My initiation into the work of artist Babneet Lakhesar began when a friend, knowing my undying love for Shah Rukh Khan, sent me a series of pictures in which she photoshopped herself into popular Bollywood movie posters – the Kuch Kuch Hota Hai one became a fast favourite. My extremely moody 3G was failing me at the time leaving me unable to scroll through her Instagram feed, but her persona name stuck on in my head till the end of the day when I could finally open up my laptop and did a quick Google search of ‘Babbu the painter’, and as I stepped into her quirky, bakwaas world I knew I was hooked.
If you’re an Instagram/Tumblr/Pinterest enthusiast you may recognise her artworks, especially the Bed Beti art project in collaboration with Maria Qamar AKA Hatecopy that grew into a movement across the south Asian diaspora last year.
Babbu, as she is more popularly known, was born in Punjab and brought up in Toronto, Canada, and this mixing of cultures is a clear undercurrent throughout her creations. “There is a thin line between cultural appropriation and culture appreciation. People just need to be mindful and educate themselves,” says artist Babneet Lakhesar. She finds inspiration in the balancing of her two cultures; the “merging of my two identities and how my surroundings are affected by it. And the idea of fitting in – being ‘too south Asian’ in the West and ‘too western’ in my birth country.”
From ‘Maharaja’ Homer Simpson, aunties, rickshaws, filmy one-liners to tattooed and pierced badass portraits – Babbu’s persona may be followed with ‘the painter’ but she’s so much more. Splashed with pop culture references, she has grown into an artist brand that’s “fusing art and streetwear. From bakwaas hats to hand-painted jean jackets,” and it can all be found in Babbu’s online ‘Dukaan’.
The creation of art can be very private and cathartic, a mode of self-expression, and yet a public process at the same time. People’s personal experiences consciously and/or subconsciously find their way into their respective work, at times even playing key roles in moulding their aesthetic sensibilities. Everything Babbu creates is driven by personal experiences. However, she explains that when her art reaches the public space the art isn’t just hers anymore. “It’s for everyone to experience and make it their own,” she says.
Babbu is among a growing number of women artists of colour, such as Maria Qamar and Ayqa Khan, that are carving out space for themselves in the art world and created a platform for other artists to get the recognition they deserve as well. But it isn’t always easy, regardless of the number of followers and support you may have on social media. WOC have navigated themselves into formidable forces in the global and creative space, but there is still a myriad of misconceptions and obstacles at each turn, and like Babbu says, there is still a long way to go. “Accessibility to opportunities and equal pay are still two of the biggest obstacles in this field.” The biggest misconception, though, she says is people’s belief that everything comes easy for her.
There is a certain sense of responsibility that follows you when you’re an ‘ethnic’ artist when it comes to the representation of your heritage, and as Indo-Canadian, Babbu strikes a balance between both cultures. “Being Indian is irrelevant to me. I am me, Babbu, Indo-Canadian... Just like many other cultural backgrounds, us Indians often get pigeonholed into the usual stereotypes. For example, smelling like curry, having an accent, we’re all doctors and lawyers. In the west, the oldest and most common reference anyone has for south Asians is Apu from the Simpsons. So, I’m just sharing all the beautiful things we have to offer,” she explains.
Having visited India earlier this year, she loved every minute of it. “I was probably the happiest when I was there. The food, people, culture, atmosphere, the air, the smells – everything felt so close to home. I was home. My favourite memory is a one and a half day trip to Benaras with my bestie! But also getting wasted at a bar in Mumbai and being forced to take a photograph with Sonakshi Sinha by another bestie!”
While Babbu’s pick of a favourite from her growing body of work is a digital painting, The Jaisalmer Collect and Babbu x India, I myself have had countless moments of ‘oh this is my new favourite’, but of course, the aforementioned Kuch Kuch Hota Hai masterpiece has a special place in my heart. A globetrotter and entrepreneur, Babbu’s says she’s currently working on a new show that will travel around a bit before the year ends, as well as another Halloween look. “Honestly, just the regular. Making art, sharing it and doing it all over again.”
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