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A Sikh Face In Ireland


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
A Sikh Face in Irelandby SATWINDER SINGH

When I first saw the 'Portraits of Somali Elders' Exhibit at the Dublin Institute of Technology during the launch of the Forum on Migration & Communications ("FOMACS"), I was amazed by how much power or impact such photographs/ portraits could have on the viewer.

I had never heard of the Somali people before, nor had I known that it related to an African country with a Muslim population, although I had a vague idea about the existence of Somalia as a country. Seeing the portraits of Somali elders and reading their stories opened many potential levels at which I could relate to them.

I felt grateful that I had the opportunity to see this work, which I could have easily missed. As I moved from one portrait to another, I thought of how these men of seemingly different skin colours had elements of ‘commonality' or ‘universality' in their lives. They were no different than other migrants. Life wasn't easy for them; it had given them the hardest of the times. But now they are retired, seemed accomplished people to me, their stories, common and mundane earlier but important and invaluable now, would have been hidden if it was not for these portraits.

They are part of history at the moment. Their stories, told with a human face, stand as a marked contrast to the dominant negative portrayal which most of such immigrant groups normally get. Their lives tell stories of hard work, the pain of migration and separation, exclusion, etc and their contribution to British society, which was hidden so far.

Now seeing these portraits and reading their stories, these men
were less strange to me, and made me see them with respect and admiration. They were celebrities in their own right.

It was during these moments that I was also daring to think of replacing these elderly men in portraits with people more similar in appearance to me, that is, Sikhs.

It was a dream at that moment. I even shared this with my friends who were part of the audience that evening. I said, 'How nice it would be if someday, something of this kind would be done on our community. During my time in the exhibition, a multitude of various possible options, seemingly impossible thoughts, jostled through my mind.

I thought of how such a project could go a long way to tell people that I and other Sikhs who wear turbans and sport beards are not followers of Osama Bin Laden or natives of Arab countries or even remotely related to Islam. After 9/11 and 7/7 incidents, increasing number of racial abuse and physical violence have been directed against members of diasporic Sikh communities in the West.

And Ireland has been no exception.

A day after the London bombing, a young Sikh and a close friend of mine, Hardip Singh, was mistaken as a follower of Osaba bin laden. He was attacked with a knife in Athlone and his hand was injured while he defended himself.

More of such cases of violent physical abuse happened in and around Dublin. The Severity of the situation and the level of ignorance in Irish society about Sikhs shocked us particularly as it happened to one who was close to us.

As time progressed, more and more people arrived to see the exhibition. People were introducing each other and discussing the work on display. Soon I identified Glenn Jordan and saw him talking to people. I found him easily approachable. I too, along with my friends, introduced myself and commended him on his work on the Somali Elders.

During this brief encounter with him, I expressed my desire to him, more in an enquiring tone, and asked if such work was possible on the Sikhs in Ireland. His reply was, ‘Why not?'

But I had no clue as how this could happen.

But things have moved on and, with the grace of Waheguru, somehow taken shape.

Now, ‘A Sikh Face in Ireland' is at the last stage of production and will be out early next year. It will be the first systematic study of Sikhs on the Island of Ireland.


'A Sikh Face in Ireland' (provisional title) with Glenn Jordan as commissioned photographer and Satwinder Singh as research assistant, is funded by the Community Foundation for Ireland. This project combines portraits taken in various social contexts (e.g., in the home, people at work, men cooking communal meals in the Gurdwara, etc.) and studio-type portraits (taken against a plain wall) with material from life story interviews. The project has been defined - in the context of a conversation with members of the Irish Sikh Council and FOMACS - as a contribution to anti-racist education and intercultural understanding. Since September 2001, Sikhs in Ireland - especially, Sikh men - have often found themselves to be subjects of abuse, as with their turbans and beards, they are routinely mistaken by members of the general public to be Muslim. 

October 17, 2009



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