Badass Indian pin-ups: Art that challenges what an Indian woman looks like
The battle against sexism has evolved and it rages on, but we must say, it’s never looked as good as it has in the form of these Indian pin-ups!
The world, and India, has come a long way in terms of accepting the idea of ‘bold women’. Feminism in the times of Emma Watson, Kangana Ranaut, Taapsee Pannu and Swara Bhaskar constantly reminds us that women won’t just be silent receivers of societal judgment. The battle against sexism has evolved and it rages on, but we must say, it’s never looked as good as it has in the form of these Indian pin-ups!
Canadian visual artist Nimisha Bhanot has been challenging the way South Asian women are perceived through her ‘Badass Indian pin-up’ series. Bhanot artfully juxtaposes traditional and cultural signifiers against sexually liberated composition to challenge patriarchal expectations of women. While her series is focused on Indian women, the artwork aims at striking a chord with people across the globe. “All women worldwide, including trans individuals, femmes and non-gender conforming people, should not be judged or live in fear for living their lives on their terms and should not have to be held up to the impossible standards of a hetero-patriarchal society.” She also wishes to open up the conversation about gender identity and make it more inclusive, “There is no one right way to be Indian, Pakistani, Bengali, Canadian, man, woman, queer or transperson — we all experience life through different lenses so why should we be expected to follow the same rules?” she asserts.
The birth of Bhanot’s bold artwork also came at a time when the dialogue about women’s struggles was at its peak. It was around the time of the 2012 Delhi gang rape case that Bhanot knew that it was about time that her art challenge the male gaze. She recollects how deeply this atrocity had an impact on her, “The gang rape of Jyoti Singh on 16 December, 2012 really shook me. She was my age, just coming back from watching a movie with a male friend and just as she should she assumed that she would be safe travelling at night in 2012. In 2012 I was in my final year at Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University finishing my undergraduate thesis and I put in a lot of long hours at the studio. I was fortunate enough to have the support of my parents — I barely worked, I would stay until the studio closed at 1 am and I could safely cross the street, get into my car and go home. But what if I was living in India, what if that was me?”
It was about this time that Bhanot had completed the first painting of her series, albeit with a lot of hesitation on how it would be received. “Just a few days before hearing of her rape, I brought home a self-portrait I did that semester of myself as a Badass Bride, smoking a cigar in a white lengha and my parents were furious. I spent 3 years of my degree making safe living room art and it wasn't good enough for me so I experimented with the Badass Bride because I had wanted to paint it for so long but never had the courage to. The timing of my parents' reaction to the painting, and hearing about Jyoti's rape set off an alarm in my head - I absolutely had to change my thesis mid-year. I finally created something that made me feel good, where I knew I was standing up to the patriarchy that I witnessed my whole life and I did not want to go back, so I haven't!"
The victim blaming and warped narrative during this case is what drove Bhanot to pursue her series further, "It really frustrated me because patriarchy and this subservient, docile role are both part of the perception of the South Asian woman and I wanted to talk back to that. So I changed my thesis mid year so I could continue working on the female gaze. The gaze gives the subject a lot of power and that's what I think we need to see more of."
Advocating for women’s rights through her art was one of the many hurdles that came in Bhanot’s way while expressing her opinion; the pin-up series was a matter of cultural identity too. “Being Indo-Canadian, I struggled with trying to find a place between both identities, as many feel in the Indian diaspora and I often found myself feeling guilty for divulging in one aspect of my identity and denying the other,” she admitted. “I felt liberated wearing short shorts but it made me feel less Indian, because being sexy, feeling sexy makes you 'un-Indian'. But at the same time I felt uncomfortable going to the mall in a Punjabi suit after visiting the mandir because I didn't want to stand out. I had to teach myself that it's okay to live my life on my terms, to fluctuate between the two and that people's opinions don't matter.”
At a time when the issues of immigration and national identity are being put to the test, Bhanot feels that the world must embrace multiculturalism. “Too many people live in fear of violence, bullying, losing their jobs, not getting hired for jobs simply because they embrace both aspects of their dichotomous identity and that's tragic, it should never be that way.”
Her reason for choosing the art style of pin-ups also revolves around this discourse, “I always loved pinup art growing up but could never see myself in it because all the women were white. I wonder how I would have felt about wearing short-shorts if there was representation of sexually liberated, confident women of colour in the art that I so admired - so I decided to create it.” For Bhanot, the pin-ups are also a way of transposing the idea of cultural appropriation, “Growing up as a North American I saw motif, design, themes, materials, jewellery etc. from our culture being appropriated by white women that had no acknowledgement for the history of violence that was inflicted on our people. It was almost painful to watch them wear bindis and tikkas during music festivals and get away with it. So I decided to channel the pinup not only to challenge patriarchal expectations of the sexually liberated South Asian woman, to reflect common North American women of modern diaspora, but to talk back to the increasing fetisization of Indo-Chic in fashion today by showing real South Asian women owning both.”
In terms of how the art is being received, especially online, Bhanot loves how social media is being used as a platform for activism and protest, “When one person encounters an idea that makes them pause, it forces them to think. When people think about what they're looking at they will most likely share that idea with someone else and this is how you create change. I think the discourse has changed to become intersectional and thus more inclusive of all groups in feminism. An example of this would be Dr Tanya Rawal of Saree Not Sorry who modelled for my painting Bharti and The Cheeseburger. She is a professor at California State University Riverside and wears a saree to teach at the university every day. She created this project and started sharing it online and has now created a platform where women from all over the world can share their pride for South Asian fashion and incite discussion on issues surrounding identity and diaspora.”
Bhanot is no stranger to negative feedback, but it doesn’t bog her down. For her, it’s the evolution of the conversation that matters, “I love juxtaposition and I enjoy the shock factor in my work because it makes people think, then gets them to talk and share. I believe that my art could change the world one day so I deliberately stage paintings that will get people talking. It doesn't matter if they're saying good things or bad things - they are thinking and sharing and that's all I ask for.” Bhanot hopes that the conversations particularly scrutinises the traditional perspective of what it is to be an ‘Indian woman’, adding that, “Sometimes I assess my ideas and think what aunties would say if they saw this? If it looks like trouble according to the heteropatriarchal South Asian lens I will work with it because perception changes everything and art is a language that anyone can understand.”
Bhanot hopes to include the trans community in her art series as well. She recently worked with South Asian artists Vivek Shraya and Alok Vaid-Menon, who happen to be powerful voices in the trans community for people of colour. “I think it's important to give them (the LGBTQ+ community) the same voice, the same representation, the same platform to be honoured, idolized and immortalized,” Bhanot states about new series.
She also plans on a plus sized pinup and will be releasing them soon this year. The growing confidence and accessibility in feminist discourse is exactly what Bhanot looking forward to, and she can’t wait to see how the conversation moves forward, “I think our women are bolder, more outspoken and now we really have the tools to make a difference - I am very excited to be part of this movement and to live to watch it as it grows.”
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