The National Portrait Gallery has partnered with Wolverhampton Art Gallery to create a new exhibition Citizen UK Wolverhampton: Punjabi Migration Experiences.

Developed in partnership with Wolverhampton Arts and Culture, visual artist Anand Chhabra, Wolverhampton Poet Laureate Dr Kuli Kohli and a team of local Citizen Researchers, this exhibition creatively explores stories of the Punjabi community in Wolverhampton through newly commissioned portraits, archive material, oral histories, and poetry. 

Just some of the local stories include that of bus driver Tarsem Singh Sandhu, who fought for 2 years for the right to wear his turban to work; Harjinder Kaur a former community psychiatric nurse who brought greater knowledge of mental health and dementia services to the South Asian community; and Bishan Dass Bains, the first South Asian Mayor of Wolverhampton, whose campaigns for equality and human rights improved the lives of thousands suffering discrimination. 

The free exhibition funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and Art Fund also features a portrait of the award winning journalist and author Sathnam Sanghera, photographed with his inspirational mother, alongside images from the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection, including an iconic portrait of comedian and writer Meera Syal. 

10 new portraits by Anand Chhabra, and a newly commissioned poem by Dr Kuli Kohli also feature in the exhibition, alongside 10 new oral histories collected by a team of Citizen Researchers that highlight just some of the inspiring people and stories from Wolverhampton’s Punjabi communities. An interactive map and timeline encourage visitors to share their own thoughts and nominations for unsung heroes and migration stories.

City of Wolverhampton Council Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for City Economy, Councillor Stephen Simkins, said: “This is a really important research project that the city has been involved in with the National Portrait Gallery and we are privileged that our gallery was chosen to be a partner on a project such as this.

“By carrying out the research for Citizen UK Wolverhampton: Punjabi Migration Experiences, the project has enabled stories to be uncovered, shared and furthermore is enabling us to hear new stories that can be archived for future generations to explore. 

“The city has so many inspiring individuals from all communities, and this is an incredible way to share our people’s story.”

Liz Smith, Director of Learning and Engagement, National Portrait Gallery said: “We are delighted to have partnered with Wolverhampton Arts and Culture and worked closely with Citizen Researchers, visual artist Anand Chhabra, and Wolverhampton Poet Laureate Kuli Kohli to share this work. The resulting exhibition showcases striking new portraits and compelling life stories to present the significant impact that Wolverhampton’s Punjabi community has had on both local and national life. We hope this is a moment of celebration and a catalyst to collect more stories and voices with this community.”

Robyn Llewellyn, Director, England, Midlands & East at The National Lottery Heritage Fund said: “We’re delighted to be supporting The National Portrait Gallery and Wolverhampton Art Gallery on this project, ensuring that this chapter of the UK’s heritage is given the recognition it deserves.

“This funding, which has been made possible thanks to National Lottery players, will ensure that heritage continues to represent and reflect all our local communities.”

Dr Kuli Kohil said: “There have been many highlights during my time as Poet Laureate so far, but one opportunity holds a special place in my heart.  I was asked to be part of the UK Citizens project run by the National Portrait Gallery and commissioned to write a poem for the project.

“It was such a wonderful experience to work alongside artist, Anand Chhabra, and the Punjabi community and our excellent volunteers. Stories were dug out about local Punjabi people, the untold experiences of migration from India to Wolverhampton. It’s been a great pleasure to see all the effort everyone involved has made to explore the gold mine of Wolverhampton.

“I am delighted that Wolverhampton Art Gallery is also exhibiting my poems about my mum and dad being the first migrants in the country and coming straight to Wolverhampton. I’m so proud. My commissioned poem will be printed on postcards and people will be able to pick it up and take it away with them.”

Anand Chhabra, Visual Artist & Director of Black Country Visual Arts said: “The project has been great to work on and as an artist has breathed new ideas and skills into my work.

“Working with the National Portrait Gallery and Wolverhampton Art Gallery and rising ‘Citizen Researchers’ has produced an excellent variety and range around a small number of participants who have shared their amazing stories. Without the researchers working on telling stories of people important to them we would not have the amazing variety of individuals each with their own experiences and the impact of living in the city in their formative years of migration. 

“It’s been such fantastic collaboration with Dr Kuli Kohli and all the community should be proud of her role as the first female Asian Wolverhampton Poet Laureate as I am. She has always smiled throughout her time and her smile has inspired me, understanding her fight with the hardships she has faced! 

“With the confines of creating my own art for this project. I have been able to create 10 new portraits with an aim of seeing high levels of details of the participants involved in this project for audiences to see. These participants and historical figures within the Punjabi community whose stories are not easily accessible are now lifelike in appearance. 

“I believe this project will encourage others to share their stories and inspire new ones for our city.”
Citizen UK: Punjabi Migration Experiences will be on display from Thursday 18 May until Sunday 9 July. Visitors will be able to see the display of new portraits created by Anand Chhabra alongside work from the National Portrait Gallery and stories collected and told by our Citizen Researchers about the Wolverhampton Punjabi community. The exhibition is free to attend and can be seen Monday to Saturday 10.30am until 4.30pm and Sunday’s 11am until 4pm.

For more information on events and exhibitions taking place at Wolverhampton Art Gallery visit Wolverhampton Arts & Culture