Nottingham galleries, New Art Exchange and Primary present ‘Paranoid Picnic: The Phantom BAME’, a split-site exhibition of recent and ongoing works by Hardeep Pandhal. A second generation British Sikh now based in Glasgow, Pandhal dissects continuing projects of cultural assimilation and the performance of heritage.
His response is a visually and vocally cacophonous negotiation of seemingly limitless outputs. The unbound pages of a graphic novel share space with references to role-playing videogames, animated caricatures are a familiar companion to seaside props, rapidly scribbled reflections slide in alongside a soundtrack of self-performed rap lyrics – Pandhal’s sprawling presentation of media and his disruptive confrontation of post-colonial trauma manages a wryly sincere irony.
A peculiar ‘cloak’ stands as sentry close to the entrance of ‘Paranoid Picnic: The Phantom BAME’ [Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic] at New Art Exchange – a hooded jumper knitted by the artist’s mum on to which Pandhal has begun to carefully chain-stitch his own unmistakable drawings. During a tour of the gallery, the cloak was described as signifying a non-verbal communication with the artist’s mum, who speaks very little of the English language – Pandhal’s own limited Punjabi has meant that communication between the two has been difficult to some degree. This collaborative work-in-progress is telling of a marked cultural dissonance represented across the exhibition.
In no medium is this dissonance more evident than his rap music. Pandhal combines rhythmic rhyming structure with free association. His lyrics are unexpected, meaningful and occasionally shocking. Akin to a Punjab Dada, a non-Western Beckett-esque poem under the outspread arms of 2Pac, a sketch of the rapper’s posthumous album ‘Makaveli’ nestled within a jagged vitrine. Jarring, but achingly familiar to some, Pandhal’s lyrics appropriate and subvert racial slurs, the artist’s ‘Paki-visionary’ is confrontational and assertive as problematic pasts are wryly acknowledged in the lyric, “knowing how to know my place”.
Split between two venues in the city, this exhibition has the feel of a non-linear visual research project where world-building, historic social commentary and cultural imagery have been exploited as a medium. Pandhal takes typically sequential media like graphic novels and animated film and tips open the bag, fragmenting the format. The result is chaotic in the most productive sense.
At New Art Exchange, a series of freestanding, loosely illustrated boards echo the flow of monotone lyrics and narrations spoken by the artist across both venues. The boards suggest a culturally discordant, BAME-appropriated, Anglophilic Victoriana - essentially, seaside attractions that you can pop your head through to ‘embody’ something ‘other’. Not satisfied with the passive role of an art object, the face-hole boards activate and warp spectatorship in the gallery.
During ‘Performing Heritage’, a discussion event with Hardeep Pandhal at the New Art Exchange, Prof. Emilia Terracciano suggested the title conjures ideas related to minority groups in Britain and a memory of some historic cultural pain, associated with the loss or damage of some part of the body, or perhaps a haunting. This tension finds expression in preparatory sketches for a graphic novel that foregrounds the historically and culturally erased Sikh soldier, typifying those who fought and died for the British Empire in the battle of Saragarhi, Afghanistan. His body is transfigured, disfigured and occasionally decapitated – both a manic hallucinatory nightmare and a critical performance of Sikh-British heritage. This transformative nature of cultural memory is summed up in a scribbled note, “the parents who share their memories, often find their memories changing”.
In the same discussion, Pandhal explains the title’s origins as referencing stealth videogame, ‘Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’, the intricate plot of which involves gun-for-sale warfare in real-world locations such as Afghanistan, and a deadly parasite designed to specifically infect English language speakers. The role-playing game (RPG) genre speaks to themes of complex cultural mythology and the embodiment of violent military narratives.
At Primary, a diagrammatic, animated mind-map traces imagery referencing longstanding Asian cultural narratives and contemporary, lived experiences of the artist, who having grown up in Birmingham, continues his art practice in Glasgow. Once reputed Second City of the Empire – Glasgow’s colonial past is made evident in its merchant-named streets and stately homes, a daily reminder of these once-brutal, now-conflicted souvenirs of British heritage. Tensions between generational (BAME) cultural legacy and an ongoing project of assimilation are evident. Although, the transitionary status of these fragmentary works-in-progress suggests a working-through of this conflict, confronting “post-colonial traumas with testing humour”. Pandhal does not so much call for ‘the destruction of the country house’ as relics of these traumas, but encourages their defacement, to ‘do something to them’. His proposed anachronistic vandalism is perhaps more a fantasy of satiric retribution rather than reconciliation – an acknowledgement of overwritten cultural histories. We’re therefore left with a question – should we renovate British county homes, once power houses of the landed gentry or would their fragile foundations be most democratically refurbished as a gallery or a Wetherspoons?