What Happens When Your Mother Tongue Isn’t Your Mother’s?

Jhaveri Contemporary's booth at Frieze London, 2018. Courtesy of Mark Blower

October 28, 2018


Artist Hardeep Pandhal shares the meaning behind his work Parent Culture — a tender, playful reflection on cultural identity

Two sweaters link arms in Hardeep Pandhal’s Parent Culture. Their bodily protrusions, signified here by interlacing red threads, are tenuous, even slack. Is this a thorny embrace, or a tender one? And, do they conjoin willingly, or awkwardly resist their mutual bondage?

Hardeep Pandhal, a Glasgow-based, Birmingham-born artist, showcased Parent Culture with Jhaveri Contemporary at Frieze London last month. Although this was his first ever art fair, his relationship with the Jhaveris began in 2014, when he took part in the Asia Triennial Manchester. Parent Culture was one of eight new works by Pandhal on display at Frieze, exhibited together under the title Decolonial Dungeon Mastery. Typically for the artist, the mixture of drawing, moving image, and knitted sculpture set out to explore issues of postcolonial resistance and trauma. As the eponymous “dungeon master”, Pandhal’s handling of his subject matter was playful and bleakly funny, drawing inspiration from video games and science fiction.

Hardeep Pandhal. Parent Culture, 2018. Synthetic wool, punching bag holders. Courtesy of Jhaveri Contemporary

The garment-objects of Parent Culture have a long history in the artist’s postcolonial practice. For several years, Pandhal has been co-producing knitted works with his mother, who makes the textiles that are the base for the artist’s embroidering, stitching, and sculpting. The catch? Pandhal’s mother speaks as little English as her son speaks Punjabi. This domestic arrangement is embedded in the texture of the work; what is lost in translation is articulated in the puckering of fabric, the loose threads, the strained conversations between the artist’s hand and his mother’s. At the same time, the work is subtended by a certain seamlessness. Despite the language-barriers of its production, its interwoven tactility achieves a unique and non-verbal mode of expression.

The term ‘parent culture’ is taken from sociology, where it refers to “any so-called identifiable culture that may influence another.” It should be the antithesis of a ‘subculture’ but, in Pandhal’s hands, its definition becomes more complex. In contemporary Britain, Pandhal’s literal ‘parent culture’ — the culture of his mother — is subcultural. Through clever wordplay, the artist exposes the term’s knotty contradictions, probing at parenthood as a metaphor for cultural identity: what happens when your ‘mother tongue’ is different to your mother’s? And what if your ‘parent culture’ isn’t your parents’?

As an emerging artist, Pandhal has been lauded for his whimsy and experimental energy. But, has he earned his mother’s approval?

Pandhal’s mother’s hand thus becomes both a literal and figurative part of the work. He describes a sense of “cultural dislocation from his first-generation British Sikh parents” as the primary focus of the piece. The strained relationship between the two garments consolidates these inherent tensions between biological unity and cultural difference.

Pandhal also describes Parent Culture as being “personally uplifting” in its approach to postcolonial trauma. Even while it opens up these questions of loss and alienation, the collaborative process of the artwork, made by both mother and son, attempts to bridge the gap between them. Rather than rejecting his ‘parent culture’, the artist modifies it, borrowing motifs from video games to give the work a visual vibrancy and a suitably adolescent sense of play.

Knitting as a medium adds a further dimension to the artwork. Not only conveying the stringing together of identities, ideas, and cultures, knitting as an art form itself borrows from notions of the ‘subcultural’. From the reclamation of heritage craft traditions to the redefinition of ‘women’s work’ by female artists, Pandhal taps into this sense of being an outsider in a majority-white British art scene. As an emerging artist, Pandhal has been lauded for his whimsy and experimental energy. But, has he earned his mother’s approval? The artist remarked: “I never know what she thinks about it. I hope she’s happy.”

Hardeep Pandhal was born in Birmingham in 1985 and currently lives and works in Glasgow, Scotland.

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