Australian of the Year Awards Finalist celebrated for contribution to the arts and standing up for cultural representation

  • 18 July 2022

Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa is many things. An artist. A businesswoman. A change-maker. A driving force. Perth-born with Sikh heritage. A 2022 WA Young Australian of the Year finalist.

She has performed her theatre show Fully Sikh in front of thousands, while millions more have watched her perform spoken word poetry as a semi-finalist on Australia’s Got Talent. At just 20 years old, she moved to the creative capital of Melbourne to surround herself with opportunities and fellow artists. Since moving back to Perth in 2018, she has transitioned into theatre and film, delivers storytelling workshops at The Centre for Stories, is working in the digital arts space with her partner and has recently started dabbling in hip-hop. Apologies for the cliché, but Sukhjit really does live and breathe the arts.

“I’m an advocate for the arts because I’ve seen the benefits it can bring to our everyday lives – from artist-in-residence programs in schools to film and TV getting us through tough (COVID) times. In my workshops, I’ve witnessed the growth of self-confidence even with the most successful CEOs. Getting vulnerable and speaking your truth is tough! I love working with other artists, but my real passion is working with non-artists because I love seeing the transformative power of the arts, storytelling and communication; how it can spark change in our society.”

Sukhjit’s first experience of public speaking wasn’t as smooth sailing as it is now. Her worst nightmare came to life in Year 6 when her teacher (not so gently) nudged her into speaking at a school assembly. Over time and with practice, she transformed from being a shy student who avoided putting her hand up in class to an expressive performer who now feels most at home on stage.

To feel comfortable speaking in front of an audience is one thing, but when you look at how Sukhjit has used her platform to bare her soul and share her personal experiences as a Sikh girl growing up in Australia, it makes her confidence all the more impressive and inspiring.

“Growing up, I spent every weekend at the Gurdwara [place of worship] where I was immersed in the Sikh community. It was here and through my family that I learnt the Sikh values of social justice. I was taught the rich history of our Sikh warriors – how they stood up for others inspired me to not be silent, to question everything and be active in the wider community. This still speaks true to the work I create now as an artist and activist. It’s important for me to bring communities on a journey of empathy and build trust. I like checking in with my audience, ‘This is what I’ve been feeling – what do you think?’”

With the lack of South Asian women being represented on Australian TV some 20 years ago, Sukhjit thinks back to the people she looked up to, from Deborah Mailman and Jessica Mauboy to Cathy Freeman and Miranda Tapsell. Now 28, and having seen representation and diversity in Australia change over time, Sukhjit’s focus has shifted and evolved. Rather than a Sikh poster child, she is keen to explore the relationship between different communities, based on various aspects from culture to privilege, particularly Sikh relations to First Nations communities. She is currently collaborating with her partner, Ngarlama writer and director, Perun Bonser, on an exciting rom-com TV series.

This shift has prompted Sukhjit to look at her career so far and what she wants for the future.

“I’ve been reflecting on the last 10 years – I’ve travelled the world and performed on incredible stages, and now I’d like to take all the skills I’ve learnt into starting a company of my own. Be my own boss, tell my story on my own terms and put my mental health and wellbeing first and foremost.”

Having spoken about the complexities of being Australian-born with Sikh heritage within her work over the last 10 years, Sukhjit admits that she continues to struggle with her identity.

“I feel uncomfortable speaking on behalf of the global Sikh population and, throughout my career, I’ve certainly felt the expectation to do so. I don’t really identify as Indian because there’s a lot of complicated history with my people being traumatised by the India/Pakistan Partition in 1947 and the Sikh genocide in 1984. And I don’t know if I can call myself a proud Australian due to the colonisation of the land I live on. My parents are devout Sikhs, visibly Indian and now call Perth their home. However, do they identify as proud Aussies? I’ve never asked them!”

Late last year, Sukhjit was recognised as a finalist in the 2022 WA Australian of the Year Awards, which promotes the idea that we’re all part of the Australian story. While she credits the Awards for highlighting everyday heroes, it sprung up mixed feelings for the bold and political artist. However, she confesses that, ultimately, such recognition should be celebrated.

“It’s nice to have these wins every now and then because we all need affirmations in moments of darkness – a reminder that you’re on the right track. Despite coming from a family that values humbleness over accolades, I want to start celebrating my successes more. I hope this recognition will help make my dreams a reality as I head into a new chapter.”

Nominations are now open for the 2023 Australian of the Year Awards. Nominate before 31 July at

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