On Being A South Asian Woman

It can be said that art imitates life, but that hasn’t always been true. Not for everyone. Nidhi Chanani, Anu Chouhan, and Manal Mirza rarely saw South Asian women like themselves in art, so they set out to change that.

Nidhi Chanani is a freelance illustrator, graphic novelist, and writer based in San Francisco, California. From the beginning of her career, her aim has been to create artwork featuring people who aren’t seen in art very often, particularly South Asian women and girls like herself. Chanani’s short comics, digital paintings, and graphic novels achieve this and more, telling stories by drawing on the personal and experiences of her community. “The Good Fight” is a visual representation of how she sees her art and its purpose. Cornered by black scribbles, a woman releases a rainbow from her drawing and painting tools. These messy black scribbles set starkly against the white background are an antithesis of Chanani’s art. Her art is moving, colourful, cartoony, and harmonious, softened by mellow lightings. It keeps the darkness at bay.

The Good Fight, Nidhi Chanani

Chanani’s art also seeks to celebrate everyday moments. Her style, which can be described as cute, is akin to the type of illustrations you might expect to see in a children’s book. This suits her loving portrayal of everyday moments, she has said that: “In a society that is inundated with attention diverting content I wanted to remind myself and others of the beauty and love in front of us.” Her illustration “Generations”, reminds of familial love. It depicts three generations of women. These are women who look like Chanani herself and they are doing each other’s hair, a mundane action, and Chanani’s use of warm colours and placement of her subjects oldest to youngest indicates a cyclical quality, invoking the circle of life. This is both personal, unique to Chanani, and something that everyone- regardless of skin colour- experiences and can emphasise.

Generations, Nidhi Chanani

As a graphic novelist, the story is a vital element for Chanani and while there isn’t much detail in the illustration and colour, it is clear what story Chanani wants to tell viewers in her piece “What I Can Be”. It is a story of hope. This artwork is a reaction to a recent event that gave many Americans like her a much-needed boost of optimism after Donald Trump’s four years in office: the election of the country’s first African American and Asian-American Vice President, Kamala Harris. In “What I Can Be,” a young girl of colour looks in the mirror, dressed in a pink dress and white coat, which is reminiscent of the white pantsuit Harris was wearing when she gave her acceptance speech. The white, associated with the women’s suffrage movement and peace, contrasts with the girlish pink. The composition with the girl smack right in the centre, her determined expression and the spotlight on her leaves little doubt about who this piece is about and suggests a world of possibilities for her.

Portrait of Mai Bhago, Anu Chouhan

Anu Chouhan is an Indian-Canadian illustrator and animator. Similarly to Chanani, she is passionate about illustrating South Asian characters and for girls to feel empowered by her art, with which she challenges societal norms and cultural expectations. Her detailed portraits are inspired by Indian fashion, mythology and architecture, the history of Punjab (where her family is from) and Bollywood movies. Chouhan is particularly known for her reimaginings of pop culture icons like Sailor Moon, Wonder Woman, and Princess Zelda as women of colour. She remembers wanting to cosplay as Princess Zelda for a local anime convention when she was a girl but eventually backing out. She couldn’t quite see herself, a brown girl, dressed as a white elf princess. Her rendition of Princess Zelda reimagines The Legend of Zelda game as an ancient Indian epic. Chouhan’s style, like Chanani’s, is cartoony but more realistic when it comes to the outfits her characters wear, which she is meticulous about. For this and other illustrations of Princess Zelda, Chouhan examined the character’s previous outfits throughout the games and current Indian fashion trends to create her final results.

Princess Zelda, Anu Chouhan

History is another of Chouhan’s passions and she has created portraits of South Asian female historical figures and to help tell their stories. She drew her portrait of Sikh soldier Mai Bhago, who had an important role in the Sikh’s fight for freedom from the Mughal Empire, for Sikh history month. Chouhan has cited storybook illustrations as inspiration and this portrait resembles one. The colour scheme is relatively simple, being predominantly composed of purples, blues and yellows. Bhago is surrounded by yellow flowers and her outfit is slightly less complex than Chouhan’s usual costuming, and she holds a sword. A lot of Chouhan’s work features brown women with swords, and portraying previously invisible women as strong and with the agency is a recurring theme in her work. Her historical work not only empowers other South Asian young women but also encourages them to learn more about and celebrate their culture.

Vogue Covers, Anu Chouchan

Chouhan goes further in her advocacy for other women of colour. In June, she joined the Vogue Challenge, which was a response to the lack of diversity on the magazine’s covers and behind-the-scenes. The models in her covers are South Asian women of different skin tones she’d drawn previously. She used these to tackle colourism, a form of bias based on skin colour usually among those of the same racial group or ethnicity prevalent in Asian cultures among others. Diversity is something Chouhan believes should be celebrated, not suppressed.

We the People, Manal Mirza

Manal Mirza is a Pakistani-American illustrator and designer based in Chicago, Illinois. Mirza’s work has previously described art as an integral part of who she is and a way for her to process her emotions. This is evident in her colourful and candid illustrations, which like Chanani and Chouhan, seek to empower women and depict her experiences as a South Asian woman but Mirza’s art isn’t as much about the external world as it is about her internal thoughts. She has said: “All women have thoughts. We go through things all the time, but what we think is not always shown.” Chanani and Chouhan’s art deals with holding a mirror to reality. South Asian women exist, and they reflect that, be it through the every day, comics, or reimagining pop culture characters and raising awareness of historical figures. Mirza has thoughts on her experience of being a South Asian woman and translates them unto paper.

I Am A Rich Man, Manal Mirza

Something Mirza has thoughts about is marriage. In many cultures, marriage is still perceived as the most important event in a woman’s life and even if it isn’t, it’s a huge deal. Expectations are plentiful. In “I Am A Rich Man”, Mirza puts an unapologetic twist on one such expectation: that the man is rich. As seen in the captions, someone tries to convince the subject of the piece to meet a man, doesn’t she want to marry a rich man? To which the subject bluntly answers that she herself is a rich man. As seen in this piece, Mirza’s style is more realistic than Chouhan and Chanani’s. It is rich in intricate patterns and earthy tones, especially pinks and browns. Mirza looks to miniature paintings and Mughal art for inspiration and her work is often accompanied by satirical captions that evoke American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein's work.

An Opinion: My Religion is not Entertainment, Manal Mirza

Mirza has recently started to utilise her work to explore what being a South Asian Muslim woman means for her personally. Emphasis on personally. However, Mirza, who is Muslim, can’t always avoid politics seeping into her art. She said in an interview that, “It’s hard to not be involved or not affected by it [politics]. Maybe that represents other Muslims and how they feel, but that’s not really why I’m doing it. I’m doing it for myself and my frustration.” In the case of her piece “An Opinion: My Religion is not Entertainment,” she was frustrated by the state-sanctioned surveillance of Muslims in France by President Emmanuel Macron following the decapitation of a teacher after he showed students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in class. When frustrated by news stories like these, some people journal, others scream. Creating art in response is Mirza’s way of dealing with it and is like therapy for her, Mirza has said.

Growing up, Nidhi Chanani, Anu Chouhan, and Manal Mirza rarely saw South Asian women and girls in art. They are working to change that but in a world that is increasingly hostile against Asians, their work has taken on a different kind of importance. With vibrant colour palettes, diverse character designs, and clever and thoughtful social commentaries, they work to keep the hate away.

Follow Nidhi, Anu, and Manal at @nidhiart, @anumation, and @_manal_mirza_.