Babneet Lakhesar, or Babbuthepainter, is an artist based in Brampton, Canada. Her powerful stance as a woman of South Asian heritage occupies much of her commanding paintings, graphic drawings, and photography. In her work, she is present as a model but also occupies the behind-the-scenes roles of stylist, photographer, and creative director. I recently chatted with her about self-love, being in front of the camera, and being a good beti.
MINNA GILLIGAN: I love your online pseudonym, Babbuthepainter. It’s very matter of fact! But you don’t only paint—you also make clothing, take photographs, and model. Did any of these things come to you first as an artistic medium, or did it all happen at once?
BABNEET LAKHESAR: Thank you so much. When I wanted to start sharing more art photos, I wanted to come up with a cute/catchy name. At the time, some friends gave me the nickname Babbu. I thought it would be really fun to add “thepainter” to it and use it as my persona’s name. I always loved fashion, and in university I majored in sculpture and did my thesis work in photography. Oddly enough, I love being in front of the camera, too. It was a nice, slow graduation of all of my passions coming together and exploring all the different artistic mediums.
Is your family supportive of your creative endeavors? Do you come from an artistic family?
My family had a hard time understanding what art is and what is means to be a freelance artist. I had to teach my family and the folks around what I was doing and how I was doing it, since it is not a conventional career path to pursue. However, I have been blessed to have a very supportive family—a family that is always present at every art show, especially the local ones. I always say I get most of my creativity from my mother. My mother is a genius when it comes to fashion. She has helped me bring most of my apparel ideas to life. And my father used to be professional bhangra dancer in his young days. He would travel all around India competing.
On your website you mention that your work is an “attempt to critique the predominant norms within South Asian communities.” What are the predominant norms you are critiquing, and what prompted you to want to take this action through art?
I’m mainly talking about taboos that women of color face, and specifically in the South Asian community. For me, I’m talking about the idea of being a good beti, [or daughter]. Even pursuing the arts is a shock to many in the Desi community. It’s often looked down upon. The decisions I make within my art works are often questioned. Drawing trans-turbaned kids isn’t something that is visually represented, and neither is it accepted. So I often get criticized and judged for bringing various ideas to life. These taboos were something that troubled me, and I often had no way of releasing my emotions. That is how I began to express myself through art, and it led me to interact with amazing people around the world.
Have you formally studied art, or are you largely self-taught?
I started off as a self-taught artist in my high school years and later studied fine arts at OCAD University in Toronto.
I love how you model in your photographs, often wearing your own painted denim jackets and traditional clothing. What do you enjoy about being the protagonist in your photographs?
I’ve always loved being in front of the camera. Even now, being in front of the camera comes so naturally to me. I can deliver exactly what I want to say to my audience. But it all started out in OCAD when I couldn’t find models for my photography projects. I started using myself as the subject, which felt very liberating. That practice stuck with me. It’s all about being comfortable in your skin and the ideas and art you produce.
Your denim jacket customizations are out of this world. What is it about the DIY culture of clothing customization that appeals to you? What are your thoughts on the combining of art and fashion?
My goal has always been to combine art and fashion in my practice because those are my two first loves. I fell in love with DIY/streetwear culture during my high school years. Since then, I have been creating pieces of clothing/accessories for myself. The jean jackets were also created because that is what I wanted to wear on a daily basis. Seeing how much love they received, I knew it was something I had to share with the world.
Art is so much about the self, but a lot of people don’t like it when a woman makes art and also takes photos of herself and enjoys makeup and fashion. I’ve faced this kind of criticism! What would you say to people who think you can’t be a “serious artist” and at the same time like and exhibit the way you look?
Self-love is very important. Its also very important to be confident in yourself and your work, and to never give up. No one will believe in your work and yourself more than you will. So buckle up and conquer the world with love and confidence!
That said, there is a huge community of woman artists online doing just that—including yourself! Is there anyone online that you’re particularly inspired by or just into?
I’m so thankful to the women in the arts online and offline who inspire me to create and be the best I can be. I’m really inspired by Sophia Amoruso and her Girlboss and NastyGal empires. That’s definitely a direction I want to head with Babbuthepainter.
You largely paint portraits. Who are the people you are painting? What are their purposes and motivations?
While I was studying at OCAD, I went to a lot of galleries and saw abundance of great art. However, I always questioned why there wasn’t much South Asian representation on a canvas, on a white wall, in a gallery. So it became a goal of mine to make artwork that inspires and resonates with the South Asian community.
Do you have a studio where you make your art?
I live with my lovely parents in their cozy home in Brampton. I transformed my bedroom into my studio and have taken over the guest room. It’s a fairly large room—white walls with a big table for my working space and a huge chalkboard covering one whole wall to take notes and get creative. Paintings are kept in all different corners of the room. Random apparel and merchandise is stacked away under the table. And there are lots of paint and paint brushes everywhere.
Have you ever exhibited your work in a gallery? Is this something you’re interested in doing?
Yes, many times. I was lucky to have gotten a lot of opportunities to showcase my art in galleries while attending university. Exhibiting my work was always an awesome experience for me. I got to show my work and meet amazing people from all over the world. After university, I got multiple opportunities to showcase my art around the world—in London, Chicago, Ohio, Michigan, New York, and Toronto. Traveling with my work is something I’ll be doing for a very long time.
What are your aims for your art practice and yourself in the future?
My aim in life and my art practice is to continue to grow. To learn and explore new ideas that later can be portrayed through my artwork. I also intend to experience life to the fullest. My short-term aim is to explore different mediums of art [such as] video, sculpture, and photography, and to continue to do art shows around the world.
What are three words that describe your artwork?
South Asian, loud, and personal. ♦