WORK by BHAJAN HUNJAN
Bhajan is a freelance visual and public artist and educator. She was born in Kenya and came to Britain in 1975 to study Fine Art and Printmaking. Using techniques of painting and printmaking in experimental ways, Bhajan’s work has developed into public art. She has designed urban spaces that have become permanent features in towns and cities. These include floorscapes, gates, railings and wall installations.
Join Bhajan talk about her connections with and curiosity about Indian heritage in the context of Kenya, her life growing up in colonial East Africa, and then later living as an artist in the UK. She reflects on cultural opportunities for South Asian diasporic women artists, their struggles for self-empowerment, the adoption of multiple roles in community-led exhibitions, fringe workshops, artisan schools and navigating through different scales of public art works.
One and Many
Refusing to be labelled in restrictive ways, her variant modes of artistic expression seen in the boxes of ‘One and Many’ showcase her ability to shape public spaces. Additionally, it opens up the possibilities to constantly redefine her identity with Sikh and Punjabi affiliations through many symbols and meanings acquired through her upbringing, cultural heritage and mobility across continents.
Colours and shapes in her artworks are evocative of specific moods or emotional states, without making them overly explicit, thus allowing room for ephemeral interpretations. ‘Transient Matters’ suggest myriad tones of colour and shapes mediating through a range of curves, deepening into the core with imagery of nature combined with symbols of curiosity and questions. The artwork plays on colours, spiral tones, geometry and gestures that call for reflection and meditation.
From the 1980s, Bhajan’s self-reflections conjoined with a growing awareness of feminist politics. Speaking about her figurative paintings in 1986, she stated that her work was about ‘experiences, women, and in particular Asian women’. In ‘She Observed’, she paints a picture with motifs of a bird reminiscent of heritage textiles, and a woman in deep thought who appears as a quiet observer in a pensive pose. The sentiments represent Bhajan’s conversation on the politics of the time, when women fought for their rights while struggling to conform to social and cultural conventions.
Much of Bhajan’s approach to art-making was rooted in her experiences of working at a South Asian women’s refuge in Reading, Berkshire, where she was confronted with the harsh realities of their daily lives. In ‘She Observed’ she positions the woman’s agency in an intimate space, observing and scrutinising from the margins of a canvas, while the viewer is simultaneously drawn into the act of watching.
Bhajan’s work moved to the public realm in the new millenium as she acquired public commissions involving urban regeneration that enabled her to include local and marginalised voices in her creative works. The public works came about through community consultation and were developed in collaboration with architects, structural engineers, building contractors, local authorities, schools and community centres. In their coming together, dualities of self and other, private and public, and tradition and modernity associated with the images and icons collapse.
‘Entangled’ is an embossed piece representing her critical thoughts on identity while navigating the spaces of community heritage. In a quest for universal forms, Bhajan engages with symbols, texts, patterns, lines and colours that evoke human emotions and ideas. Her embossed paperworks move away from colour codes embedded in specific cultures to revel in evocative shades that change in the eyes of the observer.
Drayton Road: Unicorn School Floor
In addition to natural forms replete in her works, her interest in community regeneration and material objects shifted her artistic gaze to decorative design and large-scale floor works. The granite floor design for ‘Drayton Road: Unicorn School Floor’ for a housing development in Oxfordshire (2010) is a departure from studio-based works. The floor murals carry the imprints of heritage material forms, visual symbols, and texts drawing from her own experience of living in the UK. She drew inspiration from a Punjabi phrase that her father used to say that praises the person’s handiwork, labour that is always rewarded with essential provisions. Rooted in materiality, Bhajan is able to move between delicate lines of glass, print-making, light boxes to concrete, leaving the trails of her activism on urban rails and public floors with exquisite artwork.