Composer of Words and Colors
Composer of Words and Colors

Art historian Anne Petersen investigates the transformative impact of migration and transculturation through the lens of contemporary art. She argued that this viewpoint can provide a platform for discussion on how notions of identity, belonging, and community change with migration and globalization. Studying cultural differences inevitably leads to an examination of history. Studying the past allows us to understand both our present and future. An art practice is one of accumulation, where one builds on what has been done in the past. Drawing from childhood memory, global history, the real and imagined— the world revealed in Sarindar Dhaliwal’s art presents compelling meditations on beauty, identity, exile, and home.

Resettlement and migration have existed for centuries, people migrate for a several reasons alternating from economic opportunity to escaping conflict and persecution. Various questions come to mind regarding home and residence, for migrants, that may not have the same meanings as it does for ordinary. What is home for migrants? Is it the land which they left behind or is it the host country? Do they consider both as their homes?

The actuality of migration alters not only how one remembers one’s cultural roots, but also how immigrants recreate it in their new country. The progression of relocating to a new homeland can influence our interpretation of symbols, and have a powerful impact on how we form and adapt our identities. The artworks in this exhibition explore questions concerning nostalgia, culture, and memory, in intensely personal and provocative ways. Featuring selections from ten years of photography, sculpture, textile, and video, this survey showcases one of Canada’s most idiosyncratic and original artistic voices.  Dhaliwal’s practice is rooted in painting and drawing as well as large mixed media installations that make use of methodical and discretionary collecting practices. These illustrative, or object-based accumulations (whether of sports equipment, handmade books, colours, or words) express the origin, relevance and significance of the artwork.

For the Toronto based artist, the evolution from conception to completion often takes several years of ardent investigation and analysis. Dhaliwal was born in Punjab, India, and her family moved to England when she was four. She grew up in Southall, London. At the age of fifteen, she migrated once again with her family— this time to Canada. However, she went on to receive a BA in Fine Art at Falmouth University, Cornwall in England (1978), before moving back to Canada where she currently lives. Dhaliwal gained an MFA from York University in 2003 and a Ph.D in Cultural Studies from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario in 2019.

The show, Sarindar Dhaliwal: When I grow up I want to be a namer of paint colours which was on view at the Art Gallery Toronto, exhibits more than forty years of artwork by the artist. The title of the show has been derived from one of her larger pieces on mylar that illustrates a grid of colors. Completed in 2010, When I grow up began in France and developed in Canada. The outcome is an idyllic assortment of colors in tones of pinks, purples and reds. Presenting artworks from the past forty years, including installations, watercolor paintings, photographs, drawings and textile works, Dhaliwal’s expressive and profoundly personal expressions are rooted in her childhood memories and experiences of migration, from India to England, and Canada. Marking the artist’s first solo exhibition at the Art Gallery Ontario, the exhibition is curated by Renée van der Avoird, the AGO’s Associate Curator of Canadian Art, and is organised by the AGO.

The exhibition is remarkable due to its brilliant approach throughout the timetable of Dhaliwal’s work. She is honest about her identity and her expression, all the while giving the audience a chance to view her through her personal lens. Dhaliwal’s multidisciplinary pieces engage with childhood memories, the practice of migration, and how she recreates the past using self-portrayal chronicles.

‘When I grow up I want to be a namer of paint colours’, 2010. Mixed media on mylar, 152.4 cm. × 86.4 cm. Courtesy of the artist. © Sarindar Dhaliwal.

Ubiquitous in the Indian Subcontinent and plentiful throughout the region, the marigold is recognised for its protective and medicinal properties. In The cartographer’s mistake: the Radcliffe Line Dhaliwal uses marigolds to depict the borders and territories of her native land, which in some critical instances were divided according to the availability of resources and physical geography rather than demographics. Dhaliwal decodes the malice of the partition’s communal violence into a living floral map of the Indian subcontinent as a whole. The marigold is a flower associated with healing and is offered to divinities as an indication of submission.

‘Outside the Zanzibar Tea Gardens’, 1985. Pastel, watercolour, coloured pencil, 132cm × 102 cm Promised Gift of Anne Koval. © Sarindar Dhaliwal.

The drawing Outside the Zanzibar Tea Gardens (1985), is an example of Dhaliwal’s conception of imaginary spaces to highlight her own trials of isolation. The image depicts a tiled wall of flowers and patterns interrupted by a set of doors thus forming a dreamlike lattice of sumptuous vegetation and elaborate geometries. There is a sense of wonder and nostalgia, a superb understanding of exuberant colour throughout her compositions.

‘At Badminton’, 1998. Mixed media on paper, 152.5 cm x 122.0 cm. Collection of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Gift of the artist, 2005. © Sarindar Dhaliwal

At Badminton embodies Dhaliwal’s large-scale mixed-media works on paper. There is a rich juxtaposition of imagery and colours, the vivacious greens, reds, yellows and blues resembling a placard-like composition. The artwork shows three women in saris playing badminton, a racquet sport that was popular in nineteenth century India. Dhaliwal’s avant-garde and intimate approach to a traditional painting is noticeable here. In a show of riotous colours and imaginary tales, Dhaliwal returns frequently to the land of her birth, to the devise of imperialism and colonialism there, and to the subject matter of migration and cultural displacement in the West.

Installation view: Sarindar Dhaliwal: When I grow up I want to be a namer of paint colours, July 23, 2023 - January 7, 2024, Art Gallery of Ontario. Artwork © Sarindar Dhaliwal, ‘olive, almond and mustard’ 2010. Photo: AGO.

Dhaliwal’s video project olive, almond & mustard, voices to the parental desire and insistence to continue cultural rituals while assimilating into life in Britain during the 1950–1960’s. Broadly defined, culture is a way of life, and it reflects the customs, traditions, basic values, religion, and activities shared among a common group or society. Hair oiling is a cultural and holistic lifestyle practice that evokes family traditions and childhood memories for many South Asian women.

The film arouses the experience of migration and integration into Western culture through everyday scenes and rituals. In the setting of the film there is a little girl who represents the younger Sarindar. She is having her hair washed with yoghurt by her mother. The images show her anguished-looking face as she wipes the yoghurt and water from her own face. The artist reflects on her grooming experience with her mother rubbing olive oil (sometimes almond or mustard oil) into her hair and then braiding and putting ribbons in it. Throughout this grooming ritual there are closeups of the girl’s hair and her unhappy face signifying her aversion toward this ritual because of her desire to assimilate into the English culture, her adopted homeland. There is an expression of resignation on her face.

This endearing motherly act is alternatively seen as an alienating experience to the daughter, and intensifies the political discourse against immigrants in England at that time.1 “My work has always been connected to the autobiographical underpinnings of my life; reshaping the bits of one’s history that have been fragmented and displaced across continents, cultures and homes,” said Dhaliwal.2

Diasporic art’s rites and rituals retain certain therapeutic functions for the artists themselves in solving the memories of their respective pasts.

Sarindar Dhaliwal’s artistic practice concerned with issues of identity, colonial histories, language, family and society reoccur frequently through different dispositions of her ongoing investigations. There is a subtle composure between splendor and destitution in her artwork. While tackling the challenging narratives in her imagery, she employs energetic subjects and themes that respond to colonial histories with an approach that maintains veneration for the imagination. Dhaliwal’s ideologies and aesthetics act as a mediator for transformation. In her profound artistic expressions, Dhaliwal illuminates the complex narratives of migration, seamlessly weaving the yearning to belong into the vibrant tapestry of the new homelands. Through the language of art, she bridges the gaps, fostering understanding and resonating with the universal human desire for connection and acceptance.

‘When I grow up I want to be a namer of paint colours’ was exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto from July 23rd 2023 to 7th January 2024.

Title image: ‘The cartographer’s mistake the Radcliffe Line’, 2012. Chromira print, 107 cm x 107cm. Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Purchase, with funds by exchange from the J.S. McLean Collection, by Canada Packers Inc., 2020. © Sarindar Dhaliwal.

All Images are courtesy of The Artist Sarindar Dhaliwal, the Art Gallery Ontario, Brandon Clarida Image Services, Lipman Still Pictures. 


Petersen, Ring Anne. Migration Into Art: Transcultural Identities and Art-Making in a Globalised World, Manchester University Press, 2017.
Abouddahab, Rédouane. Brownie, Siobhan. Figures of the Migrant-The Roles of Literature and the Arts in Representing Migration, Routledge, 2023.
Campbell, Jennifer. First Up Sarindar Dhaliwal,, Queen’s Alumni Review. Accessed 2nd2023.
Kaur, Manpreet. Prasad, Sanjaleen. Home, Migration and New Identities: Some Reflections,’Home_Migration_and_a_New_Identity_-_Some_reflections, Accessed 8th December 2023.
Ashcroft, Bill. Griffiths, Gareth. Tiffin, Helen. The Empire Writes Back-Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, Routledge, 1989.
Kopano, Baruti. Brown, Tamara. Soul Thieves The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African American Popular Culture, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Chain Reaction 2020-2021,, Accessed 19th December 2023.


  1. Olive, Almond & Mustard records this alienating experience– exacerbated by the political and journalistic diatribes against immigrants in England at that time. The artist’s mother’s insistence on this grooming ritual, common in the country of her birth (India) was at odds with her desire to assimilate into the culture of her adopted homeland.
  2. News Release Laurier 100, Wilfird Laurier University, chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/ Accessed 20Th December 2023

Shireen Ikramullah Khan is a Pakistani artist, art critic, educator and museologist with a background in painting and printmaking. She completed her undergraduate degree in Fine Arts from the National College of Arts in Lahore in 2006. In 2009, she completed her Masters in Art Gallery and Museum Studies from The University of Manchester, which included an internship at the Manchester Museum to profile gallery visitors and assess improvements. She is an active member of AICA (International Association of Art Critics) and writer for several art publications worldwide. Based in Europe since 2017, Shireen continues to maintain her own visual art practice, participating in several exhibitions across Pakistan and other countries. She is, in parallel, working with international artists to curate shows in Pakistan as a means of building stronger bridges for sharing of culture and knowledge.

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