Tarah Singh talks about personal paintings and global design initiatives

HUMAN NATURE: "I thought, ‘What is the simplest word to unify everyone globally?’” says painter, sculptor and multimedia artist Tarah Singh of her latest design initiative. “The word ‘human’ came to mind as the solution. It’s the simplest reason for others to follow the golden rule.” Singh’s line of #HUMAN shirts are available on her website. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Local painter, sculptor and designer Tarah Singh has a lot of proverbial irons in the fire. And, because she tends to explore every creative avenue and modality available to her, she might have some literal irons in the fire, too. Environmental sculpture for beehives is one project in the works; a tote bags collaboration with Julia McDowell, secretary of local nonprofit civic organization Just Folks, is another. Singh was also recently hired by Just Folks to create a mural that will honor the contributions of African Americans in Asheville. “It will be called ‘Uptown DNA,’” Singh says. “I’m excited about that because community is really important to me. … It will be a community mural. A collaboration, which is my favorite thing.”

And her most recent exhibition of paintings is on view at The BLOCK off Biltmore through January. Of that collection, Singh notes, “This is probably the only time in my life I’ve created political or social [commentary] pieces. If you look back at my work, it’s nudes and romantic, lots of sensual energy, which is really important to my creative process. But I’m definitely finding spaces for broadening the conversation.”

That show is called #HUMAN and shares a title with Singh’s new effort, a design project with global aspirations. “This is a vision that was created by the social climate in the United States in 2019,” she says in an artist’s statement. Changes to immigration law and heightened racial tensions struck a chord with Singh, whose own family is from British Guiana (now Guyana). Of the first generation to be born in this country, she has lived in Western North Carolina since age 5. The initial T-shirts she made addressing those ideas said “Not for Sale,” “Not Illegal,” “Not Disposable” and other such statements.

“It made me think about nonviolent language and how the world might look if people [didn’t] objectify others,” Singh says. “I thought, ‘What is the simplest word to unify everyone globally?’ The word ‘human’ came to mind as the solution. It’s the simplest reason for others to follow the golden rule. … Regardless of our age, race, gender and ideals, we are all human.” The current result is apparel screen printed with #HUMAN in a design of Singh’s making; future iterations will express the same word in a range of languages.

Singh hopes to spread the design and its mission to other countries and is in talks with fellow artists and former Ashevilleans Ben Betsalel (now based in Senegal) and Georgi Bora (Russia). The latter is the son of the late Vadim Bora, a beloved painter and sculptor in Asheville, whom Singh credits with helping her cultivate her own creativity.

When Singh was working at a hair salon on Battery Park Avenue, Bora’s studio was upstairs. “I had my sketchbook with me, and he popped his head in one day and said, ‘Are you an artist?’” she recalls. “That started a six-year, intense journey with him of being an apprentice.” Bora gave Singh her first exposure to working on public art, as well, “and helped me to see everything in a broader spectrum.”

Another opportunity that cemented her commitment to artwork was a three-month trip to Italy in 2017. “It was for my personal growth,” she says. While there, Singh had the chance to present an idea at FloraCult, a nature- and culture-based event created by fashion designer and social activist Ilaria Venturini Fendi. That pitch didn’t work out as Singh had hoped, but, she says, “My whole thing in Italy was about making connections and taking myself seriously as a creative.”

Back in Asheville, she dedicated herself to her painting, community involvement — such as an upcoming workshop for LEAF — and raising two daughters, both of whom are also makers. “Artists do purposeful work,” Singh says. “Not that we don’t create beautiful things, but as I’ve matured as a person, my new focus has been, ‘How do I make this bigger than myself?’” Part of that mission has included connections with other local artists of color, including Cleaster Cotton and Cortina Caldwell; another facet takes the form of stepping back from monthly exhibitions. In fact, Singh is far from putting her paintings on the back burner: She has a show going up in Wake Forest in March and another planned locally, for Pink Dog Creative in June. But the slower pace allows her to dedicate energy to other inspirations, such as her #HUMAN designs.

“It deals with many global issues that need to be addressed,” she says of the project, which is still taking form. Singh produced the first run of her shirts at the end of December and at press time is thinking about her next moves. “I might be able to raise enough money and create jobs,” she muses. “I’m very interested in youth and microenterprise.”

There is a throughline to these richly varied pursuits, beyond Singh’s own tireless imagination. As the artist puts it, “I’m very much about people being creative problem-solvers.”

Learn more at tarahsingh.com.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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