You may be hard-pressed to find a person as committed to learning about her own culture through art, research and social media engagement as Calgary-born artist and Instagram sensation Zoe Harveen Kaur. Kaur, who has more than 30,000 followers, is evolving towards influencer status among those exploring and talking about South Asian cultures.
Her curiosity about South Asian culture started early: Kaur left Alberta at the age of 18 to study at Western University in London, Ontario, where she set out to explore the “westernized Punjabi-Sikh” culture in which she was raised through her emerging craft and studies. Her father had a large Punjabi family in the Calgary area during her upbringing, while her mother’s large Punjabi family lived in England. She watched Bollywood and listened to Punjabi and Hindi music through her youth and still does so today to immerse herself in the culture.
In her first year of university study, she painted South Asian people on denim jackets. After garnering attention for her work, she created ZHK Designs, where she sells prints of her art as well as wallets, stickers and other accessories that bare her artwork.
“ZHK Designs was created to educate others and enhance various identities, cultures and backgrounds through art. I wanted to create a page that was not only directed at the South Asian community, but could be a safe space for all individuals,” she notes on her website.
In the summer of 2018, she created her Instagram page and her business “began to flourish.”
"I think social media brings a variety of tools to my work," Kaur tells SEEMA. "I believe that I get inspired by others and I also inspire. I love receiving positive and critical feedback on my page, so I think that fuels my creativity and my passion for illustrating. Additionally, I love seeing other upcoming artists and knowing that I could be an inspiration to another person."
Early on in her work, she focused primarily on exploring her Punjabi culture, then as time went on, she added Sikh elements.
“Through my adolescence, I realized that a lot of my peers didn’t know who Punjabis or Sikhs were and they could not differentiate between different South Asian cultures. This led me to create ZHK Designs,” Kaur explains on her website.
Often times the human figures in her work don’t have eyes, creating both a pathway and opportunity for the viewer to find his or her own way of relating to the piece. Her work has brought her notoriety in social media and beyond. Kaur contributed to the “I Am Like Other Girls” Instagram effort to promote solidarity among girls. More recently she was selected as showcase artist for a partnership between Peel Art Gallery Museum + Archives (PAMA) and the Sikh Heritage Month Foundation to celebrate Vaisakhi.
Through PAMA, she exhibited several of her popular works, including: “Goddess Kuri,” which mixes broad and striking characteristics to invite viewers to relate to its female character; “Dastaar and Gabana,” which illustrates male Sikh models represented in contemporary fashion; as well as a tribute to the Sikh founder in a piece titled: “Guru Nanak Dev Ji.” Her hope was to demonstrate “the idea that Babaji is always with us, as long as we believe in Guruji as well," Kaur told the museum in a promotional video.
Another piece in the PAMA exhibit, “Kaur Beauty,” was created to showcase “the absolute beauty” of female Dastaars. “Sikh women are incredibly strong, intelligent, beautiful and angelic, and I was hoping to encompass that through this illustration,” she noted in the video.
Going forward, expect this young artist to make more of a splash in both social media and cultural circles as she continues to learn more about her own heritage while connecting with others.
"I think my brand can go on a couple different journeys," Kaur tells SEEMA. "I can see ZHK Designs growing into a page that focuses on advocacy and empowering my community, but again, it could also streamline into a representation-based page in which everyone sees themselves represented. Right now, I want to blend the two ideas."