The multidisciplinary artist’s first solo exhibition in the US is rooted in Detroit’s lineage of creative collaboration

Paradox of Harmonics, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit until September, is Nep Sidhu’s first solo exhibition in the US. The art objects on display highlight Sidhu’s resistance to categorization—sculpture, painting, textile, projection, clothing, sound, and engineering are presented cohesively.

With this exhibition, Sidhu puts seemingly disparate categories in conversation with each other, both at the material and conceptual level: Soil and metal combine in sculpture, industrially produced forms interact with handmade craft, decoration and function coexist, Sikhism and Afrofuturism reveal their influence.

The desire to explore these juxtapositions comes from Sidhu’s youth and artistic practice, but they also relate to Detroit’s history and character. This show isn’t just a showcase of Sidhu’s work, it’s an ode to the city in which it is shown, and the creators who have emerged from Detroit’s past and present.

Sidhu joined Document to discuss the influence of his upbringing on his work, and investigate the values of deep listening, collaboration, and sound.

Peter Miklas: Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?

Nep Sidhu: No, I definitely did not. I wasn’t really aware of fine artmaking until much later [in my life]. I had finished high school and had been working in sheet metal factories, so I grew up with sculpture through welding. Working on machined steel and sheet metal gave me an opportunity to learn the study of seams and work on things that were dimensional. Being a welder for six or seven years, I started gathering information. I guess [artmaking] was born out of that.

And then it was trying to master it. [There are] certain things you end up getting lured to and obsessed with—there was distinct architecture, or specific types of embroidery—things that by definition would be termed as craft. It would send me to the people and places that it was coming from, and then back to my own people, and what they offer in terms of object, ritual, or device. But I didn’t have a goal to become an artist, I never saw it like that.

Peter: You mention things that you got obsessed with—do you have a list of references that you began with, or that you return to?

Nep: I grew up in Scarborough, an area in Greater Toronto. Within Scarborough, there are people from Sri Lanka, Guyana, Niger, parts of West Africa. It’s a very richly populated, small suburb. Growing up in that environment, I knew families who came from Niger whose descendants were Tuareg. In hanging out with friends, in their homes with their moms or their aunties, I started to understand very quickly that within the Tuareg community, there was a distinct knowledge of nutrition—the potential of medicine, bark and soil, and what those things could do for you if you understood them. They were also sort of alchemists in adornment, but also function. Those things pointed me to the potential of an object. What can be there? What’s bigger than the object? What does it present as a carrier?

I was not a good student by any means, and as a young person feeling like one doesn’t have value, I had a desire to reach out to something other than what I was being taught [in school]. I would go to libraries and find stuff on my own time. Frank Lloyd Wright was absolutely someone who drew me into finding a narrative with nature, craft, and the supernatural. Maybe it was also his ego, too—he had such an ego and as a young boy, you’re impressionable. He definitely had that ego, but could back it up with his work—this love letter to nature.

As a Sikh, I come from a line of either farmers or soldiers. So, it came to me through this context of farming. People like [Frank Lloyd Wright] were a gateway drug to the potential if you start to understand materials and pay attention to the things around you in a certain way.

“Sometimes things that seem very layman—in how they are spoken about and presented—are the most sophisticated artifacts, and vice versa.”

Peter: Is your creative process also informed by ritual and meditation?

Nep: Meditation, or listening, is based more so on my relationship and proximity to the practice of Sikhi. The more time I spend understanding the history of our people’s actions and decisions, the more active listening becomes. It becomes more sophisticated as I pay attention to it. It doesn’t give me answers, but it puts me in closer proximity to the mystery of people within Sikhi. And this isn’t just within Sikh people, there is a very large space for universal tenets in Sikhi. When I’m referencing Sikhism, or Sikh people, it’s not an exclusive experience, because we don’t believe in such a thing. We don’t believe in being professed a technique of listening, because if you get into the idea [that] a certain technique can work, you begin to get into hierarchies of who can profess a technique or who can have a following. We believe that everyone has this capability within them. This capability of listening is this idea called Anhad Naad, being able to hear the unstruck sound. Its root is in a few different practices from around the world. You find the same idea in Buddhism, Sufism, and certain sects of Hindu spirituality. The unstruck sound is not a sound that can be produced, but it is a sound that can be heard. The metaphor is a one handed clap—one has the ability to hear it, but nobody can produce it.

Peter: What is it that drives your artistic practice? What do you want to achieve through creation? Is part of it getting people to listen more actively?

Nep: I don’t have a distinct purpose. I feel like I’m just participating. There’s a line of people that have been thinking, observing, loving—and I’m a continuation of that. I don’t have a point in the sense that people need to see what I’m doing and experience it in a specific way that would render a result. [Creating] is an act of gratitude. It’s a way I can set something up physically that captures gratitude—gratitude for the way that my mom and dad raised me, or my grandfather, grandmother, aunties and cousins. It’s the only way I can create something that captures the way they/I/we think and move.

Peter: Is the duality of information intake and energy intake when experiencing an artwork something you wanted to explore with this exhibition?

Nep: Previous to this show, I had one called Medicine for a Nightmare. The work I made for that was the first time I’d made something to intercept a bunch of engineered falsehoods about an attack on Sikh people by the Indian government in 1984. I wanted to mount a show that dealt with propaganda and intergenerational trauma, and I wanted to see if an art exhibition could fill a gap that community newsletters, news stations, and conversations in households maybe had not been able to. The work was intentionally made to exist outside of our Gurudwaras, outside of our community. So that was different from the artmaking and exhibiting in the context of this show.

[Paradox of Harmonics] was more of an ode to the people of the city, to the makers of the city. Growing up in Toronto and coming to Detroit, the musicians and producers that have come from here have given me a lot. Building a show here with Jova Lynne, giving mid-career artists a space, commissioning new works, and having musicians creating alongside was a big deal. I have a certain relationship with this city—automation, the sound of steel, and the sound of repetition in manufacturing are connected to melody-making, the Great American Songbook, Motown, and dance. The show offered an opportunity to explore that relationship.

Peter: How did jazz, Black classical music, and avant-garde sound, or Detroit sound specifically, become sources of inspiration for your work?

Nep: My brother, who’s not here with us, had terrible taste in music, so I did not have a cool record collection by any means. He was listening to everything from Wilson Phillips to the soundtrack to Mortal Kombat to Moxy Früvous. I know that type of range sounds ironic and probably cool, but listening to that from your older brother was fucking stressful, man! When I started to hear music from people in the sphere of Black classical, it was like a drug. I can’t really compare anything to it since. I was captivated. I could picture things cinematically in my head. When I was really young, I could see entire scenes. Early on I listened to Nat King Cole, Horace Silver, Art Blakey. Then it became Chuck D and folks like that. I just gotta keep paying attention to it and feeling it. I’m grateful that some of the masters of that realm have reached back, in some cases asking for something visual that accompanies their music, folks like Kahil El’Zabar and Ishmael Butler. It’s come full circle, but I didn’t plan or intend on any of that. I’m thankful.

Peter: Have you learned anything about your artmaking process from collaborating with musicians?

Nep: I’m learning all the time. Even if someone brings me into a situation where they have reached out, I’m learning constantly. It’s hard not to see all the potential within the conversation you’re having—the humor, the satire, the paradox they have within their work. There are so many ways to create with an individual, rather than trying to project a narrative onto them. I get that people work in that way, but for me it just does not seem interesting, it seems like you miss where all the magic is at. Again, it’s just listening. Whether they’re musicians or rappers, they’re beautiful, bonafide writers. I feel like they’re some of the most important writers of our generation. They’ve never written a book or done anything editorial, but I would put them up against anyone.

I would say Craig [Huckaby] is a brilliant writer. His prose and romanticism is actually durable and functional. I want to listen to that. I don’t want to get in the way of it, or feel like I have to interpret it in a certain way. All I want to focus on is how to get out of the way of it. I want to let whatever is coming through him come out.

Peter: Since the newly commissioned work is a system that has to function, has the creative process been different? Is it closer to engineering than craft?

Nep: It’s the first sound system I’ve ever built. In terms of sound culture, I grew up going to jams and paying attention to acoustics, but I haven’t been on the other side, making that system. Especially coming to Detroit, I didn’t want to have a sound system that couldn’t technically do a certain thing. I’ve been in front of sound systems that, in extreme cases, change your DNA of receiving sound. You could listen to a Stevie Wonder record 100 times, know it 100 ways—but the way someone plays it on a certain system, you could have a new understanding of the record when you walk away. It’s an entirely different experience if someone at the controls knows what they want to do, and they’re on a system that supports that. These are all things to consider in planning a sound system—it needs to have the muscle and the technical delivery.

I started paying attention to Devon Turnbull, known as Devon Ojas. I didn’t know Devon personally, but I knew of him and his work through Nom de Guerre. I read he was also interested in detachment from an ego self through sound, and that really registered. I started paying more and more attention to what he was doing, and I was like, This is my guy right here, I gotta reach out to him. But it was outside my wheelhouse and I didn’t know how to approach him. I saw that he had posted a record I had designed for Kahil El’Zabar, saying how impactful the record was. I reached out through that, we started going back and forth, and I started thinking about this sound system. [Devon] definitely has this innate enthusiasm, like Yeah man, let’s do it, let’s think about this. I thought if I talked to this guy, he’d be like, There’s a thousand motherfuckers trying to talk to me. I don’t know what he saw in me, but I was like, Cool, he’s into it, let’s do it. With the technical aspect of this project, I needed to approach it with someone who makes, and who also has an ambition to push past what the industry makes. Devon is really great at that.

I once got to witness Mike Huckaby playing these Sun Ra reels in New York. Devon had the idea of devoting a night of dance to Sun Ra music, between vinyl, tapes, and reels. With the unfortunate circumstance of Mike passing, it was contentious in terms of how to find these reels. That’s when I was introduced to Craig Huckaby. I knew of Craig’s work as a musician, but not personally. Our conversation started by means of having lost our brothers—I lost my brother, Craig lost his brother—and how your world looks and feels without your brother. I was thankful that he and his mom felt okay, at this early of a point of departure, to search for and surface these reels that Mike had made based on Sun Ra’s music. These were the jumping off points in building the sound system. When you build a sound system that is based in trust, intention, healing, and a continuation of spirits that are still with us, what is the system shaped like? What does its congregation look like? I don’t have the answers, but these are the questions we were dealing with when making the system.

Devon is someone who offers a greater potential for anyone’s said medium with his center in graphic design. The way that he goes about design [dissolves] boundaries. He has such a grammar—it can become something very bespoke and accessible, where the reference is blurred but personal at the same time.

“You could listen to a Stevie Wonder record 100 times, know it 100 ways—but the way someone plays it on a certain system, you could have a new understanding of the record when you walk away. It’s an entirely different experience if someone at the controls knows what they want to do, and they’re on a system that supports that.”

Peter: So having a distinct design language actually expands the visual possibilities instead of limiting them?

Nep: Yeah, it’s a real trip, man. When you make something with someone and experience it, you’re like, is this intentional? Is this me, or is it them? Or is it both of us?

Peter: How did you arrive at the name of the exhibition, Paradox of Harmonics? What is the paradox?

Nep: I think the paradox is a constantly moving idea, it’s moving knowledge. What is at one time a paradox, sometimes is not at a later date, or perhaps never was. Sometimes things that seem very layman—in how they are spoken about and presented—are the most sophisticated artifacts, and vice versa. Sometimes things are pitched as worthy of all of this diagnosis, where perhaps they’re not. This concept in the context of sound is very interesting. It’s all very fluid.

Peter: Anything else you want to say about the show?

Nep: I’m grateful that Jova saw something when she came and saw Medicine for a Nightmare. She wanted to take this chance. This city is very passionate in standing for how it’s represented, and giving artists that responsibility means you trust them. I’m very thankful for that trust—I hope I move in a way that honors that.

Paradox of Harmonics is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit through September 11, 2022.