Museum Exhibit is Co-Ed, Inter-Racial, & Incredibly Vancouver
// Claire McGillivray

“People came up to me with tears in their eyes,” says Museum of Vancouver Guest Curator Naveen Girn, when asked about the community response at the ‘’ opening night reception on May 4, 2011. ‘They wanted me to respect their story and they felt I had.”

The exhibit, which is “a space that reaffirms the positive story of the [South-Asian Vancouver] community,” is co-produced by the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) and the Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration Society (VICB). Co-curated by Curator of Contemporary Issues Viviane Gosselin, and Guest Curator Naveen Girn, the exhibit is open until Oct. 23.

As the first ever major exhibition on South-Asian Canadian History, this marks a stepping stone for a continually evolving culture. The research style, which Girn calls “a very organic and fulfilling process,” was also something never before done. The grassroots research for the exhibition included over one hundred interviews with local members of the Vancouver Bhangra community, who shared stories, photos and anecdotes on their own local Bhangra history.

Girn also led three community consultations where, with the help of representatives from MOV and VICB, he spoke with Bhangra dancers, singers, performers, lovers, DJ’s, musicians, and radio hosts to get their opinions. In regards to identity and authenticity, Girn asks, “What is authentic? What is unique about Vancouver’s Bhangra scene?” The answers are overwhelming.

An initial walk through the exhibit almost immediately reveals a larger than life video tapestry of Vancouver Bhangra dancers in the midst of self-expression, creativity, and celebration. Following the enticing video presentation is a variety of highly stylized mixed-media segments. Visuals include television sets from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and the 21st century, each broadcasting a different time period of Vancouver Bhangra culture. The documented footage was comprised mostly of old CBC video clips, highlighting pertinent events in the Vancouver Bhangra community timeline.

To match the energy of such a vibrant culture, the exhibit is designed as a fully interactive and participatory experience. Bhangra experts, lovers, and novices alike can try their hand at playing the harmonium, drumming the historic dhol drum, or even stumbling through the basics of Bhangra dance style with any of the museum’s detailed how-to videos throughout the exhibit.

According to Girn, the exhibit has had great success in terms of education. Tour groups from elementary schools and high schools, as well as many university students, have seen the exhibit and left with very positive responses. The experience has had a particularly positive effect on children of South-Asian decent, something that Girn has been happy to see. “The kids see their faces reflected back from the wall of the museum, and it really is a very empowering feeling in the sense that your story is important, your history is important, and we want to share it with you.”

Vancouver’s interpretation and evolution of the historic style has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the community as a whole. With regards to how the exhibit addresses issues of gender politics and racism, Girn states, “Those themes really bring Bhangra out of being a ‘brown’ thing, or an Indian thing, and brings [the art form] into things that can be related to.” The evolution of culture in Vancouver saw this historically Indian and masculine art form become something that could be shared and celebrated by individuals of varying sex, nationality, religions and identities.

The open-minded nature of Vancouver’s evolution wasn’t always met with positive thought, however. Reflecting on Vancouver’s first all-female Bhangra dance teams at SFU and UBC, Girn states, “These college students rise up in the early 1990s and they face some backlash due to the stigmas of dancing on stage... but they have to move beyond these things and they do.” The traditional all-male dance brings up controversial issues of gender identity for many of these female dancers, such as the question of what it means to be physically or emotionally male or female, and who gets to take part in determining the future of Bhangra.

The opening reception for the exhibit lined up perfectly this year with VIBC’s annual Bhangra dance competition. The international attention added greatly to the positivity experienced by Girn and his team. “These [dance] teams that come from all over North America saw the exhibition for the first time, and got to learn [about Vancouver’s history], and they can take it back with them.”

“There have been some talks of having the exhibition tour to different cities,” says Girn. However, due to cuts to arts funding, he says, the possibility of that happening is difficult to determine. He adds with a hopeful edge to his voice that “perhaps [the exhibit] can live on in other formats.”

Part of the innovative, mixed-media aspect of the exhibit is the smartphone app that MOV and VICB have created to let individuals “remap the city of Vancouver through a Bhangra lens.” They do this by allowing community members to upload photographs and stories of Bhangra celebrations. The ‘map’ then becomes a continually evolving collection of memories, shared in an open and genuine manner among all who are interested.

As Nancy Noble, CEO of the Museum of Vancouver, stated in a speech at the opening reception that this “vibrant and living art form” was a part of the museum’s re-envisioning project that asked the community what they wanted to see at the museum of Vancouver. The response was decidedly Bhangra, “because it is a unique and important Vancouver story.” This reasoning could suggest why the success of the exhibit has been so incredible.

The vibrant exhibit continues running until October 23rd, 2011. For further information check out the exhibit webpage at or the Museum of Vancouver Youtube channel at

// Claire McGillivray

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: