Threads of Solidarity: Into the Archives with Jagdeep Raina
Artistic Practice (16/18)

Threads of Solidarity: Into the Archives with Jagdeep Raina

Weaver, archivist, and textile artist Jagdeep Raina embroiders tapestries that depict the South Asian diaspora through his vivid interpretations of archival imagery.

Guelph-based artist Jagdeep Raina’s embroidery could be described as expressive, even though it is meticulously rendered in thousands of precise stitches. His style, a skewed and complex patchwork of colours and forms, was honed in his earlier mixed media works—large, dense charcoal and pastel renderings of friends, family, and community members. Recently, Raina has found inspiration working with new forms of traditional handicrafts, specifically the art of phulkari, a type of embroidered cloth from India and Pakistan celebrated for its intricate geometric designs. “I’ve been trying to find ways to preserve this style of embroidery,” said Raina. “My grandma taught me some techniques, and I found a Pakistani woman, also passionate about trying to keep this embroidery alive, who taught me some folk-art techniques.”   

A family holds a portrait of their son, a farmer who died by suicide, in Jagdeep Raina’s embroidered work “Blood Money.”

Raina’s recent tapestries are inspired by what is referred to as the Green Revolution, or the Third Agricultural Revolution. In the 1960s, agricultural practices in India underwent an enormous shift as traditional methods of crop cultivation were spurned in favor of industrial farming and the introduction of genetically-modified, high-yielding variety (HYV) rice and wheat. Although it was conceived as a pioneering program to help alleviate poverty and hunger in rural India during a period of famine, the lasting impact of the Green Revolution has been widespread malnutrition and staggering losses to staple indigenous crop species, agricultural diversity, biodiversity, cultural heritage, and economic sovereignty. 

“There’s been a lot of damage done from this framework,” explains Raina. Widespread soil erosion, low forest cover, the water supply drying up, and then, of course, a really devastating epidemic of farmer suicides.” 

The imagery that Raina weaves into his embroidery is a tale of providence. He happened to be in London, UK in 2016 where he met writer Satinder Kaur Chohan, who had developed a touring play about the Green Revolution based on her time in Punjab. Chohan had assembled an archive of hundreds of photographs, including over 20 hours of interviews that she conducted while living with farmers. Raina purchased the archive for $500 and went to work digitizing its contents, using it as source material for paintings, tapestries, poetry, and two short films.

“Let me taste purple silk monsoons in these Bathinda fields” by Jagdeep Raina.

Phulkaris are “large embroidered cloths made by women of various social classes and religious communities in the Punjab regions of India and Pakistan prior to Partition,” though similar embroidery work can also be found in Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Raina considers these works specifically to be variations on a bagh—ornate phulkaris that are completely covered in embroidery stitches. While a style of bagh does exist that represents scenes of everyday life (Sanchi bagh), Raina’s approach differs significantly from the iconic, graphic style of traditional Sanchi by opting for striking interpretations of images of the Green Revolution.

“My dream one day is to make a bagh from scratch,” says Raina, who can often be found hunched over a small table loom learning how to spin cotton and weave the fibre into cloth.

“Remember how my grandmother spun her wooden charkha. Remember how my grandmother spun your soft, supple cotton into luxurious thread” by Jagdeep Raina.

In addition to his textile and writing projects, Jagdeep is currently touring two short films that combine footage, stop motion animation, narration, and poetry that are showing at the 2021 Los Angeles International Film Festival. “Oh Lahore” can be watched here, and “Madhur’s Phulkari” can be screened here until November 22, 2021. His exhibit Chase is showing at the Textile Museum of Canada now through March 2022.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

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Curtis Walker is an educator, musician, and arts administrator based out of Guelph, Ontario. He holds a Master’s degree in Cultural Theory, where he focused his writing on experimental music. He also spent years as a member of the programming and organizing team for the Send + Receive Festival of Sound in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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