Art, Resistance, and Legacy As A First Generation South Asian Artist
By Nisha Sethi
As a young Punjabi girl born and raised in Northern California, I grew up like most first-generation kids, with parents who immigrated from India, trying to piece together an identity that was neither here nor there. The difference was that while most of the other Indian kids I knew were nestled in the comforts of their suburban homes trying to find a place amongst their wealthy white peers, I was growing up with Black and Brown youth in a historically radical city notorious for being weird and outspoken. Unlike most other South Asian American kids, I grew up with a single mom, a track record for skipping school, a habit of ducking the cops, and an enthusiasm for questioning authority. I became a product of my “urban” environment, which included a cultural and physical geography unlike any other.
Introduction to Activism
Born in Berkeley, California completely shaped me as an artist and activist. I was raised on the very streets that birthed the Free Speech movement, Ethnic Studies Strike, and served as a home to members of the Black Panther and Ghadar Party. My mother took me to my first protest. At the age of 16, I was organizing student walk-outs and facilitating workshops on different systems of oppression. I was taught about the importance of “knowledge of self” at a young age and began to dig deeper into my own history as a South Asian. Once reaching college, I immersed myself in Ethnic Studies; taking on extra coursework to study South Asian Diaspora specifically. I was eager to learn more about my history as I knew it would help me understand my identity and my purpose.
It was through activism that I truly started to develop my style as an artist. I had a fascination with graffiti already since it was such a prolific visual aspect of my neighborhood. I was attracted to the element of danger and wanted to use street art as a vessel for my personal journey of rebellion. Being categorized as a “model minority” drove me to further pursue graffiti and defy the many stereotypes being placed upon me. By later merging my art form with my political views, I became a political artist and continue to identify as so today.
Privilege and Responsibility
One of the most important discoveries I have made during my journey is the profound realization that being an artist is truly a privilege. Yes, a portion of my formative years was spent challenging my parents / elders and fighting against the general expectation of becoming a Doctors or Engineer of sorts. However, I came to understand fairly early on that the generation before me came from a completely different mind state where people had to depend on economic success in order to survive. The moment I put forth an honest effort to put myself in their shoes, I felt a sense of liberation. I realized that my parents were so busy working to put food on the table, that they didn’t have the opportunity to explore careers in the arts. For that, we must honor our elders and acknowledge that they sacrificed many dreams so that we may one day fulfill ours.
With great privilege, however, comes great responsibility. Because we have access to the luxuries that our elders were denied, it’s really up to us to use our platform for a greater purpose. As first generation South Asian artists, we have a responsibility to tell our story through art and use art for what it was always intended for – to create change. I hope to continue creating art that speaks out against injustices and helps the next generation feel empowered in some way. Our experiences as first generation youth are especially unique since the next generation will never have to struggle with identity in the same way as us, being that our parents were immigrants. It is important for us to document our stories in many creative ways and be mindful of the legacy we want to leave behind as artists. It is this very legacy that will be used as a seed for resistance and growth for many generations to come.