleon Peterson, and comic master Frank Frazetta. Sohpaul also greatly admires legendary Indian oil painter Sobha Singh.

“His work, almost aesthetically, is similar to Frank Frazetta in the dreamlike places they paint,” Sohpaul says.

His varied tastes in art—along with his appreciation for Latin American culture—demonstrate Sohpaul’s deep interest in cross-cultural engagement. He loves working with other communities. That’s why it gives him great pleasure, as someone of South Asian ancestry, to create art for Lunar New Year, which is traditionally associated with East Asia.

“This is ideal,” Sohpaul says. “It’s the best way to start 2023, so I’m so excited.”

Jessie Sohpaul shirt
Jessie Sohpaul at work in a T-shirt he designed.

For more information on the LunarFest Lantern City exhibitions, visit the website. Charlie Smith is the editor of Pancouver. Follow him on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia. To view Jessie Sohpaul’s art, visit his website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.