Sikh Art & Film Foundation


SEPTEMBER 16, 2006 - JANUARY 27, 2007

I See No Stranger: Early Sikh Art and Devotion – an exhibition that brought together works of art that identify core Sikh beliefs and explores the plurality of cultural traditions reflected in both the objects and the ideals.

Sikh courage and valor against oppression are well-known from history.  Much less well-known, however, are Sikh beliefs and ideals, even basic ones.  By examining Sikh humanism as expressed in works of art, this exhibition places Sikh history, its religion and people in a broader context. 

Sikhism began just over 500 years ago with the first Guru, Guru Nanak, in the Punjab, the land defined by the five rivers which flow across its plains and now divide India and Pakistan.  Raised in a Hindu household, Nanak questioned rites distinguished by caste, and was drawn to a spiritual quest above schooling or the learning of a trade.  He began traveling at about the age of 30 to broaden his inquiry and share his revelations, which affirmed the oneness of God and the equality of all castes and creeds, and of men and women.  With an appreciation of the value and beauty of other faiths, he traveled extensively over the Indian sub-continent and Middle East, often accompanied by Mardana, a Muslim musician, and Bala, a Hindu peasant.  The stories of his life are told in biographies (janamsakhis) that are illustrated and are a major genre of Sikh art.  Two important janamsakhi sets were included in this exhibition.

Early Sikh faith was iconoclastic, down to earth, and accepting.  Gura Nanak, something of a diplomatic anarchist of his time, attempted to transform the hierarchy in Brahmanical practices, believing that all people, of any caste or creed, could experience god.  He taught about one God without physical attributes or image, but present in all people and things, and in a society where men and women are equal and democracy is practiced in everyday life.  The Sikh faith requires disciples to earn their living honestly and through hard work, to share what they earn with the needy, and to serve their fellow human beings.  These principles are embodied in the poetry, music, storytelling and art brought together for this exhibition.

There are more than twenty five million Sikhs in the world today, and most of them live in the Punjab where they form 60% of the population, compared to 2% of the population of India as a whole.  Approximately 1 million live in Britain, forming the largest community outside of India.  There are another half million in the USA and Canada and a number of smaller communities in many countries and regions including East Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Iran, Fiji, Australia, Thailand, Germany, and Hong Kong.  Sikhs are active in many parts of American life, and are often recognized by their distinctive turbans.  Most people, however, know little about their culture and beliefs.

Major exhibitions on Sikh art have been mounted over the past 15 years at museums throughout the world, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; the National Museum, New Delhi; and the Royal Ontario Museum of Toronto. This was the first Sikh art exhibition mounted in New York, the most polyglot society in the United States.

I See No Stranger: Early Sikh Art and Devotion comprised of approximately 100 works from the 16th through the 19th centuries, including paintings, drawings, textiles, metalwork, and photographs.  Art was loaned from the Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh; National Museum, New Delhi; the Sanskriti Museum, New Delhi; the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; and the collection of Dr. Narinder Kapany, of Palo Alto, along with other individual lenders.

Because of the small size of many of the objects in the exhibition, and the abstract nature of some of the essential philosophy being conveyed, the installation was intimate in scale using light/dark as an important metaphor.

I See No Stranger: Early Sikh Art and Devotion was organized around four key concepts in Sikh art and devotion:


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