Through the intimate portrayal of South Indian women, using mediums such as photography and digital illustration, artist Ayqa Khan explores her identity as a first-generation Pakistani American. Khan challenges mainstream representation through the creation of her own narratives, replacing traditional standards of beauty with her own imagery.
Skillfully composed, Khan’s works seamlessly balance Desi culture with that of classic American iconography. While being informed by her many identities: Pakistani, American, and Muslim, her works deflect the mainstream gaze while bringing her audience into the personal lives of the women she portrays.
Khan gained initial praise and criticism when she debuted illustrated images of young women openly displaying the body hair they had consciously chosen not to remove. Of her critics, she explains to The Creators Project, “I think many people have a very similar story in regards to growing up with more body hair than their peers. Lots of teasing and ridicule lead to deep insecurities and identity complexes that have been carried on through most of their/my stages of development so far.”
It has been this bold and unapologetic approach that has made Khan the inspiration for many young women who resonate deeply with her images. Using her Tumblr and Instagram pages as tools to engage with her audience, Khan creates numerous digital spaces for young women to discuss the painful association and shame tied to their natural body hair.
“Social constructs are really tough to talk about because for the most part, everything can be linked to an opinion and what are opinions really? There isn’t much fact that goes into the making of social constructs but there is fact in [their] effects.”
Addressing societal standards of physical ideals, Khan creates images that her audience wants to engage with. Her subjects do not compromise on behalf of the viewer, and this is precisely what makes them so beautiful. Her recent photography work touches upon similar themes, creating the space for South Indian women to be represented on their own terms. Khan’s works celebrates the duality of her cultures—the beauty in being young and unsure, understanding personal history while maintaining an awareness of present culture. Her subjects are portrayed in an authentic light, allowing the audience a window into their vulnerabilities without inflicting a judgmental gaze.
Evoking strong sentiments of nostalgia, there is a longing in these images, a longing for place and time. The connection to Pakistani and South Indian culture is celebrated. Khan’s series are filled with images of niqabs, ornamental jewelry, and various Pakistani food items. Her illustrations are set in classic American diners and retro rollerblading rinks, while her photography is hued with muted tones and pastel palettes. It is within this duality of culture that her protagonists rest both comfortably and uncomfortably.
Despite being informed by her identities, Khan’s works transcend the realms she focuses on. Her presence as an artist has created both exposure and space for South Asian women. While focusing on Pakistani culture, Khan speaks to a larger audience who resonates with the various themes of positivity and celebration embedded in her art.