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Khushboo Sharma

IWB Blogger

Indo-Canadian Artist Nimisha Bhanot On The Dynamics Of Women’s Sexuality And Power In Her Artwork

  • IWB Post
  •  August 7, 2018

With her Badass Indian Pinup, Indo-Canadian artist Nimisha Bhanot started a revolution that rippled through the art fraternity and put her at the centre of the gender debate.

Nimisha’s artwork explores a spectrum of concerns right from the socio-political standing of South Asian women and their portraiture in discourse to the South Asian diaspora and it’s LGBTQIA icons. Through her artwork, she also addresses more compelling issues like sexual suppression and yet the overly sexualised representation of the South Asian female figure. She does it all, impressively and rather effortlessly, in her trademark pin-up style.

In her work, you will find a strong vein of rebellion accentuated with caustic albeit playful sarcasm.

Bharti And The Cheeseburger (2016). Oil on canvas, 36x48 inches. Featuring Dr. Tanya Rawal of Saree Not Sorry.

Bharti And The Cheeseburger (2016). Oil on canvas, 36×48 inches. Featuring Dr. Tanya Rawal of Saree Not Sorry.

Her artwork gives you a sense of purgation as she frees the ever so culturally romanticised figure of the South Indian woman from the stereotypical fetters. She reveals to you the other side of the South Asian femininity. Her female figures are uninhibited, strong and unabashedly badass. Her art is characterised by the interplay of women’s sexuality and power, where the former actively becomes a source of empowerment and not repression (like it has always been in the South Asian cultures).

Here are excerpts from an interaction that I recently had with Nimisha:

How does adopting the pinup style liberate you as a woman artist?

I think it’s liberating to paint South Asian women in pinup style composition because it disrupts and challenges their traditional portrayal in South Asia and North America and becomes an expression of a bicultural identity which has not been represented enough in the art scene over here. They are powerful images and even more so because they aren’t enough created/documented by our community and culture, women who engage in such ‘taboos’ (aka just living their lives) are often swept under the rug and socially ostracized – but we’ve been here all along.

Your artwork has a lot of pop inflections. Can you help trace the timeline of the cultural period that influences you the most?

My pinup art shares an aesthetic with vintage pinup/comic art from the 40s-60s. However, I would like to think that my pieces which are photo-based follow a mix of a realist Baroque aesthetic – or at least I’m trying to make it look like so!

Married To My Career (2017). Oil on canvas, 30x48 inches.

Married To My Career (2017). Oil on canvas, 30×48 inches.

On that note, would you like to name women characters from pop culture or Indian history that inspire you and that you think need to be revisited by everyone?

I like artists that break the rules whether surrounding the way they practice, the materials they use or how they contextualise their work. I’ve always admired the work of Yayoi Kusama, Bharti Kher, Amrita Sher-Gil, Katharina Grosse, Divya Mehra, Sarah Maple and Cindy Sherman amongst others.

How do you juxtapose the dynamics of women’s sexuality and power in your artwork?

The gaze is powerful; it connects the subject and the viewer. I use the gaze and body language of the subject alongside the title of the piece to speak to the viewer by challenging their beliefs or belief systems they’ve come across. I also deliberately use traditional motifs that wouldn’t typically be seen alongside ‘taboo’ imagery to show juxtaposition between traditionalism and modernism.

Detail shot of Pammi The Pehlwaan (2017). Oil on canvas, 20x24 inches

Detail shot of Pammi The Pehlwaan (2017). Oil on canvas, 20×24 inches.

In one of your interviews, you talked about a period in your life when you did not feel ‘Indian enough.’ How did you channelise that conflict into your art? How are you exploring the themes of identity and individualism through your artwork?

I’ve come to accept that I will never fit the traditional mold of what a vast portion of the Indian community (or Bollywood) expects from women, and I’m quite proud of it. There’s no right or wrong way for anyone to exist, the only ‘right’ way for anyone is to exist in their own way – to live authentically. Living authentically for me means creating new traditions that marry my South Asian and Canadian heritage, sometimes presenting it in the way I dress and making it a real tangible thing when I paint. I channel this when I choose the model’s clothing or jewelry. Sometimes it’s communicated through the aesthetic of the work, the setting/background or maybe the title. There’s no concrete way to do it!

What would be that one reaction (good or bad) to your artwork from the patriarchal factions that makes you realize that you are striking the right chord?

My work is for women and femmes and when women with deeply internalized misogyny tell me that they are offended by my work, I know I’m hitting the right chord. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to upset other women, I’m just shining a light on women that have been ignored, misrepresented or labeled as ‘bad’ women because of how they live their truth. If you’re living your truth, there’s nothing to hate about someone living theirs.

As an artist, what aspect of the LGBTQIA community’s stories are you trying to narrate?

I want to portray them in positions of power, rewrite history to include them and also document members of the LGBTQIA community living their lives as they are today. I’m making a conscious effort to ensure all of my recent series include members of the LGBTQIA community because they deserve to see their identity and culture represented seamlessly. Seeing yourself represented in art, media, fashion, government etc., makes a huge impact on self-image, confidence and life goals/aspirations in general. Growing up I felt as a cis woman that I seldom saw representations of myself in mainstream media and art, but the numbers are even lower for queer South Asians and that’s absurd because they are here and just as deserving as everyone else.

Venus Shraya (2016). Oil on canvas, 36x48 inches. Featuring Vivek Shraya (Author, artist and musician)

Venus Shraya (2016). Oil on canvas, 36×48 inches. Featuring Vivek Shraya (Author, artist and musician)

More often than not, women are labeled ‘badass’ for simply doing things that men get a license to do sans any judgments. What are your thoughts on normalizing the whole narrative that has been built around the word ‘badass’.

I think it’s absurd that women are labeled ‘badass’ for living their lives because of patriarchal expectations that limit their perception and role in society. When I used the word ‘badass’ to name my series ‘Badass Indian Pinups’ and ‘Badass Bahus’, it was because these women are presenting iconography that is normalised in many parts of the world but is still terrifying to Desi aunties in South Asia and North America. This, in turn, communicates to the viewer (who may see nothing wrong with the way the subject is presented) that there is a dichotomy being presented or hidden in the painting – thus forcing the viewer to reassess the piece and think deeper into their own perceptions or perceptions they’ve encountered.

Picture and Artwork Courtesy: Nimisha Bhanot

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