Football, music and Punjabi culture combine in Raj Dhunna’s textural illustrations
Based in west London, Raj’s work is an extension of himself so his work references his favourite sports, films, music, art, as well as his upbringing and culture.
- Ruby Boddington
- 23 September 2021
For Raj Dhunna, a London-based creative working within illustration, design and education, drawing is a way for him to channel his identity; a way for him to let people know who he is. “I want people to view it and get a sense of me as a person knowing that I’ve made the work because it’s important to me, opposed to it being a fad or flavour of the week,” he explains. In turn, his portfolio is full of imagery that reflects his interests and culture as a British-Indian – from sports to hip-hop to Punjabi festivals.
While many relish the moment a piece of work feels complete, Raj is all about the process. He describes a certain tunnel vision that takes over when he’s working on something and how that moment is more enjoyable than reaching an outcome. “Nothing else seems to distract me,” he says, “…the problem solving involved is what keeps me on the ball.” It’s an apt idiom for an illustrator who so often chooses sport as a subject, something that stems from his typical British childhood running around parks and school playgrounds with his mates after footballs, basketballs and cricket balls every day. Far from just a thematic interest though, it’s the energy and culture that accompanies sport that also affects Raj. “Sports are definitely a big inspiration for me,” he explains, “both in life and in my practice. Anything competitive I’m usually involved. Anything that challenges me physically and has problem-solving in there I’ll probably be watching or participating in. I’ve always loved football, cricket, NBA culture and more recently cycling.”
Raj’s use of mark-making – his signature is gestural line work and texture – plays a major role in how he’s able to capture the spirit and atmosphere of several sports. “I try to explore the elements I love about sports in my work, and not give it a blanket ‘sports’ aesthetic,” he explains. “I endeavour to include that competitive nature, the mood and how wavy I think it is to be a footballer and to also be a fan of the game.” It’s a style Raj has developed through working with art directors who have let him explore topics in a way that is idiosyncratic to him. This experience honing his aesthetics has coupled with what he’s learned about what he wants to say with his work through personal projects to create a distinct tone of voice. One that is bold, graphic and which sees him reducing as much information from a piece as possible until he’s happy with it. To ensure he continues honing his style though, Raj constantly carries a sketchbook with him, calling it “a safe space for all my ideas, bad drawings and experimental work.”
In the past few years, more culturally-leaning topics have entered his portfolio, “probably because I know what I want to say and how I want to say it through image-making,” he explains. As such, he’s created work about Rakhri, the Farmers Protests, barbershop culture, and more documentary-leaning work on a trip to India. He explains how he tries to imbue this strand of his portfolio with the passion he feels for such topics “because that’s probably the energy I’ll have when we get into a dialogue about the subjects.”
One project that seems to perfectly merge Raj’s sporting and cultural interests was for EA Sports, one he describes as incredibly important to him but also to the wider British Asian community. It tells the story of Hamza Choudhury in comic form, documenting his upbringing as a British Asian and his journey to making it as a professional footballer in the Premier League. It also touches on how Hamza’s family has supported his career, how his heritage shaped who he is as a player and as a person, and how he first combated racism on the pitch. “I was proud to be a part of a project that wanted to ensure the idea was treated by somebody who understood the nuances of the British Asian experience, and to relay this through Hamza’s journey was special to do,” Raj tells us. Collaborating with writer Vithushan Ehantharajah, Raj decided to opt for a limited colour palette to “draw on the idea of cohesion and togetherness,” building scenes that are “funny, charming, impactful and heartwarming”.
It’s these kinds of projects – ones he can feel proud to be a part of – that Raj is aiming for in the future. Whether that’s a high-profile commission or a one-off personal work, he’s looking to create more work surrounding his heritage and culture. “A mix of being British and Punjabi, what that meant for me growing up in Slough, visiting my family in the midlands, visiting Jalandhar to see my grandparents and putting the visuals at the forefront of the experiences for the viewers to absorb,” are his goals, with a solo or joint exhibition contributing to his aspirations too.
Raj Dhunna: Barbershop (Copyright © Raj Dhunna, 2021)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.