“Whenever I’m asked how my work challenges the oh so prevalent patriarchy, I have only one thing to say - patriarchy exists because we have let it, and it’s not them and us. It’s every single one, everybody. Each time we kept quiet when we saw things happen and did nothing, said nothing. Each time we conformed, fit ourselves into boxes that weren’t made for us. Each time we let it happen over and over and over again. So with every art work I make, I aim to change this.”
I was told Sarah Naqvi’s work is the kind that people love to hate by my friend, as we scrolled through her Instagram feed one day. Her feed is a commemoration of all things feminine - from beautiful female figures, to delicate embroidery, line work, paint and sketches. But seeing why she drew critics was also understandable. Putting up her work on social media set her off on quite a rollercoaster ride, the ups consisted of tremendous applause from young women around the world, and the descend down drew in quite a lot of disapproval. “There was immense support from so so many young girls and majority of the feedback and criticism was positive and constructive. That said, the backlash wasn’t that easy to handle,” the 20-year-old tells me over email as she’s currently studying Textile Design at the prestigious National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.
You see, Sarah’s powerful work isn’t what Indian society views as ‘acceptable,’ since the female body, in all its nude wonder, stretch marks, menstrual blood, nipples et al is not one people want to see in its biological form. ”On multiple occasions I received threats and nasty comments from anonymous people, mostly via messages on Instagram, and interestingly enough a couple of my artworks were even taken down from Instagram for obstruction of community guidelines. This honestly, gave me even more incentive to work harder than ever because it proved my entire point! It’s so hypocritical how it’s okay to have highly sexualized and altered images of women all over the site, but a completely normal biological form of a woman’s body (sketch) is considered obscene!?” she wrote.
“I was quite a weird little kid,” she jokes, recalling regular spats with her parents over her dressing choice when she was 15 years old, “I remember my Dad calling me a ‘rebel without a pause’ after tirelessly trying to win an argument with me, and well, now that I think about it, I really stuck by it,” she adds. Well she definitely did find her cause, one that she has taken up, broken down and continuously explored through different artistic mediums. She didn’t want to limit herself nor streamline into any one particular form of art, but she does see embroidery as one of her biggest strengths. “With the issues I tend to work on, it challenges the very idea of it being tagged as ‘women’s work’ and that ‘it’s too girly a task’. With every stitch I make, I hope it challenges these common apperceptions and shows how much strength and voice every piece can carry.”
Be it a tampon covered with delicate little red flowers and beads, a ‘crimson wave’ flowing from a vagina, or a ‘flab-ulous’ female nude, each of her pieces tears through the cloak of silence that has been drawn over society regarding the female body, its bodily processes and sexuality, for far too long. For this, social media has served as a powerful platform to reach out and connect with a diverse audience from around the country, in fact, the world. “Its fairly easy to convey messages to someone who already understands these ideas but its really remarkable if one can penetrate into that part of the population that has turned their heads away from these matters that they find so shameful. And so when I put up work about taboos surrounding menstruation, no matter what your view might be on the topic, it does make you question and if not that, as long as you start a conversation, whether good or bad, the exchange of ideas itself is enough to start a dialogue and make a difference,” says Sarah.
Sarah talks about the ‘visual diet’ that young girls everywhere are exposed to from an early age that grows to mould and create their perception of themselves, their bodies and what is ‘ideal.’ Major magazines, publications and even many ‘forward thinking’ brands continue to splash across their pages and campaigns images of picture-perfect, flawless women. These promote and instill in us unrealistic body standards, skewing our notion of what a ‘normal’, regular woman’s body looks like, into what it ‘should’ look like. Over the years these thoughts take root, growing deeper and even toxic when it comes to body image, a topic that we rarely discussed during our formative years. Shedding light on the Indian context, Sarah says, “Even though eating disorders are prevalent, the statistics say nothing. It is one thing to know that there is a problem and then going onto solving it but it is another to not know that it even exists, which is the case here. The first step to recovery is always recognition. A topic so taboo that it won’t see light of day till we change the way we portray and present the body.”
“The idea behind most of the artworks, in really simple terms is that we live in a society which is suffering from the effects of many a years of deep rooted patriarchy, which has created, cultivated and enforced an idea of the ‘ideal’ woman. A woman who appears, behaves and carries herself in a certain acceptable manner. We are also a culture that celebrates and worships our Goddesses, so then why is there a disparity in the way we treat our women?
If we don’t alter our Goddesses, why do we do it to our women, and construct a certain acceptable image for them to fit. All women are Goddesses, let’s start treating them the way they deserve.”
All images have been published with permission from the artist.