Arts

The world of Nep Sidhu, where Afro-futurism combines with Punjabi tradition

Nep Sidhu's tactile, sculptural work finds common ground between the Sikh warrior tradition and a hip-hop–influenced Afrocentrism. He describes himself as "an artist in continuum linking the ancient with the here and now."

Scarborough artist connects “the ancient with the here and now” in his sculpture, clothing and paintings

Who is he?

Nep Sidhu helps run a metal shop with his family in Scarborough, Ont., and they also own a boxing school for youth in Chakar, Punjab. Both of those elements of his background find their way into his tactile, sculptural work, which explores common ground between the Sikh warrior tradition and a hip-hop–influenced Afrocentrism. He describes himself as "an artist in continuum linking the ancient with the here and now."

Sculpting across mediums

"I don't have a medium that I favour more than the other," says Sidhu, who works across textiles, sculpture and paint. "My outlook and process interprets most ideas and objects as an opportunity for sculpture." One such opportunity: Paradise Sportif, Sidhu's non-commercial line of wearable art (that is: the coolest gear made only for Sidhu and his friends). It's an examination of the traditional uses — across cultures — of adornment as protection or armour, inspired by the music of Ishmael Butler from Seattle rap group Shabazz Palaces. Last summer Sidhu created the cover art for the acclaimed group's second album Lese Majesty.

Finding art in experiences

"India informs all things for me in more ways than I can speak on," Sidhu says, noting that on a recent trip he established a temporary embroidery studio to handle his textile sculpture work. "My art relies on my experiences, and the efforts of my people." But his values  go beyond art: follow him on Instagram and you'll see photos of young girls kitted out in boxing gloves and Paradise Sportif exclusives. They're students at the Sher E Punjab Sports Academy, the private school for young girls and boys in Chakar, run by Sidhu's family with the help of local volunteers. "It was created to instill a sense of value for children in the face of drug and alcohol abuse, and poor schooling systems — so that we can allow them to see their own potential" says Sidhu. The family is developing an exchange to host artists and educators from Canada and U.S., "to live in the village and experience Punjab's life in its fullest."

The Black Constellation

Along with Shabazz Palaces, visual artist Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, director Kahlil Joseph (Flying Lotus, FKA Twigs) and more, Sidhu is a member of the creative collective Black Constellation. Last summer, Alley-Barnes and Sidhu participated in a group show at the Frye Museum in Seattle, examining identity, ritual and adornment in a contemporary context. "There's no distinction for me," says Sidhu, about the Afro-futurist motifs in his work. "There are connections to times and places. The idea of blackness in spirit is limitless — not simply as a mind-state, but geographically as well. Look at Olmec and West African civilizations: in their scripts, pyramid building and languages we notice a historical and cultural impact from the Sahara to India to the South Pacific."

What's next

Sidhu says he's working on completing three large-scale prayer rugs in the spirit of Malcolm X, part of a textile sound sculpture with Butler that will show at The Frye Museum in September. And alongside Butler, "as a New Black Wave movement," Sidhu will carry the ideas from Paradise Sportif and Black Constellation into photography and a published book.

His favourite Canadian artists

"The beauty and carefulness of Rashmi Varma's clothing. The endless possibilities of Todd Westendorp's graphic landscapes . The wonderment and glory of Rajni Perera's paintings. And, finally, Mother Nature's rhythmic collisions in Sab Meynert's illustrations."

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