Meet Babbu The Painter: Mindy Kaling’s new favourite artist

babbu-collage

The first thing you gotta know about Babneet Lakhesar aka Babbu the Painter is that she’s a self-confessed shithead and Bollywood junkie.

A child of a Rajasthani father and Punjabi mother, the 22-year-old artist was born in Bhatinda. Though, she moved to Canada when she was seven, her mixed Indian heritage is definitely a massive influence on her art.

ON BEING FEATURED ON THE MINDY KALING PROJECT

 

Babbu: It’s crazy, right? Me and HateCopy often collaborate, and we noticed that she was following each of us. We thought about sending her some of our work but life got in the way. And, then her team called and they said, ‘Mindy wants some of your work for her show’ and we were like, beyond excited. For brown girls, I think Mindy is the IT girl, you know. I mean, she’s the only brown girl with her own show whom we see on main stream television here.

 

INFLUENCES

Avantika : Let’s start with the basics: who are your influences?

Babbu: I definitely love Andy Warhol. I have mixed feelings about Frida Kalho — like, I love her but at the same time she gives me this weird vibe. I never got into Amrita Shergil’s work. I mean I appreciated her existence, but I don’t feel like it was an influencing factor?

I like the colour schemes, the backgrounds, which I definitely use in my painting myself. But, like I never wanted to get into the idea of a comic strip. I appreciate it, but I was not inspired by. That’s why I like Andy Warhol, because he kept it pop art, but he kept it more about the colours, colour blocking. I obviously liked his Campbell series for simple it was. The idea of seeing this ordinary object in multiple sizes and colours.

 

AUNTY & UNCLE STICKERS UP IN THE SHOP 🔥😏 Shop: etsy.com/shop/BabbusDukaan

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Avantika: I think I see a lot of Indian textile prints in your work. How did that come about?

Babbu: I’ve always been inspired by Indian textiles on its own. I’ve always loved fashion on its own so it shows up. Now, I’m starting to get specific about it. So, if it’s a Rajasthani painting then I want to stay true to the textures of that region. If I’m doing Punjabi art, I’ll try to get references within that culture. I also like to play with pattern and colours. I like to make them fun and cute… I don’t think I will ever get away from cute I’m afraid!

 

 

Avantika: I also see a lot of Mughal-era inspired work on your Instagram. Where’s that coming from?

Babbu: So when I started to paint, I’d paint a lot of Mughal era style, but my twist on it was that I didn’t paint miniatures; I did 8 feet by 8 feet paintings.

 

 

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ON CRTICISMS OF CULTURAL APPRPOPRIATION

Avantika: With cultural appropriation coming to the foreground, especially in the States and Canada, do you get criticised for using the Mughal era paintings being a Sikh girl? I’ve seen a few comments on your Instagram.

Babbu: Well, everyone likes to critique me using these motifs. I do get heat that Oh, you’re Punjabi, you should talk about what happens to the Sikhs in the Mughal Era instead of drawing the Mughal Era. I think some people are being mean and others may be confused as to why I do it. But, my take on it is that it’s just such a beautiful era – artistically. I don’t take the past too seriously, I guess.

Avantika: But, you are drawing inspiration from the past. So, what attracts you to it? Are you seeing a statement in the pieces you draw?

Babbu: My references to a lot of the things I draw may come from a difference place than what Indians may associate them with. I mean, the white elephant has a whole other connotation for the country, but maybe not so much for me. I wasn’t bought up in India and no one was telling me all the stories of Punjab and so on, you know? But, for me, the elephant and horse are beautiful creatures, and I had some inkling that they were good luck for the house. So it became a selling point too!

But, mostly, I like the Mughal Era because they drew a woman’s body the way it was meant to was, and is: without any clothing and for me, that was very empowering because nowadays, especially in the South Asian community, you have a lot of people telling people what to wear.

 

ON ISSUES BEYOND THE PUNJABI COMMUNITY

Avantika: Apart from the Mughal influence, you don’t appear to work on issues pertaining to other issues in the Americas. Is that a conscious decision?

Babbu: I do shy away from doing or making statements on behalf of the Muslim community, even though we may be doing a lot of the same things and protesting similar prejudices, is just because I don’t have a lot of Muslim families around me. I feel I’m not an appropriate voice for the community.

Right now, cultural appropriation is a big thing in the US and now it’s affecting us. Everyone is kind of on his or her toes. Everyone is sticking to their own. Which in itself I find really stupid, and I don’t agree with it. We have all these beautiful cultures; we should be integrating them into each other.

Black Lives Matter is also a big deal in Canada too. I relate to it, yes. I’ve experienced racism. I’ve been bullied. I’m more than happy to bring it to light and talk about it. At the same time, not everyone needs to talk about everything. I feel like I’ve not even said enough about issues that directly affect me: women’s issues, South-Asian prejudice. So, there’s more that I’ve got to on that front first.

 

POP ART AND POLITICS

Avantika: Your work around India feels political. For example, the Bakwaas jacket and the Fuck Indira prints: these are live political wire issues in India right now. And they’ve been so historically.

Babbu: I’m not saying it’s not entirely political. But, I like to mix the humour into my work.

Also, I think the Sikh community does need a little more representation because there are lots of versions of Hindu South Asians — even I do this, aunties with bindis — but there’s not enough representation of Punjabis. Not just a turbaned Punjabi. Turban has a great significance to the Sikh community, but there’s more that my people have to offer. Over here, there are so many Punjabi kids who wear really cool patkas and have their own style and they look so cute but they never get drawn about or picked up. So, I do try and represent. I do try to do it in a non-cheeky way… borderline cheeky!

Avantika: More political art in your future?

Babbu: Pop Art is in itself a political statement… it began as a rally against the times. But, I think because I’m a shit head so I’ll always being doing things that piss people off. Also, I’d like to do with some meaning behind it… a personalised meaning to me.

 

ON CANADA

Avantika: So, speaking with you, I can’t help but notice that you come from a somewhat insulated society in some sense — the people you interact with, and how you’re treated by those around you.

Babbu: Well, Canada was one of the first countries to immigrants and in vast majorities. Before immigration, Aboriginals lived here But, everyone else — even the Italians, Portuguese, Indian — we were all children of immigrants. So, it’s hard for anyone to really say you’re not Canadian — in that non-inclusive sense — because really none of us are Canadian.

Avantika: And does every one see it like that?

Babbu: I’m not going to say you don’t face racism at all though. I think I get away from it a lot because I am a lighter skinned brown person. I’m the safe “cute” looking person. That makes it easier I guess to approach me than a man with a turban or a darker skinned Asian person. And, that’s racism too.

In other situations, I swear, it’s been outside of Canada!

 

 

THE JAISALMAIR SERIES

Avantika: Tell me about this series. It’s your latest work?

Babbu: The whole series is about things that I’ve seen and things I’ve experienced. But, it’s also about learning about my past. The older I get the more I want to learn about my ancestors and where they came from, what they went through. And I’m raised Punjabi, but the Rajasthani part of me is something I don’t really know. I don’t want to be like “Oh my GAWD, I don’t know who I am.” It’s not that. I think I know who I am, but I just want to learn more about it.

 

No means No:

✨The Jaisalmer Collect ✨ ~ ✨No Means No✨BABBUS FAVE WORD! . . Full series on the website! Babbuthepainter.com

A photo posted by ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ B A B B U ❖ (@babbuthepainter) on

 

Babbu: Well, I saw the movie Pink and I got inspired. But, I’m always trying to make work about women and about how we feel but without making the work “too feminist”. I know this is strange: because I am a feminist, but I feel like we’re at a age and day because feminism is becoming majorly divided. There’s tons of feminists I don’t agree with, I feel like instead of redefining the idea of gender, they may be enforcing it more by putting them down in order to pull women up. I feel like we need to put everyone on an equal platform, that’s my idea of feminism. It can be confusing, I give you that!

And my favourite word is No. I just love saying No. I remember that when I was going to the University of Arts here in Toronto, not only did my parents not understand what I was doing, but it was also really discouraging because people at school would have this stereotype that artists are always gonna be poor. It was just something I didn’t buy into, figuratively. I start doing art shows and work, a lot of people didn’t pay me or give me anything in return. It used to make me so mad. But, I eventually got to the point where I refused to do things for free and literally, when I started using the word No, it felt like the best thing ever. It was such an empowering thing. Not just as a woman, but also as a person.

 

The Patka Kid 

✨The Jaisalmer Collect✨ ~ ✨F*ck Indira✨ . . Series up on the website, babbuthepainter.com

A photo posted by ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ B A B B U ❖ (@babbuthepainter) on

 

Babbu: Yea, I do have that as a reference to the Sikh violence. I like to use my art to express issues that are expressing us as a whole, one I feel at home with but in a way that’s humourous. I want people to be able to see what I’m getting it, but they’ll also be like “haha, this is bad about Gandhi, but it’s funny so I’ll let it slide.”

Avantika: Have you thought of sending these jackets to politicians in India?

Babbu: I’d love to! Tell me who, let’s do it!

Avantika: It might be funny.

Babbu: HAHA. You’re just a shithead. But, I’d love to do it. I love pissing people off. I’m a shithead too!

 

Rajasthani Farmer:

✨The Jaisalmer Collect✨ ~ ✨Bakwaaas✨ . . Series up on the website, babbuthepainter.com

A photo posted by ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ B A B B U ❖ (@babbuthepainter) on

It’s a farmer who is dealing with the droughts, and so many issues and with my family coming from Rajasthan I feel a special affinity for what the farmers in the State are enduring right now. So, that work stems from a maelstrom of those thoughts. He’s basically saying what they are being put through is Bakwaas.

 

Limca/ Maggie

✨The Jaisalmer Collect✨ ~ ✨MAGGI + LIMCA✨ babbu's two fave things 😻 . . New series now on the website ! Babbuthepainter.com

A photo posted by ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ B A B B U ❖ (@babbuthepainter) on

 

I’m such an Indian at heart. And I’m fully addicted to Limca. Like, I have to have it with my Maggi every time. It was just a little play, a fun stuff for people who didn’t want to be political.

 

ON THE ART SCENE IN TORONTO

Babbu: I know there are a lot of South Asian artists in Canada, but it’s very surface art or abstract. I don’t know if that’s because they feel the need to assimilate with everyone else or they just don’t care.

Avantika: So, why do you insist on Hyper Indian Art?

Babbu: Because, like, I’m such an Indian at heart. I love watching Bollywood movies, I mean, I keep up with my shit. It’s not something I can even get away from it. My parents both made sure I got as much exposure to Indian culture as possible. My brother and I both speak Punjabi really well. And like, they made sure we knew about our culture… not so much religion but definitely about the culture.

 

RACISM AND SEXISM IN THE TORONTO ART SCENE

Avantika: Are there setbacks being a minority double whammy? Brown and a girl, I mean.

Babbu: Well, I get pissed off because there’s opportunities I’m not given because of how I am: if I’m a girl, or brown. In a way, it is racism. In Toronto, there’s a lot of male white artists who started doing art much later than me. They’re not technically there when it comes to painting, but they don’t have to flirt with clients to make them buy their art, they don’t have wear makeup. But I have do all that. For me, my art can’t just speak for itself. I have to speak to my whole persona, not just the work I do. But, not sure if that’s sexist or racist. It feels like it’s both.

Avantika: What about Indian artists?

Babbu: I get male brown artists too get more opportunities than I do. It’s the same with brown male artists — they can get away with just representing themselves through just their work.

Avantika: So, do you feel like you’re persona is overpowering your art?

Babbu: These are just the struggles I’m going through right now. I feel so pissed off at the world. A lot of people will tell me like, ‘Oh gosh, your make up looks pretty’, but they don’t care for my work. It sucks. I was in London recently, and there were a handful of people who were just there to see what I looked like in person rather than to see my art. I mean they stuck around, but they also more interested in the cute Indian girl rather than here’s this artist.

But, like, I had no choice about being brown and I chose to produce the art. It’d be nice if my choices were respected rather than overlooked for marketing type ploys. I am trying not to take it too seriously and just keep on working till that’s all anyone has to see.

 

All images via Babbu the Painter’s Instagram page. Check out her work on Insta, and her shop too. The denim jackets are seditious 😉 
Avantika Mehta
Written by

Editor, Pyjama People

Avantika Mehta used to be a lawyer, resident Blue Frog party freak and proud wearer of harem pants curated from Kasol. Then she became a writer and it all went downhill. Famous Scottish journalists have been known to call her ‘a volatile woman.’

Twitter @bitingfriends / Instagram: @bitingfriends

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