Shapeshifters: the intersection between art and identity

“For the last 37 years, I’ve shapeshifted in many ways and am finally, for the first time, acting on those strengths,” says Jag Nagra.

Nagra is the featured artist for the Indian Summer Festival running online from June 17 to July 17. Her piece entitled Shapeshifter explores the merging of identities into the different social landscapes of life.

As an artist, Nagra had an unconventional start to her journey. After graduating from the graphic design program at the Art Institute of Vancouver, it was through the power of social media that her illustrative work was propelled into the spotlight.

Shapeshifters is about the amalgamation of various strengths. | Photo courtesy of Indian Summer Fest

“I took a leap of faith and decided to start a 365-day project where I posted a new photo of my art online every day,” she explains. “I didn’t have an extensive illustrative experience at that time, but, ever since that project, I’ve been exploring different styles of art. I’m starting to really find my voice and what matters to me.”

One thing evidently important to Nagra is preserving her culture and community using visual design. Her work as creative director for the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective culminated in public art installations to revitalize this social space.

“There was always the fear that the market will be gentrified, so we are trying preserve the history and legacy. We are looking at things from an art- and culture-based lens,” she says. “Some of the things we think about long-term is how do we beautify the space so people can tell that this is a place of significance for the community.”

Her work with the Indian Summer Festival is an extension of this passion. As a platform for other South Asian artists, it holds a space for audiences to explore their own interactions with marginalization and the different facets of human nature.

Carving out a space

Amplifying the voices of intersectional artists is vital to represent the diversity of human experience in the art world. However, being heard as a minority community is no easy feat.

“The South Asian community in Vancouver is very small. I hope we can carve a space for ourselves here,” says Nagra. “We have to fight even harder as people of colour to break out into the art scene. But we have something our counterparts do not – our unique cultural perspectives.”

Nagra’s art showcases this by exploring the themes of East meets West and challenging cross-societal norms. She has drawn pieces with women wearing saris and Nike high tops and Indian women with tattoos.

“I like to draw my characters as brown skinned because it’s not really shown in mainstream art. It’s not really celebrated. Even in our culture, there is a problem with colourism. I really want to break that cycle,” she adds.

Introspection through art

The Shapeshifter piece showcased at the Indian Summer Festival blends together Indian motifs, rich colours and Hindu mythology to examine the reconciliation between identities.

Jag Nagra explores and challenges cross-societal norms. | Photo courtesy of Indian Summer Fest

“The piece I created is part tiger, part horse, part falcon and part peacock creature. I chose each of the animals because I wanted an amalgamation of their strength. Whether it is the peacock’s tail with all its beautiful colours or the fierceness of the tiger,” Nagra explains. “I want the audience to think about the strengths they themselves carry, how it morphs and transforms through life.”

As a queer Indian women, Nagra has had to traverse questions of self and adapting her personalities to her surroundings. Growing up as one of a handful of Indians in her school, she didn’t get a lot of exposure to her traditions and cultural customs. However, artwork has given her that opportunity.

“Through art, I found myself. Growing up I didn’t have a huge connection to my South Asian roots, but through my work I get to embrace my heritage,” she says. “It’s like a new world that I’m just learning about. Just seeing the intricacies in the traditional Indian artwork and the vibrant colours I feel fiercely proud of the rich history we have.”

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