sbcltr speaks to Nimisha Bhanot. The artist behind the
Badass Indian Pinups series
Cheeky pictures that show Indian women as they ought to be–confident, sexually liberated and in-charge of themselves have been breaking the internet for the last few days. This is art made by Nimisha Bhanot, a twenty-seven-year-old Toronto based artist who has given her own spin to the stereotypical Indian phrase“acchi ladki” (good girl) and all the expectations that come with it. Her series, Badass Indian Pinups, Badass Brides and Badass Bahus explores the idea of the unreal expectations of conformity that are expected out of Indian women even today. Interestingly, the idea for the first series came to Bhanot in 2012, after the 16th December bus gang-rape in New Delhi. “I was working on my undergraduate thesis at Ontario College of Art and Design and decided to change my thesis mid-year so that I could create work that was closer to home. All I kept thinking is damn, that could have been me. Jyoti Singh’s rape was the first time I had ever seen news like that about India go viral all over the world and I think this in turn changed the way I looked at myself as a South Asian woman and as an artist,” she says.
Bhanot who grew up in Toronto was always interested in art, although she did not want to pursue it as a career option. “But it was constantly creeping into my life,” she says. Her reservations about art came from the lack of guaranteed stability in the field. She even went to the point of trying to pursue a BSc but found herself hating every semester, “I wanted to love what I was learning like my peers. It took me 3 semesters into a BSc to tell my parents I had changed my mind but I feel that even they knew that Art was the better choice for me.” It was only when she did take this very personal plunge of wanting a certain kind of life and taking a risk for it, did she find her voice, she says. It was a very personal process in which she finally started to stand for what would make her happy.
As an Indo-North American woman, her biggest challenge, she says, has been finding a balance between her South Asian identity and the North American culture that she lives through every day. In 2012, when RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat commented that “Bharat’ had become ‘India’ due to western influences and this was the reason for a rise in gang-rapes, Bhanot got “sincerely pissed off”. This was when she started reflecting on her identity and it became the overarching theme of the majority of her work. “How do you pick and choose? Who is to say which way of living is better than the other? Some feel empowered by things that make me feel constrained. Some people feel constrained by the things that make me feel empowered. This is what my work is about. We all have the right to create and express our identities as we see fit.”
A lot in Indian culture rests on women. Like any patriarchal society, the lives of women are mostly dominated by a set of do’s and don’ts. In the middle of such strict policing, if one finds women unapologetically living life on their own terms, inspiration strikes. “My inspiration comes from all the strong women in life. I’m passionate about art and more broadly, freedom to creative expression. I think that there are many barriers against people of colour and I want to see more art by people of colour in the biggest galleries in the world,” she says.
Although stylistically her Badass Indian Pinups are appropriations of vintage pinup art from the 40s and 50s and are rendered with similar brush handling. While her Bahus and Brides follows a style that is very different. “The skin is painted realistically while hair, mehendi, tattoos, clothing, jewelry and background motif are handled loosely to provide evidence of a painterly touch. The end result is an art piece that dances the line between a painting and a photograph, “ she says. They are bad ass because they have a gaze, the concept of female gaze is often absent in Indian art. “They’re look back at their viewer. This gaze maximises the subject’s confidence,” she says, “that is what my art is all about.” Contextually and technically she is inspired by artists such as Sarah Maple, Kehinde Wiley, Divya Mehra, Raja Ravi Varma, Gil Elvgren and Jackson Pollock just to name a few.
She is currently working on a series that will explore body image and complexion and also works on digital collages. For instance her latest one called, International Women’s Day Headlines uses headlines, ads and cut outs to express the complexity of India’s rapidly changing feminist movement. “Content used discusses cultural stigmas surrounding women buying themselves contraceptives, watching porn and the overall negative perception surrounding the secret sex life of the Indian woman. Cut-outs of news like the rape of a girl by a school magician (aided by her teacher) and the incident of a 14 year old girl being harassed by a drunken NRI on a flight are put juxtaposed against news that highlight progression in India’s handling of women’s issues.”
The key to Bhanot’s success she believes has been her support, most of which she credits to her sister. Her advice to artists is what her sister tells her often, “if you let what other people think of you control how you look at yourself, you will never give yourself the chance you deserve to follow your dreams.” Bhanot is dreaming of a show in India right now and is currently looking for ways to get into some galleries. In the meantime, she’s happy to “Sweep Patriarchy Under the Rug”
You can follow her work here