Queer Tamil Artist Ira Unveils Her Bold Divine Feminine Paintings For Us
- IWB Post
- June 3, 2019
I’m always interested in art that gets censored or destroyed. New York-based Ayirani Balachanthiran, a.k.a Ira, is known for creating such art. This visual artist caught my attention when I saw her painting canvases with women of colour, Hindu Goddesses, and LGBTQ+ inspired themes. Clearly, she isn’t everyone’s favourite.
Ira started drawing everything that she couldn’t find in museums. Today, in spite of the opposition she faces from her parents who don’t find her artwork serious enough and keep wiping it out from the house, she’s been able to fetch the love of an audience that admires her.
186 Likes, 5 Comments – ira☆彡 (@ira.draws) on Instagram: “👹 #watercolor #missiongold #southasianart”
I couldn’t resist myself from featuring this talented artist, who is also proudly gay, on the blog. Find the excerpts from the chat I had with her recently about things like the hairy Frida Kahlo she met in high-school and the significance of sketching flowers and golden jewellery around dark-skinned women.
Introduce yourself to our readers.
I currently live on Long Island but I was born and raised in the Bronx. My father is from Jaffna and my mother is from Kokuvil (both these places are in Sri Lanka). From a young age, my parents worked hard to make sure my siblings and I were immersed in our culture. Both my parents are devout Hindus and I spent a great deal of my life attending classes at a Temple Pathsala (classroom) which included Bhajan (prayer songs), Bharatanatyam (a classical dance form), Tamil reading & writing, Religious studies, and SAT prep. I feel most strongly attached to my Hindu roots and enjoy letting that show in my art. I got my bachelors degree in health science last year and since then I have been saving up money for graduate school and working on my art career.
What inspires you about your country of origin?
Most of my family left Sri Lanka except for my paternal great-grandaunt who now lives in Jaffna. I haven’t been to Sri Lanka but I have visited family members around the world. Only my nuclear family lives in America while the rest of my family live in Canada, U.K., and Germany. I don’t see my cousins often but I have a lot of love for them. I have always wanted to travel to India and Sri Lanka to visit temples but I haven’t had the financial resources to do so.
How do you describe your art?
If I had to narrow down my art to a couple of themes, it would probably be divine feminine power, flowers, women of colour, and love. I want to portray images of women that I needed my entire life. I never got to see beautiful paintings of dark-skinned women, much fewer depictions of women of colour in love. I’ve grown up with a lot of Bollywood influences and as much as I love the glamour and the jewellery, many of the themes are extremely problematic in relation to women. There are so many different types of beauty and I want to celebrate that.
What medium/gadgets do you use to paint/illustrate?
My main medium is digital art, but I also really love to do oil paintings and watercolours. There’s something magical about working on a large oil painting for months and seeing it completed with so many layers. It is an expensive medium though so I tend to work more often with digital or watercolours since they are more cost-efficient. In the past few months, I have taught myself to work with blender to create 3-D models such as little characters or objects and that’s been really fun. I hope to expand on that and possibly create little goddesses for 3-D printing eventually.
Are you a freelance artist? Where do you sell/exhibit your work?
I currently work part-time and do freelance work on the side. I hope that one day I can focus more of my energy on art, but for now, I have an online shop with prints & stickers! I recently got in contact with a1Bazaar on Instagram and will be selling my artwork at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in Manhattan. a1Bazaar is a company which supports queer, diasporic artists & small businesses by curating “Bazaars” for us to exhibit and sell our artwork. This will be my first time featuring personal artwork in a public space and I’m extremely excited. I feel honoured to be able to sell my artwork along with other amazing queer brown artists in the same space. I plan to sell with a1Bazaar again in July so that’ll be another opportunity to showcase some new prints I’ve been working on. I feel grateful to have access to these spaces since it allows me to share my artwork in person and feel that shared energy.
214 Likes, 1 Comments – ira☆彡 (@ira.draws) on Instagram: “Protective mother goddess #watercolor #southasianart #shaktism #mijellomissiongold”
You mostly draw women, am I right?
A majority of my artwork features women and I definitely want to continue focusing on women of colour but I have painted other queer-identifying individuals in the past, as well. Many of the women I’ve painted are influenced by the women I personally look up to, who have shown infinite strength and endurance in the face of ignorance.
Would you like to talk about a couple of them?
My friend Olivia is one of my main muses; she is such a stunning individual and every time I speak to her I feel energized. I learned a lot about watercolours, gardening, and what it means to be a lesbian of colour from her. I’m also currently working on an oil painting of my dear friend Anju, who is another queer Tamil femme whose poetry and photography continually inspire me. These women give me the motivation to work on my own personal growth. I feel that beauty is so much more than physical appearance alone. It’s in the way you talk, you carry yourself, and how you interact with others. This kind of confidence paired with softness in such a harsh world is what I consider to be the essence of beauty.
152 Likes, 1 Comments – ira☆彡 (@ira.draws) on Instagram: “⚱️🏺🌴 #oilpainting #southasianart”
Have you ever faced hatred for drawing Indian Goddess in such a bold manner?
I have actually been very fortunate in my social media experiences and have had nothing but enthusiasm and support for my artwork. My experience at home has been the opposite however; my mom tells me on a regular basis how much she disapproves of my work and has ruined some of my artworks in the past. One day I came home and this giant painting of Kali I was working on was gone. I thought, oh no it’s probably destroyed! Although, it was just a portrait so I was really confused as to how it would offend my mom. Thankfully, I found it later. I believe my mom moved it because she was afraid of the energy from it possibly? I personally respect and devote a lot of my attention to Kali because she represents fear of women. The idea of this giant woman taking up space, being fearsome, angry, dark, and unkempt is really appealing to me. I spent the majority of my childhood being forced to diet and to use fairness and bleaching creams so I could grow up to be a “good bride” one day. I want to be able to take up space, to be dark, to let my body be unpoliced and just exist. Brown women don’t have to be quiet, subdued, pretty consorts. We can have power like Kali, to have the right to express our emotions, be loud and autonomous. I want all the women who have been silenced in the past to reclaim their bodies, their voices and find independence.
And how supportive is your family when it’s about your career choice?
I have been drawing since I was a child and have always found creating artwork the best way to express myself when I have no voice. My parents are extremely against my artwork and have trashed my sketchbooks and work several times in the past since they see it as a waste of time. I haven’t let that stop me from continually creating though since it’s integral to my identity.
Your art also celebrates brown women in the most stunning manner. Has it got anything to do with the racism that South-East Asians face in the West? Share your personal experience.
I am always impressed with how awesome and talented the brown (baddie) community is. Prior to joining Instagram, the only celebration of brown women’s beauty I had seen was through Bollywood, which was a very limited depiction. I was so happy to see these people be unapologetically beautiful. Growing up in a western society, I had to deal with a lot of internalized racism and ideas regarding how my body should be. As a child and young teenager, I felt dirty, dark, and hairy. I wanted to change my entire appearance and couldn’t deal with my body dysmorphia. I was so sure girls weren’t supposed to look like me and I was also very confused about my sexuality.
Rip all the paintings I gave up on, maybe ill revisit you one day when I’m ready #southasianart #oilpainting #sapphicart
146 Likes, 5 Comments – ira☆彡 (@ira.draws) on Instagram: “Rip all the paintings I gave up on, maybe ill revisit you one day when I’m ready #southasianart…”
Over the years, I’ve learned so much and have had many wonderful role models support my personal growth regarding my body image. Representation is so important. I had encouragement from my friends, but seeing images of women like me online, on TV shows, and even in magazines helped so much. I read a lot too. Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience was really helpful in understanding my experiences. The stories shared in this anthology helped me feel less alone in my struggle. It’s difficult to be a part of both your own culture and American culture when it often feels like the two are like water and oil.
Women surrounded by flowers – are you a fan of Frida Kahlo?
Yes! I have definitely drawn inspiration from Frida, among many other amazing painters. I first learned about Frida Kahlo in eleventh-grade Spanish class in high school. My teacher was doing a presentation on her life and explained the difficulties she endured. When slides came on with images of her, all the boys in my class yelled and said “eww.” I remember feeling shocked because minutes ago we had just heard Frida was in a terrible accident and she worked on art while healing. Although I understand we were all immature teenagers, the dehumanization and lack of empathy for this woman because of her facial hair left me feeling numb. At the time I thought, I guess it doesn’t matter what women do. All that’s important is how we look. I love everything that she stood for and have learned about many other talented artists since then.
Amrita Sher-Gil, Klimt, Abanindranath Tagore, and Jamini Roy are a few of my classic influences. I would have to say I always integrate flowers and golden jewellery into my art because of paintings of gods & goddesses I’ve looked at growing up. My household has had a lot of paintings of the gods and since I was little, I have always found them to be extremely beautiful. These depictions of gorgeous, ornately decorated, androgynous figures standing in giant lotus flowers, holding assortments of weapons and accompanied by mystical animals fascinated me.
Would you like to share your story of coming out?
I didn’t really acknowledge my sexuality until I was a sophomore in college which was around 2015. I came out to my best friend around that time and my younger sister a year later. I had experiences with both men and women and identifying as a lesbian felt the most comfortable. Since then, I came out to my older sister and have basically been out to everyone except my parents. It’s a weird situation but in my family, we don’t discuss sexuality. It’s just assumed that when you are of age, you will just get married and that’s it. I don’t know if my parents really understand what being gay means or that gay people really exist and, honestly, I’m afraid to ask.
Since graduation, my parents have been communicating with marriage brokers and trying to get me to talk to bachelors. It’s impossible to have a conversation with them about my own dreams since they really believe arranged marriage is the most success a girl can have in life, regardless of the career. I hope that I can distance myself from them and repair our relationship one day. My friends and many people on social media have been so supportive of my journey and I really appreciate all the love I’ve received so far!
(Pictures are Ira’s own)
First published on Jun 19, 2018.