HOUSTON — People and places are the central concerns of Ontario-based artist Jagdeep Raina. The artist’s lyrical drawings, delicate textiles, and meditative films are filled with farmers, families, and lovers who gather at storefronts and gates and on boats. These are the protagonists and thresholds of the modern Kashmiri and Punjabi diasporas to which Raina, who was born in Canada in 1991, also belongs.
Bonds at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston is Raina’s first solo museum presentation in the United States. The exhibition, curated by Tyler Blackwell, features 27 multimedia works made over the last six years. Inspired by archival research and oral histories, Raina’s work condenses the experiences of his ancestors with those of his own life, and relives the failures and conflicts of the last century with the vividness of the present day. Together, his works offer a complex exploration of home and history that defies the distances of space and time.
For Raina, the past is vividly alive. The subjects of his pictures come from photographic sources that are historical and informal, found and artist-generated. His works reproduce their sources in a careful but expressive hand, and refer to the dates and technologies of their time by appearing in color or black and white. Raina’s pictures of groups posing for photos and assorted building facades recall snippets from a family photo album or loose newspaper clippings, but the works’ titles and details give crucial clues about their importance.
For example, a close look at the brick storefront in one drawing reveals an orange Sikh flag and a sign with “Satnam Waheguru” and “Guelph Sikh Society” written on it. And the piece’s title, “To my sweet Stephenson road, as you continue to pierce the streets of Guelph, you taught all of us to be loved and find community, unconditionally” (2015), gives a sense of the artist’s lasting connection to the community center in his hometown. In a recent email to Hyperallergic, Raina described “the archive as a living object,” and this drawing demonstrates that elements of his own life can form part of a larger story of transnational migration, too.
Text has become increasingly important for Raina. His latest textile works contain poems and narratives that more explicitly refer to political and historical events like the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. “The text appears when there are stories I want to tell as an artist which can’t be contained in a physical object,” Raina said by email. His textile piece “Chemical Cotton Flowers” (2021), of two women standing in a field of cotton, refers to India’s Green Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, in which the introduction of new technologies, high-yield seeds, and pesticides irrevocably altered farming practices and local economies in Punjab. A prayer-like sewn verse at the base of the piece reads, “please strip them of these / chemical cotton flowers / let them cling to peace,” referring to the dangers women still face in agricultural labor.
Embroidered cloth pieces like this one are inspired by the Punjabi Phulkari and the Kashmiri shawl, traditional textile arts that today are threatened by increasing climate change, machine-made substitutes, and the exploitation of female weavers. Raina’s textiles are intimately scaled, and their uneven edges, poetic texts, and flowing threads give them a personal, dreamy quality. The artist himself dreams of living in Kashmir one day to learn from local experts. “I wanted to go to Chakothi as well which is now in Pakistan and heavily patrolled by the military, for that is where my roots lie,” he explained.
That return speaks directly to Raina’s complex sense of home. “I’ve always felt that home is a fraught place which is constantly going through ruptures,” the artist reflected by email. Despite the challenges, Raina’s thoughtful works are his way of “coming to terms with how to create home for myself.”
Jagdeep Raina: Bonds continues at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston (4173 Elgin Street, Houston) through October 24. The exhibition is curated by Tyler Blackwell.