Sarindar Dhaliwal's multicoloured memories come vividly to life at the Art Gallery of Ontario

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Sarindar Dhaliwal's multicoloured memories come vividly to life at the Art Gallery of Ontario
Installation view.

TORONTO.- Awash in hot pink, rich ochre, blood red and lemon yellow, Sarindar Dhaliwal’s solo exhibition When I grow up I want to be a namer of paint colours opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario on July 22, 2023. Featuring artworks from the past forty years, including photographs, immersive installations, watercolour paintings, drawings and textile works, Dhaliwal’s poetic and deeply personal expressions are rooted in her childhood memories and experiences of migration, from India to England and Canada. Marking the artist’s first solo exhibition at the AGO, the exhibition is curated by Renée van der Avoird, the AGO’s Associate Curator of Canadian Art, and is organized by the AGO.

Born in Punjab, India in 1953, Dhaliwal spent her formative years in Southall, England, before migrating to Canada as a teenager. While attending art school in Cornwall, England in the late 70s, her main goal was to learn how to paint. Her professors scoffed at the bright hues she loved, encouraging her to adopt the minimalist style of the time. This only propelled her to embrace colour more. The collage-like composition that recurs throughout her practice likewise stems from an art education that ignored teaching her perspective painting.

Addressing both difficult personal and colonial histories, Dhaliwal relies on rich colour, materials and lush florals to create artworks that cast a critical eye while leaving room for wonder and imagination. “I do not,” she says, “want to sacrifice politics for beauty but to engage one through the other.” The autobiographical tendancy in her work, the poignant childhood memories and stories of a life lived between cultures, she says “is another way of saying I am a person – I did and do is the thread that ties my work together.”

Highlighting Dhaliwal’s significant, and under-recognized contribution to Canadian art, the exhibition features 24 artworks, including several recent acquisitions by the AGO.

“The beauty of Dhaliwal’s work can’t be overstated. Her art reminds us that the stories that we tell, our collective histories and autobiographies, are shaped by language, displacements, inheritances, scents, colours, allusions and misunderstandings. Her ability to parse beauty from these disparate, sometimes traumatic elements, to play with them and imagine something new, is powerful a reminder of the way that beauty perseveres,” says Renée van der Avoird, Associate Curator, Canadian Art. “This exhibition celebrates several recent acquisitions and I look forward to introducing her works to new audiences.”

Centered in the Philip B. Lind Gallery on Level 1, visitors are guided into the exhibition through the John & Nancy Mulvihill Gallery, where they will encounter Southall: Childplay (2009), a ten metre long digital print, depicting more than 400 coloured pencils. “As a child,” says Dhaliwal, “I used pencils, playing cards, and scraps of paper with names written on them to generate intricate sagas. […] Years later, I collect all my pencils—four hundred or more—and arrange them by colour into a long row. Their physical attributes speak of their history […]The wood is scratched, and the shorter the pencil is an indication of how much I loved that shade.”

Offering a revealing view of the artists’ own fictive paradise, the large works on paper that comprise her Zanzibar Tea Gardens series, highlight Dhaliwal’s love for flora and decorative motifs, as well as her meticulous technique. Everything inside and outside of this imaginary space, rendered in mixed media, stems from travels and dreams; doors in Brazil, the lemons and oranges in Cyprus, the mangoes in India, the trees in Versailles, a vase from Egypt.

Anchoring the exhibition is Dhaliwal’s immersive installation Hey Hey Paula (1998) featuring 544 red-tinted headshots of smiling women, surrounding a red rotary telephone. Under the intense gaze of these photos - all taken from the engagement announcement section of the New York Times - visitors are encouraged to pick up the headset of the rotary phone and listen to the 1960s pop ballad, Hey Hey Paula, with its lyrical refrain “I wanna marry you.” Through this critical appraisal of the institution of marriage, Dhaliwal casts a darkly humorous gaze on conformity and Western myths of romance.

Reckoning with the horrific aftermath of the 1947 partitioning of India, Dhaliwal has imagined, in a series of eleven works, the fate of the British barrister who drew the borders, one Cyril Radcliffe. Two of these works are included in the exhibition: In the cartographer’s mistake: The Radcliffe Line (2012), Dhaliwal presents a map of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh made of different-hued marigolds. In the cartographers mistake: Medicine Hat’s Reprieve (2020) Dhaliwal inscribes a wall with hand-made clay letters, recounting an imagined journey by the titular cartographer – now transformed into a parrot - to Medicine Hat in 1910 alongside English novelist Rudyard Kipling.

Sarindar Dhaliwal was born in Punjab, India and moved with her family to England at the age of four where she grew up in Southall, London. At age fifteen, she migrated again with her family to Canada. She received a BA in Fine Art at Falmouth University, Cornwall in England (1978), and then moved back to Canada where she still lives. She gained a MA from York University in 2003 and a PhD in Fine Arts from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Dhaliwal has exhibited across Canada at institutions including the Art Gallery of Alberta; the Koffler Centre of the Arts, Toronto; the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston; and A Space Gallery, Toronto. An exhibition of her work, Record Keeping, toured England in 2004. Her work is in collections including the Walter Philips Gallery, Canada Council Art Bank, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. Dhaliwal was the 2012 recipient of the Canada Council International Residency at Artspace, Sydney, Australia.

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