Jagdeep Raina on the influence and role of textile art in today’s world

Jagdeep Raina on the influence and role of textile art in today’s world

“It has always been important for me to think about deconstructing the myth of something that might seem pure or homogenous, and look closer at the dirt behind the shine.”

Jagdeep Raina is an interdisciplinary artist whose practice spans drawing, painting, writing, photography, and textile embroidery. His art speaks poignantly to social justice and the possibility of intersectional solidarities based on collective histories of community and migration. Continuously examining the intersections of textiles with other media of art, Raina’s exhibition, titled Chase, will be showing at the Textile Museum of Canada in 2021. Catching up with Raina, we spoke about his artistic inspiration, the current state of the art world amidst a pandemic, and what comes next for the multi-faceted creative.  

Tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic background.

I was born and raised in Guelph Ontario, completed my BFA at Western University in London and later moved to the States where I earned my MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Since then, I’ve done a few fellowships in the States, as well as Europe and South Asia. My work is rooted in painting and drawing, but for the last couple of years it has been expanding into film and textiles. Particularly within the realm of textiles, I’ve been working on weaving, spinning, and embroidery.

Jagdeep Raina, "My mother’s punjabi rug" (2019), Embroidered tapestry on muslin, 10 x 19 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

As an interdisciplinary artist, what is it about a piece of work that draws you to one method over another?

The thing about drawing and painting is that there is an immediacy to it, and something quite urgent about it. I enjoy the speed of formulating an idea and jumping into the process of developing it. But on the other hand, I also love slowing things down. With textiles, it can take a lot longer to build an idea–you really need to slow down and be patient in order to understand what it is you are constructing. The back and forth between speed and patience is an interesting tension that I’m drawn to and ultimately determines which medium I gravitate toward.

What inspired you to start working with textile and embroidery?

There are a couple textiles that come from my ancestral histories which I’ve been really drawn to. The first is called Phulkari (translation meaning flower work), an ancient embroidery textile that comes from India and Pakistan. Woven out of hand-spun cotton and naturally dyed with plants and vegetables, the surface is embroidered with intricate patterns. The powerful history of Phulkari has been shaped by colonialism and globalization, leaving much of the art to become extinct over the years. Some of the most beautiful Phulkari are those which the entire surface is covered with embroidery, this is referred to as Bagh (translation meaning garden). It was traditionally made by people from both sides of the border–symbolizing roots of family and community. In a time where this craft has died so much, I’m really interested in resurrecting this art and some of that history.

Another textile that has been inspiring to me is the Kashmiri shawl, one of the most beautiful textiles in the world. It also has both an incredibly powerful and dark history, with the ways in which centuries of imperialism and colonialism have impacted the industry. Because of my Kashmiri and Punjabi identity, I feel connected to my roots when handling these textiles. I approach working with them through history, my own history, and what it means to fall in love with the material aspects of your culture.

Is it important for your work to comment on social or political issues?

Absolutely–look at the times we’re living in! There couldn’t be a more urgent time than now to comment on social and political issues, they shape our lives every day and often in ways we’re not fully aware of. So, it has always been important for me to think about deconstructing the myth of something that might seem pure or homogenous, and look closer at the dirt behind the shine.

Can you speak on the place of Sikh diaspora in your work?

It’s a subject matter that I’ve always been really interested in, mostly from a place of curiosity. You know, thinking about migration and how communities are formed and shaped and dispersed over time, and how diaspora is something like a place where different ways of thinking and different ideas can coexist. Also, the concept of homogeneity and the myth of a homogeneous community is important to think about–how can a diaspora that I come from be critically examined as a community that is not only racialized, but in itself–flawed? 

Jagdeep Raina, "Spinning wheel charkha" (2020), Embroidered tapestry, phulkari on muslin. Image courtesy of the artist.

How do you believe the pandemic has affected the art world?

I think there is a lot of self-reflection that artists and art institutions are doing right now. It seems as if the pandemic has exposed society’s flaws and showcased disparities that exist within the art world already. I’m not sure how we can address them all moving forward, but I think it’s going to require a lot of listening to one another, and deep reflection on all of our actions.

Your solo exhibition, Chase, will be showing at the Textile Museum of Canada in 2021. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind this body of work?

Chase was first conceived with Shauna McCabe at the Art Gallery of Guelph as works on paper over the last four years with some tapestries and weaving I had done. It looks at the idea of examining a diasporic history of Kashmiri and Punjabi Sikh communities through a critical lens. I think with this show, themes like geography, ecology, gender and class all present themselves as factors in shaping a community.

The word “chase” is something I’ve always seen as a double-edged sword. People are constantly chasing a new sense of identity for themselves, or a new way of life. Diaspora, formed by this idea of chase, is the search for a better life. On the other hand, it also holds a negative connotation. Chase is something that could also produce a mindset of scarcity–where you can become so disconnected and so alienated from the world around you because you’re constantly chasing something better, that you start perpetuating further divisions within your own community or ways of thinking. Oscillating between these two ways of thinking is a major theme of this work.

Jagdeep Raina, "Chase for more" (2019), Embroidered tapestry on muslin, 10 x 11 inches. Images courtesy of the artist.

How did you get involved with the Textile Museum, and what prompted you to show there?

There is something really incredible about the Textile Museum of Canada being a space that is entirely dedicated to the art of fibre, as an artist I consider it a rich place to be. I grew up visiting the museum, and with each visit I grew further in love with the art of textiles, helping me push my practice and keep building my skillset. The museum operates as a space where people can think about the history of textiles, especially in their work with both Indigenous artists and diasporic artists who have ancient textile practices and a history with the land. It’s a space that offers us the opportunity to think through the tough questions about the role of textiles in society today, and the importance it makes in shifting that role in a way that is more wholistic.

Congratulations on receiving the Textile Museum’s Emerging Artist Award, what does that sort of accolade mean to you?

I feel really humbled by it. It helps me deal with the self-doubt that I think many artists have. When you receive something like this, it helps you realize that this work can be important one day, and maybe these awards could help me make that work. It offers a lot of validation.

Are you feeling inspired at the moment or working on any future projects?

There are few projects I’m really excited about right now, one of which I’m working on one with a London-based playwright and good friend of mine, Satinder Chohan. We’re working collaboratively on a researched-based project around The Green Revolution, an agricultural framework backed by the United States that was introduced to India after its decolonization from Britain. It’s based off of high-yield seed variety, intensive irrigation and drainage, as well as the introduction to the use of chemicals and pesticides as a way of producing more food for farmers. It’s had a really devastating impact on the land as well as a heartbreaking epidemic of farmer suicide.

Satinder wrote a play about The Green Revolution when she was living with Punjabi farmers and studied the impacts with the technology. She collected a massive archive of hundreds of photos and tape-recorded interviews that she gave to me. I’ve been studying the archive and using its contents to making tapestries and write poetry from it, thinking about how to resurrect this current moment in history. I think it speaks poignantly to this time we’re living in now with its ties to ecological class and economic exploitation.

To learn more, visit textilemuseumofcanada.ca.