Artist and "Bby Designer": Baljyot Kaur
Artist and "Bby Designer": Baljyot Kaur
Over some homemade almond cake, Artist Baljyot Kaur spoke candidly with Editor-in-Chief Tahmina Begum about being prophesied as a great modern artist at such a young age and creating work which purposefully connects others and their backstories.
Tahmina Begum: After winning the National Education Art prize of 2012, do you think it helped you set up for the projects and the creations you’re making now, or did that just feel like immense pressure to continue in that light?
Baljyot Kaur: I think it gave me the freedom to choose art and design as a viable future. Before, the subjects I was studying were maths and biology and I was supposed to go in that direction as that was more, er–
BK: Expected, and there’s little room for things to go wrong. So I think winning kind of proved to myself and others that it was a future.
TB: That you could do this and you and your work could be celebrated and did not just have to be a hobby. I remember your blog of illustrations from your sketchbook and the cluster of different textiles. How has your work changed since then, or has it changed?
BK: It’s always emotional, but it’s less introspective. I’m now in a position where I am using my personal experiences to see how I can design in an extrospective social format. I’m tentatively beginning to start work as myself, a third generation Indian immigrant, connecting with the diaspora and the “motherland” – and not just for myself. In the past, my work would have been only relevant to me but now I’m trying to change that.
TB: Similarly to the artist Maria Qamar’s work “Hate Copy”. I think the reason why she’s doing so well right now is because usually when women of colour are mentioned, I feel as though Latina, Indigenous and Southern Asian women are forgotten. I’ve been in experiences catered to women of colour, but it still hasn’t felt like “home” to me and I think that’s why she’s a success; because she’s made it relatable. Do you feel as though that’s where you are trying to take your work?
BK: I’m using my experience as a British Asian – that’s why I can’t connect. I feel as though a lot of the conversation is centred on America, but the context of it in Britain is so different. I read this article recently about British Muslims who are ostracised for giving up their faith or doing certain things, like dating outside their culture, which isn’t exclusive to British Muslims. This was an article in the Daily Mail and I read it expecting it to be bigoted and racist, but it wasn’t. It was fairly honest.
TB: What does the article speak about?
BK: It just speaks of an organisation set up by ex-Muslims in Britain. I extracted from it that there isn’t really an alternative if you’re a British Asian and you’re not sticking to what is expected of you from your family. It’s not like you can then be accepted into British society as ‘normal’.
TB: If I go to Bangladesh, I’m seen as being a Londoner, and if I’m in Britain, I’m instantly described as being “Asian” and we never associate the Britishness first. I guess if I didn’t have this accent you wouldn’t be able to tell where I am from, which is the strangest thing.
BK: I think a big thing is our communities are so often criticised for being insular and inclusive. But I do believe it’s because there isn’t an alternative for us to being accepted as we are in British society without completely white washing ourselves. Which is where my work is situated at the moment.
TB: Your earlier work focuses on a range of topics. Whether it is “Beirut Moments” focusing on changing perceptions regarding disability, the manifestation of former shapes in “Morphoerrorism” and the construct of the social and physical space, or how we obey authority in “Entangled Things”. What caused these, I suppose, unrelated ideas to form in your art? Is there any link between them?
BK: I think generally the link is difficult to see because the work is always with different people. It’s not dictated by it but it’s shaped by what those people want from it. But generally, I’m interested in how people interact with space; not just physically, but social space as well. But now that I’m going into my personal practice again, because the first couple of years of my degree were focused on looking at other organisations and working for them, I’m figuring out how my social space is set out. I’m trying to transfer that to other situations and other people. I think I’ve got interests in certain things such as agricultural practices, which is quite odd for a designer to say; “I want to be a farmer or gardener”. I think there’s something quite intrinsic in, in–
TB: Growing something.
BK: And creating something in the same way you create a drawing or a painting or a sculpture.
TB: Like a second layer God. When you were saying earlier about trying to fit into this space – do you ever feel as though in your head you’re justifying why you’re an artist; whether it has got to do with being a woman of colour, or coming from a Sikh background or all these different entities that I guess you are, and are fluid within you?
BK: I think constantly. I don’t think that’s something that’s unique to me as everyone comes at that for different reasons. But I think my family background weighs on it a lot. Being all girls, we’ve all been educated and that’s quite rare. And we’ve not been expected to have gotten married at twenty-two or twenty-three. Wanting to justify myself is rooted in that, not to my community.
TB: Do you feel as though being an artist and doing something you really love rationalises you not doing the traditional scope of things?
BK: That could be right.
TB: I come from a similar background, but sometimes I feel as though I’ll meet a group of young women who will ask each other what they are doing right now. And if everything has been fulfilled [in life], “Well why don’t you just get married now?” always gets asked next. As if that’s the next step and there’s no time to waste. I feel as though that’s just a bizarre thing because you need time to explore yourself and know yourself, as this is the home you’re going to be living in all your life.
BK: Definitely. But at the same time, I do really want to get married and have children–
TB: Wait, are you not proposing to me today?
BK: Let’s get to that later. I often feel guilty for saying I’m kind of envious of the life that my grandmother would have had. In a lot of ways, I can see why I have a lot more privilege. But I love the idea of getting up every morning, picking the things you want to eat from your land and looking after children every day.
TB: And knowing who you’re supposed to be. I think having that security blanket may not be one of the privileges we have – not that I want to put words in your mouth. I think we have a love and hate relationship with not knowing what will happen next. When our grandmothers got married, they just knew this was their partner for life, this was what they were supposed to do, and in that they found peace and were happy with that.
BK: And had a whole community supporting them.
TB: I think maybe we would have thought about them differently if they weren’t happy in their marriages and in love. But back to your art, what has studying at Goldsmiths done for what you’re trying to say?
BK: I resented that you had a process and they ask you to undo that. But then you see the value of it. Once you’ve extracted what the process is, you’re able to use it so much more. You have a great command and agency over it. In terms of being in an art school, it is quite overwhelming to be around so many incredible creatives. It can feel like having to tread on water, and sometimes like you’re inadequate, and other times like you deserve to be there. Especially when the university has such a well-known personality; that can be daunting because you don’t know if you should fulfil it or do what you want to do, or if what you want to do is to fulfil it. How much of this is me and how much of this is Goldsmiths?
This privilege, especially for someone like me, is only ever highlighted to me when we have to talk about certain things, and my opinion is so different because of my background. Not only is Goldsmiths such a white university, it’s incredibly middle class. I came from a place in Birmingham which wasn’t so nice. I think when we get to talking about things in a creative space, you can say anything. I’m often taken aback by how different our opinions are. It hasn’t, at university at least, made me feel lesser. It’s just made me realise everyone comes from different places and we can bring different things to the table because of that. And that’s a beautiful thing.
TB: I know from your Instagram description that you’re a ‘bby designer’. How do you feel about really being a baby of Momma internet and Papa art and using this medium?
BK: I kind of withdrew from the internet for a couple of years, from my art illustration phase to now. I wasn’t outputting things on the internet–
TB: You’re so cool.
BK: I felt like there was a such a huge gravity to what I was putting out. Then I felt like no, I don’t want to put anything out there on the internet. What if this was going to be out there forever? And I kind of developed a strange relationship with it and I’m still trying to figure that out, because I think that as a creative, you’re told that it is your tool to use. But at the same time, you’ve got to reconcile that with it also being the way you communicate with your family and your friends.
TB: And it’s your persona, meaning that what they see is all they know.
BK: And I feel as though before social media, there wouldn’t be one face you’d have for everyone. You wouldn’t be the same person professionally as you would be with your friends or family. It’s not that you wouldn’t be true to yourself, but you would put out certain things to certain people. Now artists put out all their work, but especially for someone like me, if I were to put out all my work, it would be quite provocative. I’d have to realise that all my family and my friends will see it and that’s a lot of pressure.
TB: And you don’t want to censor yourself because that would ruin what you’re doing.
BK: And when you’re someone from a very mixed background in terms of social circles, you do socialise with people who have really different opinions to each other. To have them all in one place and seeing you as whatever you’re outputting, it’s just a really strange thing to navigate.
TB: Also it’s the idea that someone will see it and presume that is all you do. I know that you said that you’re in a bit of a transition stage, but can you tell me about your next project?
BK: I’m undecided but starting to work with situating my next project in the land that my family own in Punjab, India. And that can [likewise] be transferred to my best friend who has just inherited land from Jamaica, and that’s the starting point. There’s this huge entanglement of the fact that I’m a girl and whether I should be inheriting this land in India, and the whole political situation in India in terms of farming. I will be exploring how that transfers to my friend, who is a second or third generation immigrant, and if there is even a connection, as a lot of people have a space in another country that they are detached from.
TB: Which is supposed to be home as well. So tell me, what’s inspiring you right now, I mean, other than my face? Is there anything that you’re reading or listening to?
BK: I am currently reading “The One Straw Revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka, who had a background working for an agricultural company, but is writing from a really technical and scientific point of view. And he came to the realisation that all human knowledge is actually fallible and we don’t really know anything; and what we know doesn’t matter, and we should take every day for what it is, just day by day. He’s really into just feeling natural processes, waking up in the morning, eating, drinking, working with the earth, having sex, and I really resonate with that. There’s so much which is scientifically formulated that should just be natural. Left to the person who does it best: Mother Nature.
Words and direction by Tahmina Begum
Photographs taken by Ieva Lasmane
Location and looks: Baljyot Kaur’s apartment and own