A Conversation with Nep Sidhu on Paradox of Harmonics
It’s Movement, Detroit’s annual techno festival. Hart Plaza is pumping, and off-site dance events are taking place across Detroit showcasing the best in techno and house. This is the context within which I experienced Nep Sidhu’s Paradox of Harmonics at The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). It’s the flourish that caps off everything going on in Detroit on Memorial Day weekend.
The sound system as an altar. Catharsis through sound. Community. Family. These are the themes layered into the textures, textiles, sculptures and sounds that together make Paradox of Harmonics.
Nep and I sat down to discuss his practice, the exhibition and his thoughts on the city of Detroit. Paradox of Harmonics runs until September 11.
What was the first work of art that you made that really mattered to you?
I spent a larger amount of time in my life not showing work than I have showing work. In the midst of that, I had made a large tapestry, all painted, upon the departure of my mom, who had left us by way of cancer. I was just starting to find a way to deal with being that sad – feeling kind of left. I never felt like that, that feeling of [being] a motherless child and existing in a world where your mom is not there anymore. So all of those things were new. My mom was someone who knew that I was always making work, but not showing or sharing much publicly. She felt like I was arriving at a place where I could start to share the work.
Her departure almost pushed me. I could still be with her if I practice, start to share, and bring in the love exchange we had for an entire lifetime and start to use that as a base to make. It would help me but it would also keep us connected. So the tapestry really did that.
I started writing these letters in this Kufic scripture, and one of them was a love letter to her to try to navigate a space to be able to locate her, or for her to locate me in the work. These were quite large calligraphic panels of me writing to her. The connection they ended up offering me was a lot. This sort of enabled me to carry her and to expand her – her teachings, her energy, her smile, the way she would hug, the way she would float, like levitate, all those things. So it felt like she started to always be there.
Your new exhibit paradox of harmonics was unveiled in April and it focuses on inner listening and how we interact with sound. What was the jumping-off point for this?
Right, Sound. As a Sikh, sound asks us to be really present and active in how we engage sound – the hearing of it and the listening of it – we’ve been able to survive in the way we have committed ourselves to certain types of listening and commune around it through multiple deaths and awakenings of self, but also reference joy in the way we listen and this brings us as individuals together collectively. This can be sometimes in the form of what we call kirtan – something also practiced in other religions and practices outside of Sikhi. Kirtan is something that Alice Coltrane believed in, bringing people together under the guise of melody, bringing together anyone of any name, gender, practice or background united in the moment of melody, as my friend and collaborator Gurpreet Channa would say ‘Come As You Are’
Every human has the capacity for this inner listening, this inner (ra)ag, or the idea of being able to hear an unbroken melody, in Sikhi we call it many things. Ik Onkar is the ‘sound before the sound’ – the sound of the universe. The Anhad Naad would be the unheard sound that one can hear. A way to interpret the unheard sound is the ability to listen to a one-handed clap. A one-handed clap can’t be made physically. You can’t make a sound with a one-handed clap, but you can interpret, listen and feel it. It goes beyond spirituality, It’s also a science. It’s a neuroscience, where there’s been surveying of a particular set of membranes within the ear that have the capability to produce what they call ghost notes. So they register a sonic scale that enters into the ear, and then at various times, there can be ghost notes produced that increase and decrease its weight, volume and sonic scribe to the ear.
Detroit felt like the perfect place to be able to do that, of my own experiences with how much that city has gifted me with listening, sound and the makers of the city of. For quite some time and continuing in the tradition of offering something that brings so many people, you know, joy and function as well. I wanted to create something that was dependent on them to charge it.
What are you hoping the viewer will take away with them?
What people take away is up to them. I never want to step on that experience/interpretation, whether it’s good or bad. What I could share is that I hope people are engaged by the various practices and histories of listening that are within all the works. I think that’s far more interesting than what I have made in a literal way. It’s more of what has come into the works with the intentions of the various said communities.
If I were to give an example of that, the tapestry of Kahil El’Zabar looks at Kahil’s environment, which he came into, and the traditions he carries with him today that were passed on from the traditions of Phil Cohran, the AACM and all that was going on across Chicago at that time. I think those have so much to offer and give if one begins to gain a breadth of the self-expression that existed at that time.
As well one could look towards the awareness inside of tone, what it produces and its multiplicity of function – that’s something I think is incredible to engage with. That was a conversation between myself and Craig Huckabee, who had lost his brother, Mike Huckabee, during COVID. Mike produced that body of Sun Ra works – those reel-to-reel tapes – that’s what you’re hearing. I was able to have that conversation, initially as a stranger, because I’ve lost my brother too. So we started to speak from that point, discussing how to find these tapes. Craig trusted and believed in the sound system and put faith in Mikes’s memory to feel lighter and healthier between himself and his mom. So those were just some of the intentions that were really inside the sound system. It’s the idea of what a sound system looks like when it’s built with those sets of exchanges and those hopes.
Something I don’t want anything to do with.
What really inspires you to keep moving forward to keep continuing producing work?
Just life itself. Continuing to find openings and room to explore those. The idea of the blood memory as a life’s curriculum is to continually remember those that have become martyrs for us to be free-thinking people. It’s about how we remember them or reshape their memory, breaking it away from colonized devices and other state-authorized performative work. My rhythm to how I’m making is simply trying to pay attention to all of that.
Visit Paradox of Harmonics at MOCAD now through September 11.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.