Burrard Arts Foundation presents The Past is Calling by multidisciplinary artist Jessie Sohpaul. The exhibition uses the symbol of the shoe to explore the complexities of caste—an ancient system of social hierarchy based on one’s birth. Shoes are historically associated with the lowest caste and also represent, for Sohpaul, the marginalization and mistreatment of members of this group.
Taking cues from street art and street culture, the works encompass photography, painting and sculpture, each beginning with the shoe as a starting point and expanding to create bold patterns and visual stories. Black embellishments on white sneakers in I See You (2023) become watchful eyes that confront viewers upon entering the gallery. The slope of the shoes’ ankles contrast against a black backdrop to create the illusion of a stern, furrowed brow.
Sohpaul uses graffiti strategies, creating tag-like emblems stenciled in spray paint with hazy edges that glow in black, white or faint red. In both Tears I (2023) and Tears II (2023), shoeprints swirl with paisley forms, known in India as buta, a teardrop-shaped motif with a curved upper end.
Black Lotus (2023) and *Jutti (2023) arrange jutti, a traditional footwear, into the flower and asterisk motifs that have appeared prominently in Sohpaul’s public murals and elsewhere. In The Past is Calling (2023) the asterisk appears again, forming the facial features of a cloaked figure with jutti hands pressed against their cheeks and ears, evoking the anguished pose of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893).
Juxtaposing urban and cultural signifiers, contemporary footwear and traditional jutti, The Past is Calling brings light to the pervasiveness of caste discrimination and how its present-day impact extends to diasporic communities. The exhibition seeks to inspire new conversations around privilege, and to foster resilience and empathy, encouraging viewers to reflect on how they can contribute to dismantling oppressive structures.
Jessie Sohpaul’s work is influenced by his first-generation experience, born into a Punjabi immigrant family and raised in Canada. Drawing from street art as well as traditional South Asian visual metaphors and scripts, his bold, visual language is a product of the complexity of his multicultural identity. Combining traditional and digital media, his works capture the energy and strength of his upbringing while honouring his Punjabi heritage.