Rest in power: This artist finds catharsis and hope by drawing victims of gender-based violence

Vancouver artist Sandeep Johal's upcoming exhibition honours 12 women from various cultural backgrounds who were killed because of their gender.

Sandeep Johal's drawings are an outlet for her rage in the face of injustice

Sandeep Johal in front of an untitled mural she created. (Sandeep Johal)

Vancouver artist Sandeep Johal's upcoming exhibition Rest in Power honours 12 women from various cultural backgrounds who died as a result of gender-based violence — whether honour killings, domestic violence or sexual assault.

The exhibition includes acrylic paintings as well as 12 patterned, geometrical drawings of goddesses with collage elements. Each represents a woman killed because of her gender. Creating them helps Johal deal with the anger she feels over such violence.

"It's very cathartic," Johal says. "I feel full of rage a lot of the time when I see these stories and I read these headlines."

The first stories to spark her rage were those of Jaswinder Sidhu — a young woman from Maple Ridge, B.C. whose mother and uncle had her killed because she'd married a rickshaw driver — and Amandeep Atwal from Kitimat, B.C., who was murdered by her father for dating a boy from outside their culture.

One of the acrylics from Sandeep Johal's Rest in Power exhibition. (Sandeep Johal)

But the pieces that make up Rest In Power began to take shape around the time that Japanese student Natsumi Kogawa went missing in Vancouver in September of 2016. Johal was working on a goddess drawing inspired by Shauna Singh Baldwin's novel The Selector of Souls when she learned that Kogawa had been found murdered.

"I was drawing the goddess and crying and drawing and crying and thinking about her," said Johal. She posted the resulting image on Instagram, dedicating it to Kogawa with the hashtag #restinpower. The phrase seemed more appropriate than "rest in peace."

"The women in my series were killed in really brutal ways. How could I say 'rest in peace' now that you've had this horrible thing happen to you?" she said "I want to give them their power back in the afterlife so that they're empowered still."

I've never felt comfortable with the double standard in my culture where boys are revered, girls are considered a burden. I want my own culture to wake up.- Sandeep Johal , artist

The exhibition is a step towards Johal's claiming of her own power, too. It's her first solo show, a milestone on a long path into a career in art. An art diploma at the age of 30 was followed by several false starts. Her South Asian heritage, she said, played a role in the delay.

"I didn't have role models in my community that are in the arts. I didn't know any South Asian artists. So I just kind of kept it on the back burner," she said.

Over the past year, support from women at Thrive Art Studio — a community of female artists in Vancouver — led to involvement in public art projects like the Vancouver Mural Festival, where, she said, "so many young brown people from the community came to see me paint." Her bright mural "Girls are Fierce Like Tigers" is splashed across the side of an Indian restaurant near Main Street.

Sandeep Johal's "Girls are Fierce Like Tigers" is splashed across the side of an Indian restaurant near Main Street in Vancouver. (Sandeep Johal)

She hopes her visibility as a South Asian artist in Vancouver can inspire young Indian artists and bring some of her culture's issues into the open.

"I've never felt comfortable with the double standard in my culture where boys are revered, girls are considered a burden," she said. "I want my own culture to wake up."

For starters, she said, victim-blaming must stop.

"Educate men not to hurt women, not to assault women, not to rape women — that's where we have to start."

Beyond her own culture, she notes, issues affecting marginalized women and women of colour, in particular, are often "swept under the carpet." And she's grown keenly aware of gender-based violence in other communities, too.

I just want people to walk away and think about it. This stuff is still happening and it happens all the time. And we don't talk about it enough. And we don't do enough about it.- Sandeep Johal, artist

"I'm starting to become more tuned in to missing and murdered Indigenous women," she said. "I need to start seeing how I can be an ally and what I can do to help."

Such subject matter is a heavy emotional load to carry.

"I think about these women all the time," said Johal. "I feel sad a lot of the time, I feel hopeless, I feel frustrated, I feel angry."

Sandeep Johal's "When Honour Kills Sidhu." (Sandeep Johal)

But she finds hope in beauty, in the resilience of the human spirit and in the possibility of effecting change. At the very least, she hopes to inspire conversation.

"I just want people to walk away and think about it. This stuff is still happening and it happens all the time. And we don't talk about it enough. And we don't do enough about it." 

"Just keep talking about it. Talk about these things."

Rest In Power. September 8-30. The Gam Gallery, 110 E. Hastings St., Vancouver. www.gamgallery.com​