“Interview with an Artist” is a recurring Lucky Penny Mag feature that allows us behind the paintbrush, tablet pen, and camera to get to know a unique artist. For the segment’s second installment, we spoke with Babneet Lakhesar – better known as Babbu the Painter – an artist from Toronto, Canada. Her work is lively and expressive yet introspective, drawing influence from pop-art and Mughal-era styles while critiquing the social norms that affect first-gens and women of colour. Shailee caught up with her at the Orejen Fashion Lab pop-up shop on Ossington where many of her paintings were on display, and talked with her about culture, identity, and representation.
Photo by Shailee Koranne.
Shailee: Do you find that your art has always had the influence of South-Asian culture, or was it triggered by something?
Babbu: I think, just being a brown woman, you’re always making compromises. So it’s like, growing up, you see all the inequalities, especially within families, and it makes you question why. I think the sad part is that it’s become the norm, like “okay, that’s just how things are.” And to an extent I feel like I can’t do everything I want to do. At least with my art work, I can talk about some issues that I don’t agree with, and I take that and put it into my everyday lifestyle too. Even doing artwork itself is like breaking the norm for a lot of South-Asians. We don’t normally go become artists.
S: Now that you’re known for being an artist that is known for incorporating South-Asian cultural identity into your work… does that ever feel like it’s boxing you in? Do you feel obligated to stick to that style?
B: I mean, I never cared what people thought. That’s why I make the work I make. I never really feel boxed in because I feel like my work is about things that are important to talk about. Although, I find it annoying that people would look at me and think that I make Indian art only, even though it is what I like to explore.
S: I think one of the Shame Shame panelists was talking about that – actually, I think it might have been you…
S: You were talking about how it’s so great to be able to explore these things, but for people to expect you to make that kind of art because you’re brown is so limiting.
B: Yeah, I did speak about that. I went to OCAD for sculpture and installation, and I did some painting there too, but I didn’t start exploring these ideas until the last two years. When I was at OCAD, for the first two years, I made art about anything, and it wasn’t specifically about being Indian. It was so annoying that people expected me to make art about India, and like, homeless people, because that’s what they think India is. They wouldn’t look at Caucasian people and expect them to make art about turkeys and Thanksgiving dinner.
S: Totally. I think it’s especially annoying because you and I both live in the diaspora, and we probably connect to so many different cultures, so it is a box sometimes… but also, it’s not.
B: It’s a bittersweet thing. [South-Asian identity] is something that we want to talk about, but it’s not the only thing we can do.
Nuh Uh, Not Tonight by Babbu the Painter. Acrylic on Canvas.
S: Yeah. So, is art something you were always leaning towards?
B: Uh… [laughing] not really. Yes and no. I had to go to university because my mom was pressuring me to, but I didn’t want to go. I just hate the school system. I never wanted to go to school, but my art teacher really liked my art and encouraged me to apply to OCAD. The first two years, I was just making shit, just making whatever to get a grade. The third year is when things started to turn around, I started to specialize in sculpture and started really liking my practice.
S: What is your favourite medium to work in?
B: I love painting, but I also love working with clay. Clay and sculpture are my first loves, but I just don’t get time to do it anymore. I found a style I wanted to explore with painting, but I don’t think I’ve gotten there yet with sculpture, so I think that’s why I haven’t been putting more work out there with sculpture. I really like photography as well.
S: Do you have a least favourite medium to work in?
B: I hate drawing. I hate it. I can’t sketch, I can’t draw.
“It was so annoying that people expected me to make art about India… They wouldn’t look at Caucasian people and expect them to make art about turkeys and Thanksgiving dinner.”
S: I found your work through Instagram, and Maria’s (@hatecopy) as well. What are your thoughts on Instagram as a tool for creativity?
B: I love Instagram and it’s given me such a great platform for sharing my work, and it’s great for networking. But I think sometimes when artists are doing really well online, they’re not taken seriously in the fine art world. The fine art industry and the Instagram art world are really different, and sometimes they never overlap. I’m somewhere in the middle – I do a bit of fine arts, but I’m also part of the Instagram world. I find that these worlds are really different. The fine art world and the Instagram world are so different and good and bad in their own ways. Like, Instagram I feel is very mainstream, and I shy away at putting some of my work on there that I did at OCAD for example, because I know my followers won’t be able to handle those sensitive topics. People won’t be able to look at those topics like artwork. But in the fine arts world, if I showed that work, people would understand it and create conversation about it. But I can’t bring my mainstream work to the fine arts world. Both are good and bad, and I have to find a balance of which work fits where. I definitely have my safer work, the cute stuff, more of the things you can share and laugh at, but sometimes I feel like I’m making pieces that don’t really have a meaning behind them, they’re just visually pleasing.
S: That’s really interesting – I was going to ask you if you’ve ever gotten criticism for your work.
B: Oh yeah. A lot. My artwork outside of Instagram is nothing like my Instagram. People look at me and think “Oh, you’re such a cute girl, painting elephants and horses,” but that’s nothing like what my actual work revolves around. I paint because that’s what I love to do, but I only paint those subjects for Instagram. Outside of Instagram, my work is really serious and sensitive, and I don’t think Instagram is ready for it yet. I will put it out there, but we’ll see what the reaction is [laughs].
S: I feel like, yeah, there will always be bad reaction, but there will also be so much good reaction. One of my favourite things is going through the comments on yours and Maria’s posts and seeing the way brown people will get excited about your art. You’re putting out work that is so special and so unique to people like me. You’re doing important work.
B: Oh, for sure. But I think, for me, I don’t really make art to please other people… to some extent you do have to make your art sellable, but I make that art because it’s what I want to explore.
S: Side note – I was going through your Instagram today and I saw that Mindy Kaling had followed you and Maria…
B: [laughing] Me and Maria were freaking out! Literally, we were on the phone, both about to cry, like “this is so cool.”
“People look at me and think ‘Oh, you’re such a cute girl, painting elephants and horses,’ but that’s nothing like what my actual work revolves around.”
S: On that note, what is your dream collaboration?
B: I actually love fashion, and I never say his name right, but there’s this Indian fashion designer, Sabaya…
B: I fuck it up every time. But yeah, that’s my dream collaboration. I love his style.
S: How do you feel about today’s South-Asian representation in mainstream media?
B: Sometimes I get really upset with it. The way that brown people are represented is stupid – with an accent, or like taxi drivers, or the guy that owns a paan shop… it’s very generic. There was even a trend on YouTube a few years ago where people were making videos about brown families, but it was saddening because they were talking about things that don’t really happen. My parents, for example, they love my art work and totally support it. They don’t get mad if I come home late. When I see kids talking about how brown parents are so strict – to some extent, it might be true, but it’s not how brown families are as a whole. My family is so open-minded, we talk to each other, they know about my life. They let me study art. When I was going to OCAD, this Caucasian guy asked me if I was allowed to go out of the house after 7 pm, and I was so astonished. When I paint nudes or about the Kama sutra, people will say “Oh, have your parents seen this work?” and I’m like, “Dude, my studio is in my basement. I paint while my mom is right there.” As a community, we have to do a lot more and represent ourselves better because we have such creative people. We need more Mindy Kalings and Aziz Ansaris… we need more artists.