Durham Artist Shanny Kohli Raises Cultural Awareness Through Her Work

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Shanny Kohli's artwork

By Tajahn Wilson and Hannah Lee

Shanny Kohli’s heart raced when she saw her name on the wall at Golden Belt Campus in April. She smiled at the 15 mixed-media pieces that lined the room, each echoing her identity as a woman finding Sikhism.

And now other people could see it, too, could see her.

Shanny’s “Subjective Exploration of the Sikhi,” which was on display through July 31, drew inspiration from her experiences growing up in India and the Middle East and, importantly, how her “love for the Sikh” helped her navigate difficult moments as an adult.

When Shanny was in school at the American University of Sharjah, she says, “I did not see any Sikh art taking a modern approach to tell the story of the Sikhs. I know about African American art. I know about European art. I know about American art, but I don’t know much about Sikh art. That’s not good.”

She taught herself Sikh script and for years now has used her art to create awareness of Sikhism through a range of interpretations of the 10 Sikh gurus.

Her artwork grounds her, as she didn’t always feel a sense of identity or belonging during her childhood. Her family fled New Delhi due to the Iraqi invasion when she was just 6 months old, so she spent most of her childhood in Kuwait where she studied at The American School. She says that growing up in Kuwait was quite difficult, especially for artists. “I was scared and worried that all people might judge me.”

Shanny Kohli and her family

She didn’t truly find herself until she studied visual communication at American University of Sharjah, where she had her nose in every art history book. She knew about various forms of art at the time, but not sacred art, which spurred her immersion into Sikhi.

She moved to the United States in 2009 to marry her husband, Harajeshwar Singh Kohli, but she lost touch with her work when they started a family. It wasn’t until the couple moved to Durham in 2016 that Shanny started dabbling into various art mediums, including helping her children – Zoravar Singh Kohli, 10, Azad Singh Kohli, 7, and Raunaq Singh Kohli, 5, (pictured left with Harajeshwar and Shanny) – with their own art projects at International Montessori School.

“That pushed me and reminded me that, ‘Hey, you need to just go back to this again,’” Shanny says. “There was something knocking on my door all the time, [but] that’s when it really hit me that I have to do something for myself.”

Shanny currently works in her home studio and hopes to offer merchandise, including T-shirts, cups and prints, on her website soon. Follow her Instagram for updates on her next exhibit.

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Hannah Lee

Hannah Lee is the assistant editor at Durham Magazine. Born and raised in Winston-Salem, she attended UNC-Chapel Hill and double majored in broadcast journalism and German.
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