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Feminist illustrators who draw of the times

A growing set of illustrators and artists is taking a deeply personal approach to issues of body politics and sexuality

Alia Sinha’s (@minor_grace) work emerges from a stream of consciousness and inevitably veers towards the mental health of women. Photo courtesy: the artist
Alia Sinha’s (@minor_grace) work emerges from a stream of consciousness and inevitably veers towards the mental health of women. Photo courtesy: the artist

At first, Haya draws you closer with its intricate calligraphy lining the borders and the bright blob of red at the bottom of the work. But when you look at it again, this drawing, made with flower dye paste and ink on Majher Paath fabric, makes quite an impactful statement. The blood dripping to the floor from the female figure brings the tabooed topic of menstruation out of the shadows, right up front.

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During the covid-19 pandemic, artist Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai has been using tropes of the domestic to talk about the monthly flow and the female body. She belongs to a growing set of feminist illustrators and artists who are using their work to create conversations centred on body politics, gender, sexuality and agency of women. “This is not about one religion or caste, but speaks about women from all backgrounds,” says Ahmadzai.

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‘Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai’s (@arshi_ahmadzai) ‘47 days, 08.06.2020’ (from the Blood Book) brings to the fore the topic of menstruation and pain. Photo: courtesy Shrine Empire and the artist
‘Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai’s (@arshi_ahmadzai) ‘47 days, 08.06.2020’ (from the Blood Book) brings to the fore the topic of menstruation and pain. Photo: courtesy Shrine Empire and the artist

For them, Instagram has become a visual space for testing ideas or simply expressing themselves. The pandemic has acted as a catalyst, with artists reacting to feelings of anxiety, mental suffocation and news of violence against women during the lockdown, adding new works reflecting these to their ongoing series.

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Ahmadzai was studying at Jamia Millia Islamia when the idea of creating drawings around it came to my mind. “Women go through 480 to 500 periods in their lifetime,” says the artist, who makes these drawings during her period. She feels comfortable to talk about the pain that she experiences and uses material like Fuller’s Earth, dried flower paste and fabric, which have been part of domestic scenes in her home. Ahmadzai goes so far as to say the situation doesn’t change for women, be it a pandemic, a natural disaster or a political situation. “They are always pushed into a corner. With my drawings, I am claiming that space.”

One of the artists to watch out for is Kolkata-based Reya Ahmed, who regularly posts visuals populated with women with wide, exaggerated eyes. During the ongoing pandemic, she has been posting work inspired by powerful women icons, freedom of expression, or the lack of it, and personal musings.

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Varunika Saraf (@varunika.saraf) has been maintaining a visual diary to help cope with current issues, be it violence against women or farmers’ protests. Photo: courtesy the artist
Varunika Saraf (@varunika.saraf) has been maintaining a visual diary to help cope with current issues, be it violence against women or farmers’ protests. Photo: courtesy the artist

Ahmedabad-based artist Varunika Saraf has had an online diary of drawings since 2014, when she heard the news of a software engineer being murdered in Pune. These days, she has been posting responses to the Hathras tragedy, protests against the farm laws, and other issues.

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The series started as a coping mechanism. “Today, the rate at which things are happening, people have normalised violence in their everyday lives. The silent acceptance is extremely worrying. This visual diary of sorts is a reminder to self, of everything that has passed in recent years, as forgetting is another layer of violence we inflict on others and ourselves,” says the Saraf,” says the artist. In fact, the latest post on her Insta page, with the lines Sab Yaad Rakha Jaayega written in the caption, is almost a reminder to herself and her followers to not forget the apathy of these times. “When you draw something, it stays with you. It becomes a part of yourself,” she adds. Saraf has been reaching out to photojournalists, seeking their permissions to base her illustrations inspired by their images.

Nishita Jha uses her Instagram account as a safe space for dealing with embattled feelings. “‘C For Control’: At Its Most Beautiful”, control lives in a dancer’s body: the ability to isolate a group of muscles, limbs and toes, right down to the tips of your fingers, the rush of chaotic energy divided into neat beats of time. At its most healing, it is accepting that in the universe of things I cannot control, I can still control the way I respond to them, control what I pay attention to,” she writes. Courtesy: the artist
Nishita Jha uses her Instagram account as a safe space for dealing with embattled feelings. “‘C For Control’: At Its Most Beautiful”, control lives in a dancer’s body: the ability to isolate a group of muscles, limbs and toes, right down to the tips of your fingers, the rush of chaotic energy divided into neat beats of time. At its most healing, it is accepting that in the universe of things I cannot control, I can still control the way I respond to them, control what I pay attention to,” she writes. Courtesy: the artist

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Like her, journalist Nishita Jha too has been using her Instagram profile as a space for self-expression. As she explores ideas of control, the rush of chaotic energy, healing and memory, you see your own stories reflected in her illustrations. Jha, who is not a trained artist, started doodling three-four years ago, sharing the work on her private profile. Recently, she started the ABC series, triggered by an article she wrote for Buzzfeed. She spoke to therapists about the ways in which women could escape the feeling of being cloistered during the pandemic. “They advised people to find that one space of their own, be it a small balcony, a drawer full of memories or a page of an old book. Find that space where you could feel yourself,” says Jha.

“While therapists were suggesting this for women living in joint families, where they are embattled for space, that is not my situation. But I am feeling embattled because of many things these days.” In a way, the small frames of her illustrations have become a safe space for Jha to deal with feelings of anxiety. This is also the time when one is constantly contemplating one’s mortality, there is this feeling of being disembodied. “But when I make these works, it’s also about realising my body is not an object, it is functional and has agency,” she adds. Jha is now toying with the idea of creating a public profile where she just posts works from the series.

Arunima Bose (@arubose) explores ideas related to ethics of the body and the tabooed topic of female pleasure. From her ‘Dendromagus’ series. Courtesy: the artist
Arunima Bose (@arubose) explores ideas related to ethics of the body and the tabooed topic of female pleasure. From her ‘Dendromagus’ series. Courtesy: the artist


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The body and body politics are at the heart of most of the practices. Arunima Bose’s work, for instance, centres on the ethics of the body and the tabooed ideas of female pleasure. She worked as a gender trainer for nearly three years in the development sector before branching out in the world of art.“I realised I was talking about gender and sexuality in a much better way through art,” says Arunima, who has recently moved to Goa. Her earlier sculptures on the vulva were shown at the GenderBender festival in 2017. The idea was to start a conversation with women, who are always taught to be quiet and not explore their sexuality or seek pleasure. Her recent series, Dendromagus, talks about different body types. It also draws a metaphor, using plants, for the stages women go through—blooming, growing, withering away, becoming one with the soil and then re-emerging from earth.

Alia Sinha, another illustrator, follows her stream of consciousness while creating work. A lot of her works focus on mental health, such as those done for the organization SAMA. “It was based on a report created through interviews with women in the age group of 18-30 and how caste, gender and religion have an impact on the mental well-being of women,” she says.

When one sees the works from all the series in totality, one realises that the issues from six years ago are not that different from today. “Students’ deaths by suicide or violence against women are still major issues. In fact, when I look back at my drawings, I realise we are now witnessing an escalated version of things,” says Saraf. While plans to hold a physical exhibition are on hold, she is posting older works as well to create an archive of the times.

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What appeals perhaps is the universality of the ideas, and the deeply personal and intimate approach to the political.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    18.10.2020 | 11:00 AM IST

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