5 South Asian Women Who Are Shaping The Face Of Homegrown Visual Art

Mahoor Jamal's art presents a mystical image of femininity
Mahoor Jamal's art presents a mystical image of femininityinstagram.com/mahoor_jamal

South Asian countries today are wound tightly together by not only a common geography, political system and cultural heritage but also a long, unrelieved history of colonial oppression. Women, indisputably, have seen the worst of it. Their art is an organic backlash against the imperialism they still face at a more intimate level, in their homes and communities, behind closed doors and under glass ceilings.

It is an irrefutable fact that over the course of history, women and female identifying artists have been undervalued at auction houses and exhibitions. With the emergence of new media and NFTs, the prophecy of the gender gap closing once and for all hasn’t come true just yet. So far, the digital arts including animation, motion graphics and illustration have remained a male dominated territory.

Disentangling the diverse threads of history that have led to the marginalisation of South Asian women within the art world would require a sprawling, intersectional discourse but all it would really boil down to is this: being in the creative or artistic industry means pitting erratic working hours, financial uncertainty and workplace discrimination against the social expectations of what it means to be a ‘working woman’. 

At Homegrown, we are more interested in spotting the game changers and celebrating their journey, so here are some of the female South Asian digital artists on our radar. 

I. Anu Chouhan

An illustrator, animator and game developer of Punjabi descent, Anu Chouhan started drawing when she was around three years old. Her parents moved to Canada sometime in the 1970s and she grew up in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. A doe-like, almost tender beauty illuminates her depictions of Indian culture, idealised and filtered through the lens of her eclectic taste in anime and wedding fashion. “As a South Asian woman, there are so many people trying to dissuade us from pursuing a creative career”, Anu says.

Looking back to the time when she was between jobs and commissioning personal portraits for her followers on Instagram, Anu is proud that she did not give up. Illustrating self-possessed South Asian women in positions of authority has been an ongoing theme for her for the past two years. She recently worked on the graphic novel version of the New York Times bestselling book Aru Shah and the End of Time.

II. Reya Ahmed

Reya Ahmed is in her mid twenties, a London-based visual artist who examines feminism, queerness and the cultural minutiae that accompany coming of age in a Bengali-Muslim household through the cross currents of illustration, animation and editorial design. Her noir-esque, retro style is borrowed from Mughal miniatures, faded children’s comics, product packaging and advertising of '90s India, and the black and white movies she devoured while growing up.

The vivid animation frames she produced on riso prints and then re-joined to create her Margins of Memory series helped her reconnect with the tactile nature of animation. The questions that Reya often asks herself while working on new stories include: how can we get a sense of who the narrator is, what colours would inhabit their world and where would they fall in the socio-economic context.

Reya has illustrated for multiple editorial publications, festivals, and zines. Presently, she is also the core organizer and curator at The Queer Muslim Project, the most popular LGBTQIA+ network for Muslims in South Asia.

A panel from 'Woman World', graphic novel by Aminder Dhaliwal
A panel from 'Woman World', graphic novel by Aminder Dhaliwalthepatronsaintofsuperheroes.wordpress.com

III. Aminder Dhaliwal

Another visual artist, dipped in the baptismal waters of social media, is thirty-something Aminder Dhaliwal who has been an animator and illustrator before she earned her star among the glittering constellation of contemporary graphic novelists. In 2020, Variety featured her amongst its “10 Animators to Watch”. UK born and of Punjabi lineage, Aminder was working for Nickelodeon when she realized that she didn’t have a much needed online presence. After she began posting her bi-weekly satirical comic Woman World on Instagram, about an imaginary future where a birth defect has wiped out men entirely leaving women to carry humanity’s legacy on their own, she saw an explosive uptick in her followers. Though wary at first of seeking validation, she realized that this was the confidence she had always needed. What sets Aminder’s work apart from other comic artists is her ability to tap into the otherness of her cross cultural identity and transmute her feelings of uprootedness into uncanny humour.

IV. Abhilasha Dewan

Growing up in New Delhi, Abhilasha Dewan drew from her acute understanding of human behaviour and her inherent appreciation of colour when she went on to train and work as a graphic designer in Ontario, Canada. Her visual repertoire is informed largely by the inanities of urban life, the effect of the built environment upon the human psyche, her ability to convey complex concepts crisply through images and her undying passion for storytelling.

Through four years of Applied Arts at Sheridan College, Dewan found her calling in animation. Her thesis film Satori is an homage to ‘70s Bollywood cinema with a mise-en-scene inspired from the mist-laden hills of Nainital, India. On the other hand, her illustrations such as those for CIGI (Centre of International Governance Innovation) depict her grasp of the interconnectedness of cyberspace, the political nexus of power and the perils of a hyper weaponised future.

V. Mahoor Jamal

A young fashion designer from Peshawar with an abiding interest in photography, Mahoor Jamal has also earned traction by displaying her work on Instagram. She remembers being in the fourth grade and passing up on an opportunity to display her portraits in a school exhibition out of fear of not being good enough. When she couldn’t get into medical school, she was apprehensive of what her future would look like. Being from a South Asian family, research or medicine were really the two typical choices for educated women. In her first year at University, she mustered up the courage to participate in an art competition and won. Eventually, it was her mother who convinced her to pursue a career in visual arts.

Mahoor finds her inspiration in people, in the beauty of their contradictions and imperfections. Her illustrations and paintings embrace the lambent magnificence of Pakistani bridal wear lehengas, their intricate embroidery, the coy glamour of South Asian femininity and the tortuous history of her culture that both muffles and amplifies her creative voice.

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