Pop culture and Sikh tradition meet in Inkquisitive illustrations

British Sikh illustrator Inkquisitive brings his pop art to Renton this week. (Photo by Harjit Bhandal)
British Sikh illustrator Inkquisitive brings his pop art to Renton this week. (Photo by Harjit Bhandal)

Colorful portraits by the British Sikh artist known as Inkquisitive have been recognized and shared by many of the a-list celebrities they depict: LL Cool J, J. Cole, The Weeknd, and Jhene Aiko, to name a few.

This weekend Seattleites have a chance to see the latest work by Inkquisitive (real name Amandeep Singh) in an exhibit called “Sleepless in Seattle.”

“Whatever I see, smell, and do, I add to my dreams. When I wake up, I write everything down in a black book” says Singh. “One of the reasons why the exhibition is called ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ is because I always have vivid dreams…the artwork is going to be a mixture of things that I see in my dreams and things that I see as iconic to my journey.”

Singh has done 15 global exhibitions in six years. This will be his first time in the Seattle area. The show’s title is a testament to Inkquisitive’s thumb for pop-culture. But this exhibit features works that dive deeper than just pop icons.

Singh is bringing a variety of artworks, which feature the vivid pop-culture and Sikh-identity themes he originally became globally known for.

“At the end of the day, it’s not people looking at your art, it’s people reading pages of your diary.”

While Seattleites find solace in the introspection ushered in by darker days and approaching winter, it seems right that we will get to experience Singh’s personal narratives, a theme he has not emphasized as much in previous tours.

This time, one of the subjects is heartbreak, and no one is more familiar with that concept than Seattleites. Kurt Cobain (who Singh has illustrated) crooned about a lover’s Heart-Shaped Box, and data-artist R. Luke Dubois recently revealed that “heartbreak” is one of the most commonly used word in Seattlleites’ online dating profiles.

One of my friends once told me, after a bitter breakup, that “Seattle is where relationships go to die.” Go figure. Moreover, the film “Sleepless in Seattle” is about the heart’s fragility and strength, which is a running thread for this year’s Inkquisitive tour.

“Gradually I’m Dying Inside” by Inkquisitive Illustration (2016)

“Gradually I’m Dying Inside” is one part of a two-part piece speaking to heartbreak. Singh finds experiences of heartbreak as transformative and inspiring. “What I find most visually appealing…are things that are destructive, chaotic, eroded or imperfect. I love that idea of imperfect,” he says.

“It takes a lot of courage to bring out that side of me. At the end of the day, it’s not people looking at your art, it’s people reading pages of your diary,” says Singh.

Singh’s identity as Sikh artist began six years ago when he was just beginning to post his work online. It was important to him to create portraitures of Sikh gurus because “no one else” was portraying modern and personal interpretations of Sikh faith. While his work has come to be known as versatile over the years, his commitment to the Sikh identity and community remains steadfast.

That’s part of the reason the “Sleepless in Seattle” exhibit will be held at the Renton Metropolitan Banquet Hall on Sunday, November 20th. The greater-Seattle Sikh community has known it to be the go-to location for events like wedding receptions, dance competitions and bridal shows within the Punjabi diaspora, with which Singh ethnically identifies.

The tour, which is hitting other cities with large Punjabi-Sikh communities as well, is supported and organized by Sikh groups like Jakara Movement, Sikh Center of Bothell, and Khalsa Gurmat Center. Singh says he wants to encourage artistic pursuit in Punjabi communities because it has traditionally not been taken seriously as a profession.

gurunanak_inkHowever, his huge following (almost 150,000 followers on Instagram), suggests that his visual message also extends to people outside the diaspora. He says his hope is that his work is relatable for people of all walks of life, and he expects to see a diverse crowd on Sunday.

During the New York-leg of his tour, Singh remembers a Christian man was looking at his Guru Nanak illustration. Singh was about to explain who Guru Nanak was, but the man stopped him and said he saw his grandfather in it.

“It is amazing to see how something I produced based on my cultural upbringing can have different meaning to someone else,” says Singh. “Sikhism is about equality and being a student of life.”

In that spirit, he says he’s ready to collaborate with other artists he’s met while touring. He encourages fans and aspiring artists to send their work to him.

“I think it’s wonderful there’s so many upcoming artists. And [in the Indian community], art [as a profession] is becoming more accepted. I don’t think there’s any reason it should have been hidden in the first place,” Singh says.

mercury_inkThis month Singh experienced a milestone: his first book cover, for “Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury.”

He thinks of it as a “massive achievement in the Indian community — to realize a turban-guy made this — because art has been shrugged off as, ‘What’s art going to do? Art isn’t going to do anything.’ There are dentists and lawyers and wonderful other things. But art is also doing so many wonderful things.”

By presenting provocative themes, Singh hopes his art can help people to better understand themselves. He names Jean-Michel Basquiat as one of his greatest inspirations because “his work is not understandable straightaway” and “you have to dig deep” to understand it.

Posing questions through visual mysteries in art is central to Singh’s identity as an artist.

“That’s why I’m Inkquisitive,” he says.

You can see Inkquisitive’s “Sleepless in Seattle” exhibition on Sunday at the Renton Metropolitan Banquet Hall from 6-9:30 PM. The evening will include a meet and greet, exhibition, and presentation from Singh, as well as dance performances from Harjot and Bhagirath Singh, and Virsa Punjab Da. The event is free and open to the public.