Kids Corner


Decoding a Painting:
Sikhs in Canada





The contemporary painting, “Sikhs in Canada,” by celebrated UK-based twin sisters, Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh (popularly known as “The Singh Twins”), is back on display at the Royal Ontario Museum ("ROM") after being launched on May 19, 2012.

It is on display in the Ondaatje Gallery (level 3 of the Lee-Chin Crystal) and explores the history of the Sikh diaspora in Canada.This painting was commissioned by the ROM in 2006, completed in 2010, and is now part of the ROM’s permanent collection.

Created in the artists’ signature “past-modern” style (a play on the term “post-modern”), it is a tour-de-force reflecting the historical and cultural evolution of the Sikh diaspora in Canada.

The painting moves from the scenic West coast of Canada to the urban metropolis of Toronto and from early migrants to contemporary Canadian society. Decorative details provide a symbolic dimension, such as the combined paisley and maple leaf motif to represent the Sikh-Canadian identity. 

Even the ROM is represented in the painting, as a venue that helps presents and preserves Sikh heritage in Canada.

The images on this page, taken from the painting itself, highlight certain details. Let me try and decode their references.


Sikhs in Canada, by The Singh Twins, Gouche on board, England, 2010, 44 x 32.5 cm. 2010.53.1

This acquisition was made possible with the generous support of the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust Fund.


At the top of the painting is a crest with references to the first turbaned Sikh to play for the Canadian football league, the official maple leaf tartan of Canada wrapped into a turban, and CBC Sport's broadcast of 'Hockey Night in Canada' with Punjabi commentary. The migratory monarch butterfly, the National insect of Canada, symbolizes both Sikh migration and official recognition in Canada.


A bit further down the painting, the terrain represents the arrival of early Sikh settlers on ships and the establishment of the town of Golden in the Rocky Mountains area of British Columbia. The Pacific Railway and the Mayo and Herb Doman lumber industry giants reference early Sikh contribution to the infrastructure of Canada. The men in blue on the left pick up lumber yet wear stethoscopes around their necks, indicating the professions from which Sikh settlers came. The CN Tower and City Hall represent Toronto, the location of one of Canada'a largest Sikh communities today.


In the middle right is one of Canada's first gurdwaras built in Vancouver 1908, combined with the Union Jack flag, reminiscent that Sikh pioneers were British citizens under the British Raj. Amongst the group of people depicted is Captain Kesur Singh, one of the earliest Sikh settlers in Canada from the turn of the 1890s; Baba Gurdit Singh, a central figure in the 1914 Komagata Maru incident; and Baltej Singh Dhillon, the first turbaned Sikh member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.


In the lower left are Sikh contributions to the arts (the band Punjabi By Nature) and the media (OMNI TV), as well as international recipients of the Sikh Centennail Award, including the oldest marathon runner Fauja Singh, the first female Sikh Mayor of New Zealand Sukhi Turner, and the artists themselves. In the intricate carpet design in the background are cranberries, strawberries, and raspberries, denoting Sikh contribution to Canadian agriculture.


The author is Senior Curator, South Asian Visual Culture, at the Royal Ontario Museum ("ROM"), Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

[Courtesy: ROM. Edited for]

October 23, 2012


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Sikhs in Canada"

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