Having been the first and largest South Asian Market in North America, Vancouver’s Punjabi Market is a household name. The city’s Main Street neighborhood is home to an iconic cultural hub. Recently, the team behind Punjabi Market has been hard at work to revitalize its presence in the community. For the first time in its 51-year history, a series of murals have been painted between 49th and 51st Avenues on Main Street.
The Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective has established Murals in the Market, in partnership with Vancouver Mural Festival, as an initiative to help facilitate storytelling through public art by collaborating with local BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) artists to deliver a series of murals in Punjabi Market. With Jas Lally as the Curator, the murals have been painted by five artists – all community gems who bring unique, diverse sets of experiences.
Guntaj Deep Singh’s The Golden Land
Adorned with nostalgia, earthy tones and golden hues showcase the land of Punjab. Earthenware, traditional dresses and jewelry, hopscotch, bhangra, and a splash of the farming culture complete the masterpiece to perfection. The emotion is in the details and audiences are left speechless as they bask in the glory of their childhood memories. Born and raised in Punjab, Guntaj Deep Singh moved to Canada in 2017. His first place in the city was in the Punjabi Market area. It felt like a place close to home, leading him to get involved with Punjabi Market through social media. “My artwork is many times inspired from my roots in Punjab. When I was contacted for the mural, my idea or intuition drove me to doing something quintessentially Punjabi, but also relatable to those not from Punjab,”recollects Singh.
The Punjabi-at-heart artist painted the wall of Mr. Toor’s Punjab Food Center. Toor’s idea was aligned with Singh’s as they both wanted something that reminded viewers of the olden days in Punjab. Singh simply wanted to recreate a moment from the past, remembering childhood visits to his village with his father. Resembling his personal immersive experiences, he set on a mission to recreate the community-like and family-like vibe he recalled. Evidently, the mural attracts people even if they don’t completely understand it. There is something about it which is simple and allows one to be able to relive the simplicity of life that once was in Punjab. Singh shares his passion for experiences and conversations that are sparked through art. With his mural of a Punjabi village during the harvest season, he desires to evoke the feeling of utopia-like fragments we all experience and how they are found in a shared moment.
Singh expresses, “When I first moved to Vancouver, I wasn’t sure which route to take. I thought I’ll figure it out. I never expected to pursue art in such a big way. The credit goes to the art community in Vancouver for being so welcoming and giving me so much courage and drive.” For the painter, art is a way to calm down and express himself. The painter believes that when art is considered important, you have a lot more people come out and do it. For sure, the Vancouver art scene is thankful that an artist like Singh has been able to find his artistic safe haven in the city.
Sandeep Johal’s A Love Letter to Mithai
Elaborate rows of sweets florally painted inside beautiful domes capture the eye, emitting a visual fragrance. Blues, pinks, and yellows provide the perfect accent to geometry-inspired ladoos and jalebis. A decorated bird takes flight from a mural that enchantedly communicates the essence of mithai, while inviting sweet memories.
Since the regeneration initiative, Sandeep Johal has had a very active role with Punjabi Market. Her artwork resides on the wall of Manny Pabla’s Himalaya Restaurant. Pabla still makes all the sweets that are sold in the restaurant, so the mural had to reflect sweets and nostalgia. In fact, Imarti Jalebis are his speciality, which are represented as delicious flower wheels on the mural. Pabla wanted symmetry and was very hands-on with integrating creativity into the art piece. Johal herself wanted to create something that was eye-catching and vibrant. Growing up, she was always drawn to her mom’s bright saris, suits, and phulkaris.
The talented artist is quite new to her professional art practice. She went to art school at the age of 30 after walking away from a job with a steady paycheck. When starting out her practice, Johal was seeking South Asian artists, but couldn’t find much. Sometimes, older artists just didn’t have online presence. Johal emphasizes that these earlier South Asian artists paved the way for her and now the younger generation is getting an opportunity to create a career built of many layers. She shares her absolute love for being a role model and mentor for younger artists.
“When I was painting the mural, uncles would sometimes pass by and ask if I’m doing it for free. I had to educate them. The idea that art is not valuable still exists. We get paid for what we do because we have developed a level of knowledge, expertise, and skills – just like a teacher or doctor,” explains Johal. She shares that the feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive for the murals, and the art is breathing life into communal hotspots.
For Johal, the mural was a full circle moment as she grew up in Kelowna, and often drove down as a child to go to Punjabi Market for textiles and spices. Even her wedding regalia came from Punjabi Market’s shops. As she prepares for her upcoming art show at the Surrey Art Gallery, Johal reveals that the best part is seeing how public art can transform physical space, and bring joy, pride, and identity to a neighborhood.
Diamond Point’s Interconnected
Lavish shades of blue lace a flowy creation painted with meanings that go deeper than the surface. The patterns, with hints of white, echo streams and rivers, alongside the salmon that inhabit the waters. The brush strokes are wavy and carry a rich message of experiences and lessons.
The only Coast Salish artist on the team, Diamond Point worked with Jackson and China Orr of Orr Development for the concept and vision of their wall. The siblings were the very first sponsors of Murals in the Market and the first ones to give a wall to paint on. Interestingly, their family has had a presence in the neighbourhood before it was even designated as Punjabi Market. During initial discussions, they relayed the fact that there is an underground stream beneath their building and an idea was born. The artist herself had heard of Punjabi Market, but learned so much throughout the whole process – be it the history of the market, the family stories, or connections to the market.
Point’s mural consists of a three-strand braid design representing the interconnectedness and flow of streams, rivers, and other bodies of water. Within the various strands of the braid are salmon motifs to represent family, connection, and diversity. This was her first mural, and it was an amazing experience for the contemporary artist. Despite the challenges, Point appreciated figuring out solutions to each hurdle, which added to a great learning experience.
“There were so many firsts throughout: first mural, first time ever doing a doodle guide transfer, first time using a scissor lift, and more. There was so much that I learned as an artist. I also had many meaningful conversations with community members walking by who just wanted to chat and learn more about myself and the piece. These are the experiences I will cherish as I continue to grow as an artist,” Point shares.
The female powerhouse considers herself fortunate for the opportunity. She is especially appreciative for space that was provided to incorporate a visual reminder and raise awareness that the territory of Punjabi Market, and the rest of the City of Vancouver, is situated on the unceded Coast Salish territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tseleil-Waututh Nations. For Point, it was meaningful that there were so many community members incredibly receptive to the incorporation of contemporary Coast Salish art within Punjabi Market.
Minahil Bukhari & Mustaali Raj’s Shahi Tukra
With colors that evoke the warmth of Indian summers and a sense of nostalgia, an illusionary 3D space transports you into the fragments of the North Indian royalty era. A mighty structure is complemented by abstract traditional motifs of the royal palaces and jewelry adorned by nobles. Mesmerizing patterns effectively encapsulate the natural canvas.
Minahil Bukhari and Mustaali Raj are over the moon after having successfully worked on their first large-scale project. As a creative duo, Bukhari and Raj have done several collaborative projects focused on exploring South Asian identity and felt that this venture was a great fit. They were both already familiar with the neighbourhood and rich history of Punjabi Market before getting involved.
The mural beautifies the wall of Darshana Sadurah’s A-Class Fancy Jewelers, which she is the owner of since 1991. For the artists, the wall came with an array of architectural, electrical, and plumbing interruptions, which made perspective painting very challenging. As per Bukhari and Raj, the creative process started on paper before they jumped on the computer to refine the final graphics and perspective lines. Once they had approval on the final artwork, the next step was transferring the vision onto a physical wall, which came to life through a mix of projection and manual drawing, coupled with a lot of measuring. Needless to mention, the passionate painters ended up using rolls and rolls of tape to get the straight edges.
The graphic approach to the design displays a contemporary space for viewers to engage with. Each component is well thought-out. For example, the archway skillfully represents the entry point of the original South Asian immigrants who settled in the Punjabi Market area. Bukhari and Raj reflect, “The mural is a celebration of the South Asian diaspora that has contributed greatly to the diverse cultural landscape of Canada. We hope that it will continue to spark joy amongst the residents of the neighbourhood and beyond.”
As per the painters-in-crime, work needs to be done when it comes to South Asians in the art world, but it is heartening to see more and more people of colour engaged in the contemporary art scene. They hope that the South Asian community, as a collective, sees the value of art and artists in a progressive society. Buhari and Raj strongly believe in raising the bar high and continuing to push our creative limits without letting our South Asian Identity become a limiting factor.
Undoubtedly, art has the power to bring about positive change and start important conversations in the public sphere. Spearheaded by Vancouver’s Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective, Murals in the Market is a testament to South Asians making successful strides in the art scene. The best part? The observer is also the participant. As you stroll down the market and absorb the many colors and memories, remember that you are also painting the cityscape with your very gaze!
Photos: Mavreen David,Vancouver Mural Festival