For those who haven’t heard of Nimisha Bhanot, Nimisha is an Indo-Canadian artist whose work “critiques the societal role and perception of South Asian women from a bicultural lens.” At a time where we are facing the consequences of what many are calling a “feminist backlash” (see Susan Faludi if you haven’t heard of the term before,and because she’s genuinely badass), any art of resistance is important to support and talk about. It is also amazing to see that women are not taking the consequences of 2016 lying down, and 2017 has seen a surge in political activism. Part of that activism is about the importance of letting women be seen, and shown.
We need to see the faces of all women (and not the privileged few). Hear their voices. Feel their pain and their happiness. Basically, we need to realize that all women have emotions, but they are also more than them at the same time. Nimisha’s art does exactly that while giving her women a gaze that would make Mulvey proud, something which is particularly present in the two series of paintings she initially gained fame for: “Badass Brides” and “Badass Indian Pinups.”
I am lucky that I actually managed to have the pleasure of meeting Nimisha in London recently. I started by asking about one of her latest paintings, “The Shameless Menstruating Goddess,” (top) a painting she has “wanted to do for a very long time.” The painting was always something Nimisha wanted to paint because of all the “different cultural practices around menstrual shame” she heard growing up. Ever since she was young, Nimisha told me she would go to the temple. However, “when you’re on your period, you’re supposed to worship from far away. Whereas, normally in our ceremonies, you’re supposed to touch the god’s feet and participate in the prayer. When you’re on your period you’re not allowed to touch anything.”
She also told me this was especially confusing considering her religion worships a female goddess, so found herself asking herself questions like, “so does God get a period?”
However, for now, let’s go back to the work that started it all, which was from the collection “Badass Brides,” and is entitled “OG Badass Bride” and is of Nimisha herself smoking a cigar. After that painting came the painting “Bad Ass Cop” (2012, oil on canvas, 36×48 inches), painted while Nimisha was still at university, along with the painting “Bride.” Nimisha told me that those paintings were for her graduate exhibition, and became a series, which she created 3 more paintings for and became, “Badass Brides.”
After that, came the other series that Nimisha is perhaps most known for “Badass Indian Pinups.” Originally, the pinups were intended as a break for Nimisha, as she said, “doing photo realistic paintings is…straining.” The pinups in comparison were “a little bit more cartoony, a little more illustrative looking.” However, what started out as something that was to give her a break became something she ended up “really liking,” and it was something that other people reacted strongly to, and “really like it too.” Now, Nimisha says she just does them for fun. She will, though, be “continuing the style of working from photographs” with her larger work.
What is particularly striking about both Nimisha’s “Badass Brides” and “Badass Indian Pinups” collection is that they show Indian women taking part in things that would be considered taboo. Nimisha told me, “Indian girls will never smoke a cigarette outside in public and they won’t drink boldly in front of everyone… at family weddings.” While they do still engage in behaviors like smoking and drinking, it is something they will “always hide.” They are also “discouraged from talking back and looking back so my girls look back.” As well as “talking back.” It is the title that does the talking back, as “It’s meant to confront those people that stare and scrutinize.” It for that reason that Nimisha focuses so much on the gaze in her paintings. Something she continued for her “Badass Bahus” series.
What Nimisha is also clear on is that the poses you see “are not sexualized for the male gaze. These are just women in their everyday life.” What is different is that “they’re looking directly at the viewer.” The purpose of which is to make “you assess your own…limitations.” They make you think why are you looking at these women like that because there is someone there “looking right back.”
This gaze, then, as Nimisha describes it, is nothing if not “very confident.” These women know they are “being judged,” however, they “don’t give a fuck.”
Her pin-up art is also about showcasing South Asian women, as although pin-up art has spread all around the world, you rarely if ever see “a woman of color in those paintings.” Therefore, Nimisha thought, “It’d be really good to create work that is more reflective of the North American woman who is not just a white woman with blonde hair.”
It’s important as well that she shows these women wearing the Bindi and tattoos, and therefore, “appropriating this staple American art and showing brown women wearing henna…our jewelry, but also wearing Western clothing like jeans.”
Nimisha stressed that this is significant in particular because of the cultural appropriation that is happening in the US especially; where Western fashion fetishizes Indian culture into what Nimisha refers to as “Indo-chic”; something that she feels has gained particular popularity at places like Coachella.
After all, festivals, especially Coachella, have now become synonymous with celebrities, such as Kendall and Kylie Jenner and Vanessa Hudgens famously appropriating the Bindi. Selena Gomez also received criticism for wearing a Bindi during her performance of “Come and Get It” at her MTV Music Award performance, a move that was widely criticized by Hindu leaders.
Nimisha’s art, then, “is a talk back to that culture of appropriation. No, you can’t just take these things that our community has faced violence for wearing…and make into some kind of fashion statement, and not have to bear or remember…all of the pain that came with the history of that.”
Cultural appropriation, like many subjects, has become something of a sticky wicket nowadays, as many are criticized for it bringing up, even when the criticism is just. Much like how calling yourself a “feminist” still is treated within society. One of my defining moments of understanding how feminism is still treated was when a friend of mine told me that they were not a feminist because they believed in equal rights for both men and women. It upset me that feminism had become linked with solely promoting some sort of man-hating, misandry agenda, even though, for most people who define themselves as feminists, that is not the case (of course, there is always exceptions to the rule, but feminists have become defined by the exceptions rather than the majority).
Nimisha, however, is a “loud and proud feminist.” She actually was shocked when I asked her, telling me that “no one’s ever asked me flat out” before, “because the work is quite self-explanatory.” She totally believes that feminism is about “letting people live their lives how the want to and giving people a choice.”
This is, of course, self-evident in her pinup series. It is the women in the paintings choice how they dress or act, which is why the paintings are so deliberately provocative. They’re shouting out to stop forcing women into one box.
You’d think by now this would be just common sense, but the recent criticism that Emma Watson faced over her “topless” photoshoot for Vanity Fair shows that it is still not. Something which Nimisha understandably thought was ridiculous and said Emma Watson could “do a full nude photoshoot” if she wanted to and it still wouldn’t “make her any less of a feminist”.
“For so long patriarchy has told us no, this is the right way and this is the wrong way but feminism is about understanding that we all have a choice,” she says.
Nimisha is also passionate about celebrating the in-between zone, especially in light of her bi-cultural heritage. She said that being a 1st or 2nd generation woman living in North America is not easy when you “go home to your Indian life,” but then when you go outside, to school and to work, you “participate in something else.” She describes herself and these women as occupying the spaces in-between: “We always live in between. Some days we’re a little bit more Indian, some days we’re a little bit more North American, and it’s never the same every day and there’s no way you can be too white or too brown, because it changes.” Her paintings then are about “celebrating that in-between.”
What then is next for Nimisha? She told me that at the moment she is “booking photoshoots with models because I’m planning my complexion and body image series. I’ve been talking about it non-stop for ages and now I’m actually going to be starting it.” This is something that she told me she has taken her time on because she wants it to “be different from a lot of the stuff I’ve seen already.” She also has her “fingers crossed for… a solo show outside of Toronto sometime this year.”
I, for one, am beyond excited to see what she is going to do next to smash the patriarchy and expectations of what a woman (especially women of color) are and can be.
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