A mixed-race Harry Potter, warriors in dupattas, hijabi fashionistas...
“I was pleasantly surprised by the reception it got,” says Fatima Wajid, 18. She’s referring to the two-day Twitter campaign #SouthAsianArtists that she led with Bangladeshi artist Esha (who goes by only one name), which received over 2,000 submissions from over 100 artists across five countries — India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
“We were inspired by campaigns such as #DrawingWhileBlack and #LatinoHispanicArtists. We wanted to create a similar platform for a community that we did not see much of in popular visual arts sphere,” says the Pakistani design communication student.
Some artists responded with fan art that reinterpreted existing heroes, superheroes and comic book figures; others submitted pop art peopled by new characters that were flamboyant, sassy and inspired by the visual language and culture of their creator; still others were contemporary art works that took on issues of gender, race, marginalisation and sexuality and would have been at home in a gallery anywhere in the world.
Nineteen-year-old Pakistani artist Amina Malik’s Three Stages of Life, for instance, is a powerful commentary on sexuality, patriarchy and feminism.
“I keep colour differences in mind because they are important markers of ethnicity,” says Southampton-based Indian illustrator Anshika Khullar, 23, explaining her half-Indian Harry Potter. “We desis hardly see ourselves represented as protagonists or heroes. Plus, I wanted to show a happy, healthy, interracial family. It was great to be part of a hashtag created to celebrate brownness.”
Other artists’ works showed dark-skinned ballerinas, fat and short Bharatanatyam dancers and superwomen in hijab.
Young artists want to see themselves in their creations and the hashtag is a reflection of this, adds artist and curator Veeranganakumari Solanki. “Boundaries are becoming more porous, but we still want to be rooted in our culture,” she adds.
Aside from exposure and feedback, the spotlight on South Asian artists saw many of them receive new commissions and invitations to collaborate on visual art projects. Others, like Malik and US-based Indian illustrator Akshay Varaham, received so many requests for prints that they are now working to set up e-stores where their work can be bought.
Wajid hopes the momentum will grow and spread.
“The supportive atmosphere has let artists gain confidence and the world has now been exposed to a talented subculture within the online art community,” she says. “Now we wait to see if the world is ready for this art.”
The new male gaze
Rosie the Riveter, a pop culture icon from the 1940s, was a bulked-up woman in bandanna and overalls, meant to boost the morale of women working in factories and shipyards during World War II. ‘We can do it,’ she said.
Over the years, she became a feminist icon too, and was reinterpreted multiple times, to represent marginalised women, African-Americans etc.
Ishfaq Zaman’s Rosie is a dark-skinned Indian with black hair tied up in a bun, wearing a kurta, bindi and nose pin.
Her ‘Keep moving’ is both feminist and literal — the character was created by the Bengaluru-based illustrator for a realty portal specialising in homes on rent.
“I’ve never really been able to connect with popular art because I never saw myself in it and this is what I wanted to change. This is where South Asian artists fill the gap. All we need to do is keep our roots in mind,” says Zaman, 26.
Also in Zaman’s portfolio is Space Boots, an Indian superwoman and galactic warrior. She wears a salwar kameez complete with dupatta, bindi and bangles, and carries a blaster in one hand and has a belt of explosives around her waist.
“You don’t associate South Asian characters with superheroes and it is even harder to imagine women in those roles,” Zaman says.
“So I drew Space Boots as a tribute to the Indian woman. She’s wearing what she is comfortable in and can defend what’s hers without help from any man.”
The hashtag, Zaman says, finally gave his work some exposure.
“What I feel best about is that people haven’t stopped commenting about how much they like the work,” he says.
“Their comments make me feel accomplished because my aim was to make everyone feel included.”
Life as we know it
Amina Malik is only 19, but the young Pakistani tells eloquent tales on canvas.
One painting, titled Three Stages of Life, shows a woman holding a rotating moon, to represent menstruation, in the first stage. The second shows a woman giving birth. The third is the life itself — her women are trapped in barbed wires and shawls, hemmed in, constricted.
“I want my paintings to celebrate womanhood and encourage women to take ownership of their bodies,” says Malik, currently studying sociology in Illinois.
“I realised that virtually nobody was showing women of South Asian descent,” Malik adds. “I know my paintings make people uncomfortable but that’s not my aim. I try not to draw faces because it’s not about some women, it’s about all of us and I want that underlined. Through #SouthAsianArtists, I was able to let others know that they are not alone and pay tribute to the women who have inspired me by bringing attention to their struggle.”
Besides comments that praised her art, some also asked if they could buy prints of her work. “One of them said she’d pay for the print to be shipped to the UK; I was overwhelmed by that,” Malik says.
Behind the veils
“As a Bangladeshi-Muslim illustrator living in England, I am proud of my heritage and culture,” says Syeda Faiza, 25. “This wasn’t always the case. Growing up, I hated my culture and my skin colour, because at home I was told to wear the hijab, and outside I was told that this was wrong. Then I realised that I was consuming only those cartoons and comics that fuelled my rage.”
So Faiza decided to show people what her world was really about, and explain to them that where she came from wasn’t a bad place, just another part of the world.
She is currently working on art for a fairy tale where a girl in a hijab befriends a creature in a fantasy land.
A lot of her characters are women in hijab; most have dark skin and black hair.
Her painting, Patterned Scarves, shows hijabi fashionistas.
A series titled World Desserts shows an Indian woman with a bowl of gulab jamuns, a hijabi woman with baklava, an English woman with Victoria sponge and cookies, suggesting that behind their differences there remains the universality of being women, human.
“Art is a great leveller, and my aim is to connect with children so they won’t hate themselves for being from a certain community or place as I did,” she says.
“I want them all to be proud of their culture and heritage.”
Akshay Varaham gives the Hindu deity Krishna a dark brown hue instead of the usual blue. In an interesting take on gopis and devotion, at either side are love-struck men. It’s not just Krishna, Varaham shows most Indian deities as dark-skinned rather than pale.
He also gives us Bharatanatyam dancers who are short, fat and dark.
“Why should all dancers be petite, demure and fair?” asks the 20-year-old US-based illustrator.
Growing up in Tamil Nadu, a Muslim in a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood, Varaham decided early on that he would draw his own lines. He picked Sufism for its focus on spirituality rather than religious dogma.
And art became one way, he says, “for me to explore the Hindu heritage of my state and bridge the gap between the two faiths”. Also gay, much of his work has an LGBTQ element too. “Art helps me accept myself,” he says.
Reactions have been positive.
“People tell me the way I portray South Asian bodies, figures and cultures makes them feel more accepted, which is my goal,” he says. “Closeted LGBTQ South Asians, mainly Tamil people, also talk to me about how I helped them feel validated and loved, which is the kind of support I would have liked growing up.”
Through #SouthAsianArtists, Varaham has received a couple more commissions than usual and had commenters asking if they can buy prints of his work online.
“I am already working on making that possible,” he says.
“I also got a job offer for a film-related project. We’re still discussing details, but that’s exciting.”