[Written by Fin Logie (he/him) ]
[Installation detail, Hardeep Pandhal, ‘Confessions of a Thug: Pakiveli’, Tramway 2020. Photography: Keith Hunter]
Content Warning: Contains discussion of colonialism, religion, and racial slurs
Standing in the centre of Tramway’s main exhibition space, visitors will find themselves surrounded by tall, blown – glass bottles filled with water. Inside, small colourful glass figures float to the top, keeping their heads above water. These are intricate devices called “Cartesian devils” – philosophical toys historically used in religious practices and magic shows. When pressed, the floating “devils” are submerged deep in the water, said to be obeying psychic commands, and acting as a sort of tool for spiritual analysis of the presser.
These “devils” are central to Hardeep Pandhal’s newest exhibition Confessions of a Thug: Pakiveli, propped up in a circular formation on top of a series of illustrations. Pandhal’s style in this exhibition can best be described as “Happy Gothic”, pairing the playful and cartoonish with the dark and gloomy. The toy-like quality of the Cartesian Devils reflects this, with the colourful, delicate figurines acting as a playful surface on top of a deeper, more troubling, meaning. Pandhal is the son of a first-generation immigrant Punjabi mother, and his Sikh heritage plays a big part in the thematic focus of this exhibition: a recurring motif of his art is the image of a headless horseman. The horseman, which appears in almost all of the works in this exhibition, seems to be an example of cultural disparities – in Western folklore, headless horsemen represent the dark and demonic, whereas in Sikh culture this imagery can be connected to the legend of Baba Deep Singh, who led the fight against imperial forces in Punjab while carrying his own severed head in his hands. This disconnect between coloniser and colonised communities plays a part in a wider discussion of the legacy of colonialism, which is centered all throughout this exhibition.
The main aim of Confessions of a Thug is to examine the idea of what it means to be a “thug”. Pandhal traces the term back to its roots in religious cults of Northern India, which were demonised by the British Raj as evil murderers, criticising the racialised mythology behind it. Anguished cartoon characters play out a comic book story: they are depicted wrapped in chains, shackled to boots the colour of the Union Jack, conveying the bleak legacy of colonial oppression in the modern era, while surrounding scenes offer social commentary reminiscent of satirical political cartoons, with signs on buildings spelling out the titles of rap albums. Vibrant pinks and blues saturate Pandhal’s illustrations, giving an unnervingly intense quality to them, and the frames are so crammed with messages that some of it begins to lose focus. Still, Pandhal’s art offers a thought-provoking angle on the lasting impact of this colonial, small-minded interpretation of what it means to be a “thug”.
The main video piece in the exhibition examines the use of the p*** slur in Western society, showing a clip from an American children’s show in which it is ignorantly used as a pet-name for a character. Pandhal takes an audio sample from this clip and turns it into a beat, rapping emotively over it about an array of topics relating to his personal experience growing up as a person of colour in Britain.
Confessions of a Thug offers a unique portrayal of issues of race and the modern legacy of colonialism through the lens of a multitude of mixed media. However, the erratic style Pandhal uses in his depiction of a myriad of issues, makes the experience a challenging one. Like the Cartesian devils, visitors should make an effort to plunge deep into the context of the art in order to fully appreciate its assets; floating at its surface level may risk only being overwhelmed by its volatility.
Come see Hardeep Pandhal | Confessions of a Thug: Pakiveli at Tramway. Every day from January 25 until March 22 excluding Jan 27, Feb 3, Feb 10, and Feb 17.