“When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a Namer of Paint Colours” – Sarindar Dhaliwal at the AGO

“Hey, hey, Paula. I want to marry you. Hey, hey, Paula. No one else could ever do.”

“Hey Hey Paula (1998),” Paul & Paula (Raymond Glenn “Ray” Hildebrand and Jill Jackson)

When I pick up the red rotary telephone on a small red nightstand at the centre of the exhibition, this male voice instantly pushes me through the door of a time-travelling machine and drops me at Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue in New York in the 1990s. In front of me, six hundred portraits of different “Paulas” are smiling at me on a monumental grid that runs about sixty-five feet long. These portraits take up the whole wall of the room. Nevertheless, they are just one of the three installations of When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a Namer of Paint Colours by the South Asian Canadian artist Sarindar Dhaliwal at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the Philip B. Lind Gallery.

When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a Namer of Paint Colours, an ongoing exhibition until July 14, 2024, is curated by Renée van der Avoird, Associate Curator at the AGO. The exhibition highlights three acquisitions: Hey Hey Paula (1998) and The Cartographer’s Mistake: the Radcliffe Line (2012) and Punjabi Sheets #3: Birbansian, 1953 (1991).

Dhaliwal was born in Pubjab, India, moved to England at the age of four, and later migrated again with her family to Canada. She obtained her Ph.D. in Fine Arts from Queens University. Her exhibition demonstrates the artist’s investigations of memory, identity, and migration. The Cartographer’s Mistake speaks of Dhaliwal’s examination of Indian history and identity, and the experiences of immigration and diaspora. When I first see it, I immediately think of the illustrated borders that causes controversy: the installation’s title references Cyril Radcliffe, a British barrister who in 1947 divided the provinces of Bengal and Punjab—450,000 km of territory with a population of 88 million. That border became known as the Radcliffe Line. Today its western edge still serves as the Indo-Pakistani border, and the eastern edge is the India-Bangladesh border. As the artist explains, “Radcliffe was given mere weeks to map the demarcations and he had never been to India and was not equipped with proper maps. The whole Partition was a disaster. History records the ensuing murder and mayhem that continue today due to the conflict, in which over 2 million people were killed.” In this installation, Dhaliwal uses marigolds to depict how borders and territories of her native land are divided according to the availability of resources and physical geography rather than demographics. Dhaliwal translates the ugliness of the Partitions’ communal violence into a living floral map of the Indian subcontinent.

Hey Hey Paula, Sarindar Dhaliwal, 1998. Installation consisting of 544 inkjet photographs on Fujiflex polyster paper, muslin curtain, rotary telephone with audio on a painted wooden table. Installation view, Rodman Hall Art Centre, Brock University, 2015. © Sarindar Dhaliwal

Dhaliwal’s work always evokes the personal: Hey Hey Paula draws on her experience of having to negotiate the tension of assimilation. As someone who was born in India, raised in the UK, and educated in Canada, Dhaliwal considers herself to have a hybridized identity. Hey Hey Paula brings tensions from her personal life into a broader cultural conversation, acknowledging how the constructs that seek to define a women extend beyond place and time and persist across geographies, generations, and culture. The 600 portraits of “Paulas” installed in the center of the exhibition are collected from New York Times engagement announcements between 1989 and 1992. Each portrait features a young woman who is about to be married. Dhaliwal has cropped each image from very small halftone newspaper thumbnails and then printed them by hand, shifting the colour filter to an intense red. She parallels these newspaper announcements with the South Asian practice of arranged marriage, reflecting a familiar feature of a marriage that it is more for status and power than love. The translation of each image from small thumbnails to this new and larger format transforms the cameo-sized faces into an array of enlarged dots and smudges, omitting the finer details of each woman’s features.

Through this act of translation, I begin to wonder who these women are, where they might be today, whether they ended up happily ever after in their marriages, or if their marriages have even lasted. There is an uncanniness uniformity to the grouping—they appear uniformly Caucasian, formal, and happy. I feel completely bombarded by a sea of anonymous smiling faces that extends beyond my field of vision. I am also overwhelmed by the sense that each woman is yearning for a perfectly tailored ending. Dhaliwal represents this scenario six hundred times, omitting names, families, and affiliations to render each of the women anonymous. Most intriguingly, the women are all wearing pearl necklaces. Each necklace contains a secret code—the size, the shape, the rarity of each pearl indicates their family wealth and heritage. Each woman’s value here is not defined by her social contribution, her personality, her dreams, her occupation, or even by her appearance, but merely measured by the value of the necklace she wears. Dhaliwal is fascinated by this secret code behind each pearl necklace, which stands in for the accounting of lineage and social connection in the excised captions that would have originally accompanied these photographs.

The cartographer’s mistake: the Radcliffe Line, 2012, Chromira print, 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

The pearl necklace is also a symbol of innocence, purity, and propriety–indicating the expectations on a girl from her family and from the whole of society. A rotary telephone within the installation plays “Hey Paul,” in which Paula’s sweet voice sings, “True love means planning a life for two…True love means waiting and hoping that soon wishes we made will come true”. The duet “Hey Paula” by Paul & Paula (Ray Hildebrand Jill Jackson) is a tender 1963 ballad in which young lovers trade verses pledging their affections and desire to marry. The song remains a staple of Golden Oldies fare. Its ambiance reminds me of a private space, perhaps a darkened bedroom, evocative of the romantic fantasies of a girl waiting by the phone in a state of longing. Dhaliwal’s set up evokes the classic fairy tale myth of western romantic love that reinforces dominant narratives of monogamy and patriarchal structure. The ironic combinations of elements–the portraits, the ballad, the telephone, and the installation’s black wall–suggests romantic love, traditionally a socially acceptable conduit for female desire, but also encourages and reinforces how heterosexual monogamy marriage is rooted within a patriarchal society.

If a girl should not be defined by her family, her surname, her appearance, her occupation, her social connection, her appearance, or her pearl necklace, how can she be defined? Perhaps Dhaliwal’s exhibition provides the artist’s answer— “When I grow up, I want to be a namer of paint colours.” In an accompanying interview by the AGO, Dhaliwal recounts that, as a child, she was inspired by her mother’s vibrant clothing. Later, she started to practice dying textiles with natural materials like daffodil and onion skins.[1] Her lifelong interest in colour manifests in most of her work. The vibrant colour is part of her background, growing up with women who wear saturated colours for weddings. It is also a rebellion against minimalism, which was the main art movement throughout her artist career. Most importantly, it is an invitation for her audiences to define their own path, even if the path is to be a namer of paint colours.”

Dhaliwal also describes a familiar concern that her artwork might be too personal to have an entry point for her audiences. Her installation Punjabi Sheets #3: Birbansian, 1953 features a black wall with a story written in red chalk with many kinds of eggs displayed underneath. Dhaliwal recounts a story her mother told her as a child. When she was six months old, she felt ill. After the doctor could not help her, a tinker came to village and told her mother that if they placed a freshly laid egg in the crossroads, the baby would get better when something smashed it. As Dhaliwal states: “Sometimes, it is hard to know what comes first, the egg or the story, but usually there is a combination. I speak about my work in stories. I don’t always necessarily link it to history. I try to leave that to the curators or viewers. Sometimes when people write about my art, they find connections I hadn’t thought of.” This raises an interesting question that I ask myself as I write this review: am I interpreting the artist’s intention, or merely enacting my own desires to understand stories? Or something in between?

Punjabi Sheets #3: Birbansian, 1953, Dhaliwal, Sarindar, 1991, mixed media installation, purchase with Chancellor Richardson Memorial Fund, 2003. © Sarindar Dhaliwal

It is true that the artist has her very own perspective for seeing the world, and she will lodge that perspective in her artwork. Curator, reviewer, and audience could very possibly interpret her artwork with a different or even opposing perspective. Nevertheless, I believe the resonances arise when they see the artworks forms connections through aesthetics between audiences and artist despite their difference in age, experience, or race. Aesthetics is a language that does not rely on words but speaks volumes. It creates a unique communication that can be universally understood, transcending cultural and linguistic boundaries—such as those boundaries between Sarindar Dhaliwal and myself. Dhaliwal’s artworks resonate with me from the moment I picked up the rotary phone, bringing me into her world instantly when I hear, ““Hey, hey, Paula. I want to marry you. Hey, hey, Paula. No one else could ever do.”


Yijing Li is a Western University Ph.D. visual arts student. Recent publication: “Family Portraits: The reconstruction of ‘Family Time’ Through Generations” in the University of Toronto Art Journal, 2022. Yijing was mentored by Ruth Skinner in the publication of this article. She is a participant in Centred’s Visual Arts Writers Mentorship project which has been grateful supported by the London Arts Council.

[1] “In the Studio with Sarindar Dhaliwal,” the Art Gallery of Ontario YouTube Channel, 21 July 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4L6sy0eEhZw.

Images courtesy of artist.

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