Softness is power, especially in a world that puts so much faith in unyielding hardness. The works in Jagdeep Raina’s exhibition “Chase” embrace tenderness and the pursuit of dreams through immigrant life. His art—via embroidered tapestries, quilts, drawings, and videos—captures moments from the lives of Kashmiri and Punjabi Sikh communities around the globe. Each piece seeks to highlight the bonds people create to foster a sense of home and build a family, be it chosen or by blood. This show also provides an opportunity for the Textile Museum of Canada to contend with its own inherently colonialist legacy in the ethnographic collecting of carpets and textiles. Each of the three handwoven checkered scarves that comprise Raina’s Kashmiri Shawls, 2015, features a patch of embroidered flowers called buteh, which can be lifted by viewers to reveal small photographs of militarized regions in Kashmir. In these works, the artist speaks to the inherent violence of European cultural extraction and exploitation while casting a critical eye on the presenting institution’s own past and historically white gaze. In 2009, the museum mounted an exhibition on Kashmir shawls and described their evolution as a “cross-cultural phenomenon” rather than as tainted by cultural appropriation and Orientalism.
By depicting these histories of transnational migration—bittersweet renderings of journeys from here to there—Raina raises the humble art of embroidery up high. His modestly sized works, their fuzzy edges as soft and amorphous as an old memory, invite close viewing. Tapestries such as Chase for more, which depicts a house blanketed by snow, and Scarcity Mindset, both 2019, a portrayal of a glum grayish yard, describe the bleakness of Canadian winters while overlaying the immigrant experience onto Western capitalism. But hope springs eternal as an elder tends to a verdant garden in Memories of our vast, lush, punjabi alluvial plains find themselves resurrected in these diasporic baghs, 2019, an ode to resilient spirit and adaptation. Home can be made anywhere, even in the harshest of climates.
Warmth emanates from Raina’s tender accounts of queer Sikh life. Khalsa Queers, 2021, a drawing mounted on a quilt, frontally presents two men—one nude, the other clothed—holding hands before a body of water. Behind them stands a wide, windowed building. Two Lovers, 2020, a silk-and-cotton embroidery on muslin, shows a pair of men in purple turbans kissing above a pink swatch of hand-dyed fabric embroidered with analog clock faces, while in Lotus Flowers, 2021, the same couple is depicted in bed, embracing. In all these vignettes, silky threads dance across surfaces, expressive and wild like life.
Affection flows throughout Raina’s works on paper, too, particularly in a suite of drawings based on New York City’s much-loved East Village dining establishment Punjabi Grocery & Deli. With a title full of heart (and inspired by a post on the spot’s Instagram account), It’s ‘Chaat’ O’Clock! Surinder at the Punjab Deli, 2016, honors both the place’s kin and snacking rituals, illuminating Surinder Pal Singh, younger brother of owner Kulwinder Singh, as he serves up the South Asian street food from behind the store’s tiny counter. The deli has become a de facto community center for cabbies, club kids, students, and more—a nearly thirty-year-old urban hub where people from all walks of life can come together for a hot cup of chai and samosa chaat. With these works, we can feel the heat of human connection radiating forth from their locations. The loving embrace of Raina’s wispy threads and itinerant pencils is a reminder of our small yet wide world and of the ripples of diaspora and home, wherever that may be.