Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist Nep Sidhu‘s connection to Detroit is apparent in his current show, Paradox of Harmonics, on now through 11 September at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). This is the first solo show in a US museum for Sidhu (aka Nirbhai Singh Sidhu) and it’s an exploration, mediation and celebration of sound—all informed by his many years working in metal manufacturing, practicing the tenants of the Sikh religion, and Detroit’s legendary music scene. The show incorporates vibrant and moving pieces in the form of tapestries, paintings, sculptures and film, with the overall experience adding up to much more than the sum of its parts. On opening day—which included a panel discussion with Sidhu, curator Jova Lynne, Craig Huckaby and Kahil El’Zabar on how music (especially that of Sun Ra and Mike Huckaby’s Sun Ra Reel-To-Reel) shaped Paradox of Harmonics—we spoke with the artist to hear about his process, the way his spirituality imbues his art, and his affinity for the city of Detroit.
Just before the show opened, we watched you add final details to the sculptures—tying on pieces of fabric and adjusting things. How much of that is planned and how much is done by intuition at the end?
All of my shows recently have had ambitious new work that is down to what you saw the morning of the opening—me on my back trying to tie something, with the curators looking at me. There is a difference when you see everything put together—its proximity to the work and the space, the view and the angles at which people come into the work. At the end I gather material, things that will enhance and speak to any of those experiences.
When you and curator Jova Lynne discussed a show at MOCAD, what was the process for planning and creating Paradox of Harmonics?
She saw an exhibition I was doing in Toronto at Mercer Union. It was quite a loaded social-political show, causing a bunch of ripples locally in Toronto and nationally, which it intended to in terms of a discussion about an attack on Sikh people. We were looking at how exhibiting art can be a distribution of ideas, especially when it is countering propaganda and false information. Jova came into that show when I was doing a talk for students and she connected to that talk and the intention of the show and reached out after.
I wanted to make new work that had space in the work to be charged by the people of Detroit
I was aware of the MOCAD; I have a special relationship to Detroit that is unlike anywhere else. I had an instant connection with Jova and we began to shape what is this show. Detroit has given so much to me, shared with me, especially in music and sound and culture. I wanted to make new work that had space in the work to be charged by the people of Detroit, but I did not know what that would be. I knew that would make the task greater. We had to be creative in how we found resources, funding—it was immensely challenging. There is a lot of trust in that. We moved in so many various ways and when it ended up being a search for these reels by Mike Huckaby, it also meant talking to [his brother] Craig Huckaby.
Tell us about tracking down recordings by Mike Huckaby—a pivotal figure in the Detroit dance scene and electronic music in general?
I had witnessed Mike Huckaby playing these reels in New York about five or six years ago. It was quite entrancing watching Mike play these reels. He was going between DAT tapes, cassettes, reels and vinyl records. It was incredible, like nothing else I had ever seen him do. It stayed with me. I began to think about that unfortunately after Mike had passed. It was buried in a myriad of, ‘How do I even approach this with his brother Craig, who I had never spoken to.’ The ask of such a thing felt foreign and unnatural. When I talked to Craig, it was just us dealing with life and speaking about the reality of having lost a brother—the pain of it, the sadness. I had lost my older brother as well. That’s where we began.
Eventually we were talking and laughing and connecting. Craig is such a special brother, the way in which he shares and collects and connects. He is also a player of drums and records. He is a walking living historian of Detroit, active in sharing knowledge and ephemera. It just became deeper and deeper. After that trust was there and it felt good to him and his mom, he had to really start to look at these archives of where this could be. It was unknown if we were going to find it. But Craig ended up finding those reels… We put the reels on only two and half months before the show date. It was madness, but I had everything I needed to figure out what is going to happen here.
Devon OJAS Turnbull and I got to work. I told Craig there was also an exchange that had to happen where he trusted me on how to present this. The work is so special. It is unreleased. I told him I would build a rotary mixer where that will house the sound inside the system, so that it can’t be taken. I collaborated on that with Phil Baljeu, we created what is called the omniverse 7000 mixer.
Sound is just one element of the show. How does your experience working in a sheet metal factory influence your metalworks, such as the large speakers in Paradox of Harmonics?
When you have spent a large amount of time—in my case, more than 25 years inside metal factories—that kind of proximity brings you close to the technical understanding of the potential of a material. Then if you are open enough to pay attention to other possibilities or intentions of a material, you start to draw into people’s relationship and other outputs beyond commercial functionality. It has been able to be its own curriculum in which I have been able to understand history and human potential in a greater sense. It’s been a wonderful way in which there has been so much movement of knowledge between various communities—which is sometimes quite different to the way people have historically mapped either knowledge, ideas or advancements.
There are also a lot of fabric works. Tell us about how those come to life.
A lot of the large tapestry work has been produced in India first through a friend Rashmi Varma in New Delhi, who is an incredible designer, artist and curator in her own regard. I was able to work with her studio and then also Olivia Dar’s studio. We set up spaces so we could experiment with the dyeing process and the possibility of how we could shape narrative through the technique of manual punch-hole embroidery.
Everything starts with me drawing and painting. I get my hands on pastels and markers to initiate the idea. In some ways it needed to be thought out in sections. Conceptually you are going between what you have drafted and then when you get to sewing and stretching and processing it becomes a back-and-forth dance. I am grateful to have worked alongside the karigars (craftspeople) and both Rashmi and Olivia. It could not have happened any other way… It took those teams and their support and also a wild sense of belief.
Walking around the mannequins gives a 360-degree view of the exhibit. Who are these characters?
The mannequins were made for a show that was in collaboration with Rajni Perera that had some of its references in centers of information in both Buddhist and Sikh philosophies, specifically looking at the shedding and loss of the ego self and the ego mind and in proximity to Sun Ra who had similar ideals. Sun Ra is someone who played with the lore of myth and self-mythologized.
The clothes on the mannequins are in reference to a subculture in Japan, a motor gang culture called bosozoku. What was happening in Japan at the time in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the center of economics was Toyota, Mitsubishi, and some other auto makers who had brilliant spells of manufacturing and processes that they birthed such as kaizen. They became the epicenter of efficiency in manufacturing that others adopted. Because there was so much going on at that time within auto manufacturing, there were so many people who had jobs from it. What would happen is the parents would come home from their assembly plant wearing these lab coats and some kids would take their parents’ lab coats and top-stitch and embroider iconography, creating their own ideas of language and symbols. They would start to build these families at night that they wanted to belong to. I wanted to pay an ode to that ambition because it links to self-mythology and the accessibility that all of us have in being able to look at materials around us and to conjure and to charge those.
How does the Sikh religion inform your life and work?
A lot of religions, their relationships to what is universal is oftentimes a projection of their beliefs that are forced into this principal that everyone inside and out of the religion should believe in these tenants. Whereas within Sikhi there is all of this space for how others have imagined their awakenings. As we are people who listen to Guru Nanak, our first guru. He believes in multiple awakenings to people’s truth, origins, searches. It gives so much space for multiplicity of experience. It honors so many people in how they arrive to their truth. I can only hope that people feel some of that [in the show] and that they don’t feel the work represent the sect of one people.
Sometimes when we come across something that is beautiful it raises the idea of spectacle that sometimes points to exceptionalism—that this work belongs to one person who is exceptional and unique. I hope [my work] points to not an individual, but to a place and a people that the work has come from. That place is one that belongs to us as humans. The ability to produce this work, this expression is a possibility for so many of us that we all have. If we can tap into it, if it is a feeling that happens for us, then it’s not something that gives us any superiority at all. It’s something we feel is common to one another.
What is it about Detroit that is so meaningful to you and how did the city inform what the exhibition became?
Mom and dad worked in factories. Mom was a cookie packager. Dad was a sheetmetal worker for most of his life. Automation. Production. Manufacturing. Those things become a grammar inside your head, when the folk in your home are doing it and then you start doing it. The history of Detroit has been passed down to its kids who take up those same jobs at those assembly plants. In Detroit the translation of some of that shows up in its music-makers. Whether it is people who have defined the American songbook. Through Motown and other labels like Sound Signature. For someone like me, who has worked in manufacturing, it translates into something special. I don’t think this show could have happened anywhere else. The people of Detroit can begin to activate it.
Hero image of Paradox of Harmonics installation, photo by Clare Gatto, courtesy of MOCAD