Born in India and raised in Toronto, painter and freelance clothing designer Babbu is the queen of tongue-in-cheek screenprinting, rainbow rickshaws and female empowerment. With influences ranging from Mughal era paintings to Bollywood, her pop art-esque fusion of traditional and contemporary Indian culture is refreshingly unique. Highly critical of the unrealistic standards set by mainstream Bollywood cinema, she creates works that comment on the glorification of sex, luxury and male superiority in India; bringing forth a strong female voice difficult to ignore. Read our conversation below:
Looking back as a recent graduate, how would you describe your art school experience?
I found school very open-ended, which I don’t necessarily agree with. We weren’t taught how to sell ourselves as artists, how to write a CV or a grant… Workshops were extracurricular and most of the subjects I ended up teaching myself. I went to OCAD University and the best part of the school is that it’s in the city. If it was in the middle of nowhere, I don’t think it would have the same prestigious name.
What have you been working on since graduation?
I’m interested in learning more about graphic design. A lot of my work is commissioned so I do a lot of private work for individuals, theatres, posters for concerts and such. The thing with freelancing is that some weeks are really good, you sell a lot of pieces and some weeks nothing comes in… At the moment, I’m in the process of making merchandise that I can sell wholesale and distribute in bulk, ideally. I started a t-shirt and crewnecks line, cushions, notebooks, cute little things like that. I’m taking it slow but so far it hasn’t been bad.
You were born and lived in India until the age of six. Have you travelled back since?
I went back once in 2007 and actually hated it.
I went when I was younger and India just isn’t a place for women and children. Over here, kids can go outside and play freely but you can’t just go and do that in India. It’s not safe; everything is so fast-paced that anything can happen. Sex trafficking, kidnapped and disappeared children… At that time, I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere without my parents so I was basically stuck inside of the house for six months watching Indian TV while my cousins were at school. I’ve been wanting to go back ever since to actually experience it; go for a longer period of time… not just a week or two.
Have you found yourself affected by the fact that you’re living far away from your birthplace?
Yeah, it’s like any immigrant child growing up. It’s almost like you already know you’re not going to fit in anywhere. You’re sort of a lost child. I’ll never be too brown or too white. It’s part of who I am.
What’s your general opinion on the Toronto art scene?
I feel artists here can get very egotistic. In general, when an artist gets a lot of love it kind of goes to their head. But here specifically, I see a lack of support which I don’t really understand because we’ve all started at zero followers, you know? It’s made me feel kind of disconnected from the city’s art scene.
Do you think this lack of support stems from competition?
Maybe. It’s healthy to be competitive, but you don’t have to let your ego go to your head.
What do you think would need to change in the city for that mentality to be altered?
You can’t change something like that. I think Toronto just hasn’t struggled enough, it’s too much of a new city. The arts scene is dominated by rich kids whose parents payed for art school and the support just isn’t there yet. It’s mostly coming from and within marginalized communities that work collectively to support their artists, speak out for change and create a platform for themselves… not just to hang abstract shit in a gallery.
You had an exhibition at the Glass Museum which spoke about taboos surrounding women in India and how they’re perceived. Could you speak on that?
That was my thesis work and it was very much based on personal experience and the ideals I observed on women and their environment. It was all surrounding the questions: “If I was in India, what would my life be like? How would it be different?”. I created a photographic series of myself as different characters in India: as a lesbian, a widow, a prostitute… I can’t ever feel what they feel because I’m in Canada and I’m privileged. It’s frustrating to move somewhere where women and men are supposed to be on the same platform but men still treat women like shit. Indian men still beat their wives and children and in our culture it’s not respectful to fight back so all of these things go unacknowledged.
You also refer to Bollywood and its influence on aesthetic, cultural standards and values.
Yes. The easiest way to put it would be: when you watch porn, is it really the same as having sex? No. Porn is basically scenes of glorified sex that have been changed and planned in so many ways to get the final result. Bollywood is very similar. It’s all about luxury and decadence; a wedding in a village is shown and the guests are drinking Grey Goose. You can’t even get Grey Goose in the city, let alone the village! (laughs). Certain actions are accepted on screen but not in real life. These movies are full of girls in bikini tops and lungas, but if I wore that in public my grandmother would go crazy… yet it’s okay to watch on TV because it’s ‘just a movie’. Kids are watching these films that are demeaning to women and grow up thinking it’s acceptable to put them down. I know so many men that actually believe women aren’t equal and they’re only in their twenties.
Apart from film, what role does you think art plays in Indian society?
Honestly, nobody cares about it now. All rural countries are looking for is progress. India found a way to do that through technology and art just wasn’t doing it for them. There’s no room for art; it’s all about money and technology. A lot of Indian people don’t know about art because they didn’t grow up in a household that taught them the opportunities that art offers. That’s why I get angry at Toronto sometimes, I don’t see enough activist artists. They just make their work and put it out there. But, if you’re passionate enough to pursue the arts and you come from a place that has struggled, you should be as passionate towards teaching something through it. Not just sell works to your friends.
Do you find most of your popularity or ‘success’ to be online or in person?
It’s a bit of both, actually. For my first show, I didn’t know more than 15 people in the room and that was because the show was marketed really well online. Then, through that show, I met and kept in touch with a lot of interested buyers so I really think it works hand in hand. I have to post my work online as much as I have to do private commissions. There would be days when I would paint something, put it on Instagram, someone would email me about it and the next day it’s sold. It’s great, but you can’t solely rely on the Internet. It’s all about keeping the relationships you make.