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The Singh Twins

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Past Modern
Works By The Singh Twins

Interview with the Singh Twins

Where have you exhibited and what sort of reactions have you had to your work?

We've exhibited widely in the UK including venues such as the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art, Whitechaple Gallery London, Birmingham and Leeds City Art Galleries and The Royal Museums of Scotland. The work went to the U.S. for the first time last year and we've also exhibited in Europe, France, Germany and Switzerland. The feedback has been really positive. Although we project Asian art and Asianism, our work is not targeted only at Asians. It is for broad based audiences with various ethnic groupings in the countries in which we've exhibited. In fact we have works in private and public collections both in UK and abroad. We've had offers to tour US again and Canada and India in the next two years.

The basic style is very symbolic and has a narrative feel to it. Most people relate to it immediately at some level or another. People like the humour of our work, the visual content and the social/political issues addressed in the paintings. We've always had a keen interest in symbolism from various cultures/traditions of the world. We try to use images with a universal appeal that people can interpret for themselves. We try to speak to as many people as possible through our paintings.

Why did you choose the Indian Miniature form of art?

In college we were told to develop our own style in which we could express ourselves best. We chose the Indian Miniature form of art because we fell in love with it about ten years before starting to learn art formally and also because we were amazed by the technical skill and symbolic content of miniatures and the power they had to communicate to people. We also had a natural inclination towards this particular form of art as it belonged to our cultural heritage.

In a sense we were trying to challenge the perceptions given to us when we were learning art; it was very Eurocentric but it has been acknowledged that the forefathers of Western contemporary art drew inspiration from non-European sources, e.g. Japanese, African and Indian. We felt justified to draw upon an Indian form of art, as we wanted to express ourselves in the way we wanted and in a way that was true to who we were. We also wanted to challenge the whole idea of‚ West is best‚ and are trying to get the Contemporary Art world to acknowledge the value of traditional art forms in contributing to both the historical and continuing development of Modern Art. In this respect, we describe our personal style as Past Modern.

When we first visited India we expected to see contemporary artists drawing inspiration from their own cultural heritage but instead they were churning out clones of what the West had to offer. Because of the legacy of the Raj, people were brought up to think that you were civilised and progressive only if you followed the Western thought/way of living. It seemed to us that the Indians had a rich tradition that they were throwing out of the window in order to be seen to be more civilised‚ but to be fair to the artists, it was the only way that they could get to the international market/scene because the West dictated what contemporary art should be. We disagreed with that whole point of view. Non-European art forms are just as valid to express issues today.

Why have you chosen to bring out political issues in your work?

In contemporary art today the idea is to bring out the inner psyche of the artist and it's more about the artist and the artist's ego. We believe that art should reach beyond the artists themselves and communicate to broader audiences on issues that affect people - and that includes politics too. Because, ultimately our artistic strategy is defined by a sense of responsibility to look beyond personal issues of identity - towards exposing wider cultural prejudices and highlighting other concerns of more global significance surrounding debates about genetic engineering for example or the impact of multinationals on minority and traditional world cultures. Even our earlier work which focused on wedding scenes, family and domestic environments was political because we were trying to portray what we felt was positive about Asian culture against negative media stereotypes which seemed to target the Asian wedding and extended family - portraying it as oppressive and backward. These works are saying there is more to Asian culture than the picture of forced marriages, domineering fathers and abusive husbands depicted in soap and TV documentaries. Paintings like All Hands On Deck, emphasise the value of relationships between family and friends and the importance of the extended family as a training ground for learning how to be decent people that contribute to the good of the whole (family, society, global community) as opposed to the individual; through a realisation of mutual responsibility, worth and commitment towards others within a domestic environment in which everyone has a place and is both responsible for and looked after by others at some stage in their life.

But in all our work, political or otherwise, we draw upon the symbolic language of art. Our Beckham painting From Zero To Hero‚ for example, uses the traditional multi-arm convention of symbolic portraiture. It's an artistic technique that allows the artist to portray within a single image, the different aspects of the character, achievements or life story of the figure being depicted. It follows a long tradition in India of using symbolic art language to deal with contemporary issues within a secular context. During India's freedom struggle for example, Mahatma Gandhi Ji was depicted by Hindu artists (in popular calendar art) with several arms - as the protector of India. Other posters depicted Subhas Chandra Bose using iconography relating to Suraj. Even later, during the Indo Pakistan war, Indira Gandhi was shown depicted in popular posters in the style of traditional depictions of Durga. Such images were widely circulated and accepted by the masses in India. They were powerful propaganda tools because they drew on traditional imagery and symbolism that the masses of India immediately understood because it was already so familiar to them. In fact the freedom posters were considered such powerful images for uniting India in the fight against the injustices of British rule that some of them (which can be seen in British museum today) were even banned by the British at the time.

Do you think British Asians don't have that background?

We're sure some do have a knowledge of Indian art and iconography but not everyone, which is why we make a point of providing detailed commentaries alongside exhibitions of our work. But sometimes the media has its own agenda and not only misrepresents the work but occasionally prints things without us knowing - which is what happened with the Beckham painting. It's annoying because there is nothing you can do about it. Thankfully most people have the common sense not to believe everything they read in the papers - especially the tabloids!

Will you continue working in this style and probably tread more carefully next time?

Yes we'll carry on working in the same way because we are trying to promote positive images of Asian culture and particularly the rich traditions of Indian art. So the Indian art form will always be our language. We are always careful what we say to the press but as we mentioned before, the media has its own agenda and it's humanly impossible to consider all eventualities. But our work is essentially about uniting communities so its important to get the wider communities to know the importance of Asians in the 20th century - and we need the media to do that.

Is the Indian Miniature art form Hindu, Sikh, Muslim?

The Miniature style of art has both Indian and Persian roots. It's a very complex style because it varied depending on which part of India one was in. It's a highly decorative style, which dealt with secular and religious themes. The Persian style fused with the Indian styles under the Mughal influence to give rise to what is generally considered as the Renaissance of the style. But when rulers changed the artists‚ style changed to suite the new patrons taste and interests. These included Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and of course the British rulers. That's what we find so appealing about it - the fact that it doesn't have any rigid cultural or religious boundaries - it's all encompassing.

Would you change the style of your work in the next ten to fifteen years?

No, as long as we still continue to be inspired by the style we will carry on. We feel that we haven't yet exhausted all the potential that the style can offer. Our earlier work was quite different stylistically and as were the themes that we were approaching. A lot of the earlier work depicted how Asians lived in Britain as opposed to how they were negatively portrayed in the media. Now there's a more universal approach to our themes which have a broader context - like our series called Facets of Femininity. The series is based on Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite portrait of a Victorian woman (The Blue Bower) and explores the diversity of femininity as perceived through media representations of 8 female icons of the 20th century.

Why do you bring out your Asianess in your work?

Because we feel that's what came under attack when our using of the Indian Miniature form of art was frowned upon by our art tutors. Being Asian, we took it personally and saw it as an extension of the negative attitudes we had faced as teenagers. We felt we needed to address issues that we believed were misunderstood about our culture when we were growing up. For example, arranged marriages, certain moral values, not smoking/drinking, clubbing etc. were considered backward by most people and the media portrayed it that way as well. Our earlier work was about asserting pride in our traditional values and encouraging a sense of pride among the Asian youth, i.e. saying that it's o.k. to be Asian. People should accept you on your terms and not change you to what they want. It would have been so much easier for us to paint in a western style but we wanted to stand our ground on principle.

Painting the Town Red‚ depicts the Liverpool football scene. Do you have a personal interest in football?

No, not really. The curator of a London gallery, asked a number of artists to create a painting on the theme of football for an exhibition he was holding during the Euro 96 games. We gave it some thought and decided to rise to the challenge. It focuses on the home coming of the Liverpool team but essentially depicts how ethnic minorities are making an impact on what are traditionally considered as typically British pastimes and institutions.

Do you envision a multicultural society or do you already live in one?

Britain in general does have a multicultural outlook but we feel that it needs to be aspired to further. There's room for improvement, e.g. there's a selective representation of the media. There is still a feeling that Ethnic groups should be encouraged to assimilate rather than being accepted as they are. Usually media shows the negative side of Asian-ness, which we feel is a subtle undermining of our cultures. There's nothing wrong with being western but it's good to have an informed choice, coming from a position of first feeling proud of your roots.

Do you feel that your upbringing has influenced your work?

Yes! We've had a broad based upbringing but were still encouraged to hold on to traditional, social and moral values. We value the moral and cultural stance that we have. We feel that now western society is suddenly realising what they've lost in terms of family and moral values, spirituality, etc. We should learn from the west not to lose our cultural heritage, otherwise it might be all too late for humanity to retrieve that.

Do you read scriptures just for the paintings or do you have personal interest?

Yes, we do have personal interest in scriptures and we read them from time to time. We feel that family is a spiritual experience in itself because you learn how to share, be unselfish, forgiving, etc. which helps one to cope in the wider world as well. We've studied the Sikh Scriptures at an academic level as well as Hinduism and Buddhism and try to accurately depict what we want to in our paintings. There's rich symbolism in religious paintings, which can have secular context as well. To avoid misinterpretation we always have commentaries alongside our work so people can understand what the symbols mean.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

We draw inspiration from anything and everything happening around us. For example David Beckham's picture is just one in a series of paintings looking at the relationship between sports, media and celebrity. We are looking at what sport means to people in contemporary society in the light of the mass commercialism of sport. Media people want to buy the best sports event going because they want to get more people to watch TV. Traditional ideas of sportsmanship seem to have lost there hold on society which is more obsessed with the idea of sports celebrity as fashion icon, than the game. We're trying to keep trace of what's happening around and whatever we are moved by or inspires us we draw. From time to time we get commissioned which enables us to look at issues that we otherwise would not think of.

City Art Gallery in Leeds has a big Victorian propaganda painting depicting the British Empire and the Indian Mutiny. It shows Britannia (represented as woman with a sword) slaying a tiger, which represents the Indian Mutineers. The curator said they were thinking of taking it down because of the dominant Asian population in Leeds. We said "don't take it down, just ask us (the twins) to respond." From there came a commission to do a series of paintings in response to that particular painting. One of the paintings will put the story in the right historical context; the others might represent the painting in a modern context perhaps looking at what some might see as a parallel to the Empire building scenario‚ in the influence of multi nationalism today.

You haven't become commercial. You don't want to or what?

We won't become commercial just for the sake of it. We were offered good career opportunities, which we turned down, e.g. for a major beer advert campaign. A top advertising company needed paintings based on the Karma Sutra text. We refused because we didn't want to involve ourselves condoning alcohol and didn't want to use Karma Sutra text in a totally wrong context, which would be offensive to Hindus. We feel we have to keep our integrity, not money or publicity at any cost.

The Singh Twins

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