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Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Muralist and illustrator Jag Nagra learns to love her Punjabi identity through art

Jag Nagra
Jag Nagra stands in front of her colourful and inclusive mural, which was unveiled last month at the Robert Lee YMCA in Vancouver. Photo by Jag Nagra.

A few years ago, something clicked in the mind of LGBTQ+ visual artist Jag Nagra. She suddenly started to feel pride in her identity as a person of Punjabi ancestry.

“My art and finding my identity have gone hand in hand,” Nagra tells Pancouver over Zoom. “It’s like the chicken or the egg. I don’t know which one came first. They kind of fed into each other.”

And it’s led to an outpouring of artistic production by Nagra, who lives on unceded territory of the Katzie people. Whether it’s her famous Diwali jersey for the Vancouver Canucks, a more recent varsity jacket with Punjabi Gurmuhki script, or a 2022 Lunar New Year lantern, her works unabashedly celebrate Punjabi culture.

“I like making art that puts sort of a contemporary South Asian spin on stuff that we see all the time,” Nagra says. “Now, I’m taking back that space and feeling proud.”

Jag Nagra
Jag Nagra’s Diwali Canucks jersey generated international media coverage in 2021.

She does this by inserting letters, words, or festive colours into her creations. One example is her recent “super limited collection” of Candy Hearts artworks. She created only one print of each hand-signed illustration featuring a Punjabi phrase in Roman script.

“Pyar is Pyar” means “Love is Love”. Another phrase, “Cha Banava?”, means “Should I make tea?”

“Drinking tea, drinking chai, is such a normal part of our everyday lives,” Nagra says. “That’s a way that our parents show us love. If it’s not a bowl of fruit or a plate of cut-up fruit that my mom is taking to me, she’s asking ‘Should I make tea?’ ”

Jag Nagra jacket
Jag Nagra designed this varsity letter jacket with Gurmuhki script. Photo by Jag Nagra.

Nagra explains jacket’s appeal

She’s particularly excited about the varsity jacket, which is not for public sale—yet. She created the design over a couple of days and put in an order for one for herself. It features a giant “J” in Gurmukhi script.

“That should be arriving in two or three weeks,” Nagra says. “Fingers crossed that it fits. Even if it doesn’t, I’ll wear it, however it is.”

Nagra notes that when she was younger, she would often see varsity jackets with letters worn by characters on TV shows.

“It was always this thing to covet—this varsity letterman jacket,” she says.

Design by Jag Nagra.

Nagra also recently created an inclusive vinyl mural at the Robert Lee YMCA on Burrard Street. It showcases the centre’s diversity, activities, and appeal to people of different ages and sexual orientations—all in Nagra’s colourful style.

She embraces her LGBTQ+ identity in other ways. such as with a rainbow-coloured lioness on her website. Nagra created this for Sher Vancouver, which advocates for LGBTQ+ people of South Asian ancestry. The lion is associated with majestic courage in Punjab, which is why many Sikh men carry the name “Singh”.

Jag Nagra
Jag Nagra created this image for Sher Vancouver.

Punjabi pride took time to emerge

Nagra says that for most of her life, she felt more connected to her Canadian identity, but would downplay her Punjabi heritage. This might surprise those who admire her efforts to promote Punjabi heritage as vice-chair of the Punjabi Market Collective.

“I grew up in Maple Ridge, where it was predominantly white,” Nagra explains. “My school was predominantly white. I think that had a huge effect on me.”

As a student and in much of adulthood, Nagra says that she felt shame about her full name—Jagandeep. She reveals that it was awkward correcting people’s pronunciation or trying to explain it. She also felt a sense of embarrassment about her physical features and cultural nuances in her community.

“Now, I’m proud to be Punjabi,” Nagra says. “I’m proud to be South Asian.”

Darpan magazine posted this video last year with Jag Nagra.

She’s also exceptionally proud of her parents, Avtar and Rajwant, who appeared with her in Sher Vancouver’s documentary, Emergence: Out of the Shadows. They are now trying to inspire other Punjabi families to love and accept their LGBTQ+ children.

Nagra and her mom recently appeared on Spice Radio to discuss this with legendary broadcaster and station owner Shushma Datt.

“It was a really great conversation in English and Punjabi,” Nagra says. “I think we just need to normalize it.”

Watch the trailer for Emergence: Out of the Shadows.

Visit Jag Nagra’s website or follow her on Instagram to learn more. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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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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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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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.