Born in India and raised in Canada, Babneet Lakhesar found herself caught between two cultures—a mix that she is now using to create canvases and clothing as Babbu the Painter.
“I got to a point where I realized: Why do I have to choose between being a Canadian or an Indian, why can’t I just be both?” says the 23-year-old Toronto artist. “That’s when the whole mesh of the two cultures came out, and that’s what I talk about in my work.”
Whether it’s Indian-inspo pop-art prints or her recently released mini-collection of kurtas, which is every pajama-dressing fanatic’s dream, Lakhesar is creating art that speaks to the wide-reaching Indian diaspora. And with an Instagram following of nearly 27,000, including boss babe Mindy Kaling, it’s clear that audiences are listening.
Lakhesar says that her life is her art—and we recently caught up with her to find out more about both.
How long have you been an artist?
Professionally, just under two years, but I’ve been doing art for about eight years now. I went to OCAD for painting and sculpture and then right when I graduated, that’s when I decided to do something with idea of Babbu the Painter. I started selling merch on Etsy and I was there for a few months and then set up my own online shop—that’s when I really started making money. Having a steady income let me focus on my artwork and do this full-time.
Did you always know that you wanted to be an artist?
My parents wanted to be a pharmacist. But I know myself and I am not the type of person who can work a 9 to 5. I stay out until 5 a.m., I like to sleep in late, and I know that I was never cut out for a regular job. When I went to university, I didn’t know I was going to be an artist. I didn’t know that was even a thing because no one in my life was a professional artist and doing it 24/7, traveling and making work. I had no idea this was even a career choice. Slowly when I was at OCAD, I saw other students and my profs and what everyone else was doing. By third year it hit me that maybe I could make this work. We don’t see a lot of Indians going into art and being artists full-time so now I’m trying to show people that this is something we can do.
If someone hasn’t seen your art, how would you describe it?
It’s very Indian-centric but I put a contemporary touch on it. Everything I do is basically what I’ve wanted to see and what I’ve wanted to wear. I just put it out there in the world and, I guess it’s a little selfish, but I want people to appreciate what I want from the world as well.
How is your personal experience reflected in your work?
It’s basically all about me being an Indo-Canadian because that’s something I’ve struggled with for many years. It’s the whole identity crisis.
What was the struggle for you?
I was born in Indian and I came to Canada when I was about six years old. I’ve always been a really confident person so I never had trouble making friends, and there was no language barrier, so I never had challenges there but I did, to a certain extent, neglect the fact that I was Indian. In university, I started looking at other Indian artists and what they were doing, and that really inspired me to look at my heritage, where I was born, what it said about me. It was about discovering who I was and what my background is and later on, embracing it as a whole.
And you’ve brought that aesthetic off the canvas and onto clothing as well.
Yes, I love fashion.
Who are some of your fave designers?
I’m really inspired by Indian fashion. I love Sabyasachi, Manish Malhotra and Jeremy Scott but other than that, I don’t really look up to a lot of brands. I just like to go out and get inspired by what people are wearing on the streets.
How did you decided to go beyond artwork and start making clothes?
It started off with the painted jean jackets. I love street style with denim, leathers, and meshing the fashion of my two cultures. I’m the kind of person who wears kurtas with a jean jacket on top. I made the “bakwaas” one and when those picked up, I realized that people might be interested in knowing about my fashion sense and what I’m inspired by when it comes to clothing. I think sometimes, people can be hesitant to show others where they come from and use those iconic pieces—like kurtas or classic pieces of Indian jewellery—in their style. If I do it and I do it openly, hopefully that inspires other people too.
You use the Indian term “bakwass” a lot in your work. Can you explain what it means and why it’s featured so prominently in your clothing and artwork?
Bakwaas basically means “bullshit” in Hindi and it’s a word that’s very commonly used by my mom and a lot of my family and friends. My mom would throw it around in reference to something stupid I was doing, and I thought I should do something with it. I started using it in my work and I found that the word “Bawkwaas” really resonated with what I was trying to say. When I saw that it was catching on, I kept using it over and over.
Your debut mini-collection, Project Phula, looked a lot more like traditional Indian attire than your previous pieces. What was the goal with this collection?
I collaborated with a boutique in Brampton, Ont. called Kiki’s Korner for Project Phula. I picked out all the fabrics and told them how I wanted to the silhouettes and then they made the four looks. I think the goal is always to start a conversation with whatever I do. Personally, I wanted to start telling people how I am as a person, not just as an artist, because I think I have more to offer than art on canvas.
What conversations were you hoping to start?
With this one specifically, it’s intended to get people more comfortable with embracing who they are, what their culture and heritage has to offer them, and how they can mesh it with their everyday wear.
“Phula” means flowers in Punjabi and all four prints are floral.
I love flowers. But also I noticed a lot of Punjabi older women wear these floral suits but always in cheesy colours like beige and silvers and gold or maroon—which I loved. So the idea of bringing these colours to life with flowers was beautiful to me. I love making cheesy, amazing work.
You often collaborate with one of our 60 Under 30 honorees, Hatecopy—a.k.a. Maria Qamar. How did you two get together?
I was in my third year at OCAD and Maria was just coming out as Hatecopy. We interacted on Instagram and later figured out we were near one another in Toronto. After that we just kept bumping into each other at parties or just randomly, and then one of our close friends said they wanted to do a show with both of us. At first we were hesitant, but we decided to give it a shot. We did that first show and from there, the audience really liked us working together, and we started getting opportunities as a duo.
You’ve hinted on Insta that you and Hatecopy are working on something big, can you tell us a bit more?
We’re working on another show called “Bad Beti.” It’s basically this whole idea of this girl and just her doing her. This girl who likes to wear a lengha [a form of long Indian skirt] and a necklace and a nose ring—but it’s inspired by goth culture so the necklace and nose ring are made of safety pins and the lengha is made of leather and has spikes on it. That’s the character that the Bad Beti represents. It’s about this girl embracing whatever she wants to do, however she wants to do it, and whenever she wants to do it. I think the timing works really well because of all the political things that are going on and women standing up for what they want.
Bad Beti opens in Toronto on December 8 at Nuvango, 639 Queen St. West.