London artist Jasmin Sehra blends hip-hop with Bollywood
Jasmin Sehra pays homage to pioneers of hip-hop by artistically reimagining them in the stylized aesthetic of Indian film posters.
A series of paintings she’s dubbed ‘Bolly-Hood’. It’s hybridity at its finest, urban culture within a Bollywood framework; a visual ode to the East and West. Kendrick Lamar, Queen Latifah and M.I.A vibrate with colour and cultural significance. Meanwhile Drake and his collaborators against a floral backdrop capture the essence of More Life’s far-reaching rhythms.
On a more intimate level, Bolly-Hood serves as a validation of Jasmin’s own identity as a British Indian woman. The project provided a route into rediscovering hip-hop (old and new school) along with her own Punjabi heritage. Themes of empowerment, authenticity and conflict seem present. We sat down with Jasmin to get to the root of Bolly-Hood and see how it, in turn, helped to retrace her own path.
Do you come from an artistic background?
Definitely. My dad trained as an architect, his drawings are an inspiration to me. My uncle’s a soul singer and has featured on tracks with Twista, done backing vocals for Boy George and was in Thriller Live, and my brother’s been producing music for 13 years, he produced Jidenna’s Classic Man. Even in the traditional sense, my dad and his siblings were taught the tabla and harmonium and used to have jam sessions (‘mehfils’ in punjabi) with photography shoots and make homemade videos.
I know you love hip-hop but where did this interest stem from?
My brother is one of my biggest musical influences. In my second year at London College of Communication, he introduced me to Kid Cudi and that’s when I saw Kanye West’s visuals for 808s & Heartbreak and was inspired to incorporate hip-hop into my art. I remember hearing Big Pun’s lyric “Dead in the middle of Little Italy, little did we know/ That we riddled two men that didn’t know diddily” and thinking the wordplay was genius! I started discovering old school hip-hop in a new light, and appreciating the four pillars within it.
I began doing hip-hop-inspired portraiture graphite drawings and by third year I’d moved to paintings as they allowed me to be more adventurous. As the only brown girl in my class I already felt very alone and isolated, struggling to connect with others, so when I brought out these mad colourful hip-hop paintings while everyone else had their more traditional art I felt even more like an outsider. I don’t think the teachers understood it.
Was their a personal motivation behind the Bolly-Hood series?
Me retracing my roots. Everything you do, you eventually go back to your roots. Old is gold. At university I felt far removed from my culture to the point of feeling embarrassed to take Indian food in for lunch. The Bolly-Hood series served as a reconnection to my origins. I saw a photograph of my parents in Mexico and I felt happy to see my mum balance the two sides of her identity; Westernised clothing with her traditional marriage bangles on. I became hungry to know more about my history as an Indian woman. This set the wheels in motion for the Bolly-Hood project, it fused together the two elements of my identity: hip-hop and Indian culture.
Which are your favourite posters?
The Matangi piece (below). It was inspired by M.I.A’s Borders video and the whole Brexit fiasco, I wanted to create a piece that communicated those problems and I thought her video was dope. The symbolism with the parrot and the lotus flower is actually related to a Hindu God, Matangi, who M.I.A references a lot, that’s why she’s got the headpiece on too.
Also the Kendrick piece as it’s not just aesthetics, it’s telling over 400 years of history. It’s based on his King Kunta track which itself is based on Roots. I incorporated the shackles, but also the gold chains to make it relevant to the consumerism in America today. I had SZA cutting up yams to reference the lyric “the yam is the power that be”, as yams are symbolic of male worth and status. Here’s some inside info; I’m doing another Kendrick piece on his HUMBLE. video. I’m also doing a continuation of the Bolly-Hood series but focusing on the queens of hip-hop, i.e. Missy Elliott.
What is it about the aesthetics and culture of Bollywood that appealed to you?
Indian dramas are always so melodramatic with the kind of dancing and musical scenes you don’t see in Westernised dramas. The posters are very illustrative and colourful and are often lifted from a scene in the film. I wanted to capture that cinematic element and apply it to my own posters so you weren’t just getting a 2D portrait or lettering but a real insight into the track or album.
How did you choose which artists to feature in Bolly-Hood?
Having a personal connection to the artist’s music. I did Queen Latifah’s Unity even though it’s so old-school as I really related to the lyrics. I loved the tropical elements to More Life and wanted to highlight all the features too like Giggs, Jorja Smith etc. This was the first poster I did freehand too. Whatever I feel in my heart I paint, it’s heartwork!
Sophia Tassew is another artist turning grime / rap into posters specifically UK acts…
Sophia is my girl! She actually reached out to me to feature in her Converse exhibition in October last year. I feel like now people of colour are forging their own creative paths, we got Gurls Talk, Gal-Dem, BBZ we no longer need to fit into an industry that doesn’t make room for us.
Your project London Masalaa zeroes in on the influence of hip-hop on British South Asian women. What are you hoping to achieve with the platform?
There’s a lack of exposure given to South Asian women within the creative industry. For instance myself and a friend got commissioned to do a graffiti piece on Hanbury street. Our piece was of an Indian woman with the bindi a chunni, and a teardrop on her face, we then sprayed “rudegal” on the side and called her ‘gangster aunty’. I felt it was a statement having a traditional Indian woman in an urban landscape and also having two girls graffitiing, you rarely see either.
London Masala is a space to highlight the amazing work South Asians are doing. It’s a space for discussing our inspirations, motivations and culture. It’s not just visual art either, it features, poetry, music and performance art too.
On your site Paradise Girl you discuss the idolising of fairer skin by older Punjabi generations and society alike, do you feel a sense of empowerment focusing on darker skinned women for your Bolly-Hood series?
I remember when M.I.A first came onto our radars as the first South Asian I’d see on the music scene and I remember thinking yes, if she can break through that avenue so can I. Even in Bollywood, some actresses have endorsed skin lightening products and that was something I was encouraged to use; definitely all linked to colonialism and I guess this is why elders percieve fairness to be beautiful. Even indian artwork around the house featured fairer women.
Even though the women I’ve painted are black, women from all over the world can connect with their lyrics regardless of difference in skin tone – that is the beauty of hip-hop. So for me, the true empowerment comes from uniting an entire gender with this one art form.