Nep Sidhu's latest exhibition revisits a painful chapter of Sikh history

As Medicine for a Nightmare opens in Vancouver, the artist reflects on the making of the exhibition.

As Medicine for a Nightmare opens in Vancouver, the artist reflects on the making of the exhibition

Installation view of Nep Sidhu: Medicine for a Nightmare (they called, we responded) at Toronto's Mercer Union. The exhibition opens at Vancouver's Audain Gallery May 30. (Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid/Courtesy of Mercer Union)

Photos don't do it justice. Nep Sidhu's work is profound and immense. His tapestries require a prolonged gaze to see all of the detail. His sculptures are layered in meaning and my brain can't even begin to wrap around his video work.

Over the past few years, Sidhu has crafted a reputation for himself as an artist who traces connections across time, space and communities. And from his futuristic sculpture/pinball machines to his fantastic golden sculptural gowns, Sidhu is not tethered to a singular form or medium.

This week, his solo exhibition Medicine for a Nightmare (they called, we responded) opens at the Audain Gallery in Vancouver. For the show, the Scarborough-based artist zeroes in on his Sikh heritage and considers the memories around a painful chapter in Sikh history.

In 1984 the Indian military invaded the Harmandir Sahib (often called the Golden Temple), a Sikh holy site. The massacre of thousands that ensued was known by the code name Operation Blue Star.

In his monumental 220 x 108'' tapestry "Medicine for a Nightmare," Sidhu uses materials such as cotton, wool, jute, zari, hair and steel to depict the sacred entrance to a holy shrine. It's genuinely staggering to behold. The open door suggests an invitation and is a reminder of the line that was crossed on that fateful day in 1984.

Nep Sidhu. Medicine for a Nightmare (from the series When My Drums Come Knocking, They Watch), 2019. (Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid/Courtesy of Mercer Union)

Sidhu's work has garnered the interest of some high-profile admirers and collaborators including Erykah Badu (who showed up for the exhibition's opening night at Toronto's Mercer Union) and Ishmael Butler from the group Shabazz Palaces.

I went to see the show when it was in Toronto earlier this year, and I spoke with Sidhu over email about the themes behind his work.

Amanda Parris: I read that you spent a year crafting one of your tapestries. Can you tell me about the process of making them?

Nep Sidhu: The process for the "Medicine for a Nightmare" tapestry was myself and a team of 12 people. We were staring down time in going for such an ambitious work.

For a portion of the effort I worked with a studio run by Olivia Dar in New Delhi. We have been able to find a routine and sequence in working with such scale. That said, it didn't help that halfway I abandoned my works [that] I had created at that point. I'm grateful to all those that came for the ride with me in helping to cross the finish line.

Where do the textiles come from?

Besides the gold zari, all of the cotton and wool is hand-dyed within New Delhi. From there it is all hand embroidery and painting on muslin.

Your work transcends any single material. When did you begin creating and what was the first material you used?

I spent a big part of my youth sketching, mostly. We weren't allowed toys at temple, so I managed to make forms out of the tissues I would have on me. So I guess that was form and sculpture happening — until my parents realized that I was paying no attention in gurdwara.

Nep Sidhu: Medicine for a Nightmare (they called, we responded). Installation view: Mercer Union, 2019. (Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid/Courtesy of Mercer Union)

A lot of artists talk about their connection to land, but you brought in literal dirt for your show. Where did it come from? Why was this important to include?

During the three-day attack on the Golden Temple, many were diving into the waters that surrounded the temple to save their lives. Being allowed to bring that same dirt that shared those waters was charging. The potential in having this object conduct such a memory was brought together by a shared belief in the power of the invisible.

It was an opportunity to allow the honesty of materials to commune and make possible an object that could go past a government's attempt at erasure and brutality toward Sikhs. It was an opportunity to allow generations to have the agents of space and place activated so that we could commune, on nature's terms, with our folks that are on the other side. It points to an interdependence in how we need to be able to see and feel one another for true advancement.

Your work is steeped in history and creating connections across seemingly disparate subjects and communities. What was your research process like? How did that translate into your artistic process?

A lot of my research was taken from life experiences back home in Punjab. With such an intense and violent event that furthered into other strategies of torture and elimination, it was important to speak to a range of people both inside the country and here in Canada.

There are transnational identities and threads to the experience which are also important to share our experiences, reactions and the ways forward. I also wanted to bring forward the brilliant work of Jaswant Singh Kalra and Ensaaf, who continue in the pursuit of ending impunity and achieving justice for crimes against humanity in India, with a special focus on Punjab.

Nep Sidhu in collaboration with Nicholas Galanin. Axes in Polyrhythm (from the series When My Drums Come Knocking, They Watch), 2018. Cotton wool, jute, copper leaf, resin, nylon, red cedar. (Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid/Courtesy of Mercer Union)

The Sikh community was one of your target audiences for this show. How has the community responded to your show?

Being involved in such an exchange has been quite moving, especially [hearing] the lively responses from younger minds [who] are beginning to express and think about their ideas, whether it has a direct connection to identity or not.

You're invoking memories that are painful and are part of a collective trauma. How do you take care of yourself in that process? What goes into your consideration when thinking about the audience that will eventually see it?

[Art writer] Ricky Varghese had shared an idea by Rebecca Comay which I thought really spoke to the questions I was exploring when building this show: "How to commemorate an event which both demands and refuses commemoration; where all available cultural forms threaten to trivialize, sentimentalize, mystify, embellish, instrumentalize, or otherwise betray the memory of the dead; and where every attempt to acknowledge injury seems to compound it." In looking to not dishonour the multiplicity in the experience of such an event, I focused on expressing the experience of Simran and Seva — without the constructs of myths, jargon, rituals and political exploitation of Sikh people.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Nep Sidhu. Medicine for a Nightmare (they called, we responded). To Aug. 3. Audain Gallery, Vancouver.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.