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Identity

Meet The Desi Artist Who Tackles Skin Bleaching and Soap Operas

Pakistani-Canadian artist Maria Qamar is bringing the colorful idiosyncrasies of the South Asian diaspora onto Instagram and into the mainstream. Aunties better watch out.
April 4, 2016, 4:20pm
Images courtesy of Maria Qamar

There's a scene from an Indian soap opera where a newly wed girl gently asks her mother-in-law if she should make something simple, like a dessert, later that evening. What ensues would make you think she just had announced killing and cooking dozens of cute, fluffy animals for dinner.

As tabla drums echo in the background bringing suspense to the scenario, the camera hurriedly flicks from one family member to another, capturing their horrified reactions before the innocuous girl is scorned and runs to her room with mascara tears streaming down her perfectly contoured cheeks, humiliated, just for asking a simple question. Even basic tasks become spectacle in these programs.

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Such farcical moments are all too familiar for South Asians because soap opera "dramas," as they are known, are a big part of our culture. Around 8 PM in desi households, everything comes to a standstill while our parents watch Meenakshi overcome her amnesia and realize her mungala sutra (a gifted necklace for a Hindu bride) was given to her husband's new wife, who also happens to be her best friend.

Pakistani-Canadian artist Maria Qamar, 25, also known as Hatecopy, is bringing all of this to the mainstream. Now, after living away from her homeland for over 16 years and keeping her talents hidden from the world, she has a lot to say.

Qamar and her art.

Her pop artwork mirrors that of Roy Lichtenstein and has gained a large following among young people growing up in the South Asian diaspora. Posting her work on Instagram, she captures the hilarity and ridiculousness of desi life as told through the eyes of a modern brown girl.

The term desi comes from the Sanskrit word deshi, which translates into "land" or "country." In North American diasporas, it collectively refers to people originating from the Indian subcontinent.

There's a disparity, a disconnection of sorts, growing up in between desi and Western cultures—and Qamar deftly shows what it is like to be a person of color somewhere in the middle of the two. Her art depicts everything from cultural appropriation to gora ("white") boyfriends and skin whitening creams. She reflects on her own experiences, but Qamar has also managed to turn everyday references to "sassy desi culture" (as she calls it) into funny shit with mass appeal—and mad love for the aunties.

Read More: A Cultural History of White Girls Wearing Bindis

In desi culture, aunties are one of a kind. In Qamar's case, the ones she draws aren't related to her—they can be anything from family friends to wider members of the community, but they all share a common thread: Universally renowned for being nosy and in your face about marriage proposals, they often brag about their sons becoming doctors, comment on how dark your skin is, and love to gossip. (We have love-hate relationship with aunties.My own aunts have been lecturing me about the importance of cooking curry since I was 10, gossiped about my refusal to get married all the way from Pakistan, and insisted that I have children as soon as possible.)

When I ask Qamar how her career as an artist began, she tells me that it's all about the aunties and how dramatic they can be. After researching different artistic styles online, she attempted to draw something of her own, and, before she knew it, her doodling looked like, well, an auntie.

"I looked at a Lichtenstein piece online and started doodling on my notepad," Qamar recalls. "When I looked down at my paper, what I [had drawn] looked like an auntie. I thought it was hilarious." She laughs, remembering the first Instagram post she ever created, which was originally drawn on an old notebook she used for scribbles during meetings at work. She tells me that she mostly draws features she's subconsciously familiar with. "They're pretty much my features," she explains. Much of her art started off simply with a pen and paper, progressing into paintings, and then digital. This first auntie she drew had a curved nose, fuller lips, and thicker brows. "I wanted to add little jhumka earrings and a bindi and make her hair brown, [then I] just wrote 'I burnt the rotis,' because that's what an auntie would be saying, and published it on Instagram."

This amateur post changed everything. Qamar had just been laid off from her 9 to 5 "talking to Jim by the water cooler" job in advertising, and used her new found time to discover a hidden talent.

"I started doing more [drawings], and they were all on lined paper," she tells me of her early, experimental days. "For a while it was doodles—very casual. Then, people started asking—no, demanding—prints." Qamar says there was no way she could sell pieces of paper from her notebook for people to hang on their walls, so she used the growing demand as an opportunity to learn more. "I started painting my work, then moved onto digital, and then got an offer to do an exhibit and collaborate." Before she knew it, a year had passed and she still didn't have a full time job—nor did she need one. Her art was her job. "It just became a thing," she remarks.

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And what a thing it is. Now, Qamar is able to connect with other desi people all over, using her art as a unique form of inside joke. For example, the "salt in her chai" piece was inspired by a scene in a well-known Indian soap opera.

"My mum and I were watching this drama, and the family had a beef," she explains of the fight between a woman and her mother-in-law. "One of them put salt in the other's chai during tea time, and for the next twenty five minutes, I'm not even exaggerating, it was just camera zooms into their faces as the mother drank chai with extreme music [playing in the background]," she says. The scene is one I—and many other members of the South Asian diaspora—am familiar with.

While Qamar's work doesn't embody a single narrative, all of the images seem to have subtle messages behind them, implying a socially conscious agenda. The Uncle Pride artwork of two desi guys with bushy mustaches kissing clearly addresses the issue of homophobia in South Asian culture.

"My whole existence is behind one message which is, just grow the fuck up. It's 2016," she explains. "There's no reason for anybody, let alone desi dudes, to be homophobic. There's no reason for people who leave comments on that Instagram photo saying 'Oh my god, that's so gross.' How is that gross? I mean there's two ugly-ass uncles, I don't see how that's gross or offensive."

"Uncle Pride"

Skin bleaching is another subject Qamar frequently comments on. As can be seen in many cultures, prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone exists in the South Asian community. The effect of colonialism and implicit racism, this white-skin bias means that lighter skin has long been considered the standard of beauty within our diaspora, often achieved through the use of skin whitening products. This colorism is also the reason why many desi women use Fair & Lovely skin bleach as part of their beauty routine. Recently, however, this practice has faced a backlash. Women of color across the world started posting photos of themselves on social media with the hashtag #UnfairAndLovely to fight against the stigma surrounding dark skin.

"I feel strongly about people who put skin bleaching cream on their kids, because family members put Fair & Lovely on my face," Qamar explains. "I was always told the reason it was used was because it's 'good' for your skin. In reality, it's bleach. That's a huge no-no."

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Qamar's aversion to skin bleaching might imply that she's at ease with who she is, but that wasn't always the case.

The 25-year-old was born in the small town of Malir in Karachi, Pakistan, and moved to Canada when she was nine. It was a culture shock, she says, and whatever discrimination she experienced only got worse after 9/11. "Things started getting really bad for me in school. I would get bullied a lot, and people would call me a 'Paki' or 'terrorist,'" she recalls. At the time, Qamar had no idea the racism she faced in high school was linked to attacks that happened somewhere else. "I didn't realize why at the time, but, as an adult, I connected the dots."

Qamar says that she had never experienced this type of discrimination before coming to Canada. "In Pakistan, I didn't get bullied because of my skin color, as we were all brown." As a result of the bullying, she quickly eliminated her Pakistani accent and spoke English at home instead of Urdu or Hindi—her way of trying to blend in. "I guess part of it is just becoming a teenager, but there was that added layer of 'I have to wear what the white girls are wearing' because then people wouldn't look at me as something different," she says.

Qamar's parents emigrated to Canada so that her family could have better opportunities, and as is the case in many South Asian immigrant families, the pressure she felt to meet certain standards was high. Those "standards" didn't include being an artist, so, she got a degree in advertising, which meant a typical, parent-pleasing 9 to 5 job—one that she ultimately wasn't happy with it. She longed for more creativity.

Besides, she tells me, art was something Qamar used as a coping mechanism while growing up with racist abuse—and it always stuck with her. "A lot of my art originates from my experiences—it's something I personally know to be true," she tells me. "When I started doing this [work], I didn't think it was going to be so relatable. I didn't think it was that big a deal." She adds, "I didn't have a lot of desi friends, so I didn't grow up with that insight."

But it is "that big a deal." What started off as notebook doodles ended up as merchandise, collaborations, and is hitting the galleries. Her upcoming exhibit Don't Cry Over Spilt Chai, about more revenge plotting during tea time, is expected to showcase in New York and LA in the near future.

Most of Qamar's feedback has been positive. Comments on her Instagram page express gratitude from people of color who are happy to see an art form reaching out to them. It's probably because Qamar recognizes what's unique about desi culture that only we can appreciate. Becky passing the peas at dinner is a far cry from a loud Punjabi mother actually crying into the peas during, but we love—and are used to—the latter. "Drama is instilled in and central to our lives," Qamar affirms. "It's like, you find your mothers talking in dialogue—it's very dramatic, it's playful, and I love it. That's something that I find very alluring about Indian culture, it's very sassy like our food." And our aunties.

"We all have these weird tendencies to hold onto tradition," Qamar says, in a final note about our culture."We're all aunties at heart."