The internet has been good for Maria Qamar, the Toronto-based artist known as @hatecopy, giving her not just a platform for art she once did in secret, but also a community of over 176,000 fans, many of whom seek out her sharp commentary on Desi culture. But while her bold pop art has lived a strong life online, Qamar sees value in taking that art into the real world—hence her show, Fraaaandship!, which opened at New York City's Richard Taittinger Gallery earlier this month and will remain on view until September 2.
Fans might be used to double-tapping Qamar's colorful designs on screens, but in real life, everything is bigger and bolder. For her first solo show in the city, Qamar has juxtaposed her incisive paintings with irreverent inflatables, like a 10-foot-tall inflatable lota (an "ass-washing device," according to Qamar) and giant, helium-filled bags of Maggi noodles. The paintings, meanwhile, focus on female bonding in an age of "fraaandship," a phrase that refers to shady sexual advances from men online.
Making people feel seen is the point. Fraaaandship! is art meant for the Desi diaspora made by one of its own; Qamar moved to Canada from Pakistan at the age of nine. The goal of the show, Qamar explained, is to make space for "Desis of all generations and immigrants of all generations" to feel both safe and centered. "My work is a little bit here we are, and a little bit unapologetic in that sense," Qamar told VICE. "That's exactly what's going on: you're being spoken to. I'm talking to you."
By starting conversations, Qamar hopes her art can spark change and push people in her Desi community to question what might be written off as tradition. We caught up with Qamar to talk about her work, why she makes it, and how changing communities must first start at home.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
VICE: What's the audience for your work like?
Qamar: I've had young mothers walk in with their kids; I've had kids walk in and then bring their grandma or their aunts and uncles. Pop art is very fun in nature, but [my work] does talk about a lot of heavy things, so it's also people who have topics they want to discuss but don't really know how. It's across generations.
My favorite crowd is the university crowd that does papers and comes to the gallery to have conversations on gender theory and how our tradition has these parts of it that are patriarchal in nature, but they're passed off as that's just how things have always been. I never got to have those conversations when I was younger so I kind of bottled it up, which resulted in this.
Do you get the sense that people are taking those conversations into their real lives?
Yeah, and my goal is to have these conversations within your home as well, because that's where it starts. I grew up constantly fighting with my family over things that my brother was allowed to do but I wasn't, or that I was pressured to do but my brother wasn't. It's important to change [mindsets] within the family first, and then they'll pass it on to their friends and families and make that change possible.
Do you find art is a good way into difficult subjects, from your experience?
I feel like art is a way to—for me—to now shut everybody up. I try to reflect what I've heard and show how ridiculous you look when you say things like, "cover yourself up" or "think about marriage," when you're only 12. Having those conversations is important because you have to realize what's bullshit and what's tradition.
How do you decide what types of commentary go into your work?
I like to think that everybody is growing with me. It really just depends on what I feel like talking about. I'm hoping that I'm able to do what I do for a longer period of time—this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we can talk about as a society.
How would you say the internet has influenced the way you approach your art?
I feel like I've found, you know, a family I didn't know I had. A lot of my work was done in secrecy and in isolation to document pain and trauma. Things were unfair at home or in school or in life, and I would go home and I would draw about it. When I started sharing it online, it was obviously through humor because that's just how I cope; I could laugh about it or I could cry about it, and I chose to laugh. I realized that my friends laughed along with me. Little by little, the following grew. It was always this feeling of, I thought I was alone in this and I'm not.
Did you have a strong sense of Desi community growing up?
The diaspora community, I understood, was always there. But I didn't think there was a community that was like my brother and I. I didn't know that we could find [people who] related to us in the way that we related to each other. He's a doctor so he's like the special child and I chose to be the artist, but we actually both wanted to be artists.
How does he feel about your work now?
Oh, he thinks it's hilarious. He and his wife are huge supporters of my work. A lot of the work was done in their home because they were just so happy to help. It also helps the family get more creative, and to have their input in something that was so taboo for so long. At a point, I was hiding my sketchbooks because I didn't want my family to know that I wanted to be an artist.
How does your family feel about you doing art now?
Well, I definitely don't hear a lot of negativity about it—I think just because it would end up on one of the pieces. I fought so much just to be able to draw—the basic thing—that I've realized that it's not a battle I'm going to win immediately; it's a work in progress. But I'm not seeking approval anymore. I'm putting the work out there and letting it have a life of its own.
What are you drawing inspiration from now to inform what you're making?
I have more conversations with my parents, with family, with women from other backgrounds: immigrant women and our shared experiences and how being an immigrant has taught us to hustle. Now that hustle has been fetishized, what does this mean for women of color? Does it really mean that the harder we hustle, the further we get, or do we just stay the same and make our own spaces—and is that fair?
A lot of what I'm talking about in this show especially is how women bond with each other through friendship. The term "fraaaandship" derives from friendship, but it's a typo, used by men online to talk about sexual advances, so something positive is turned abusive. How do we take that, as women, and form real friendships outside of the internet?
Do you find yourself often having to explain yourself to a white audience?
The focus is on my community; I'm not talking to a white audience. I'm talking to people like me, so we can talk about these issues in our community. When you do that and when enough people around you start doing that, you find that everyone else around you starts listening in. It puts the pressure on other folks to learn more about us, which is an added bonus, but the point of the work isn't to appeal to anybody outside of who I'm speaking to.
What do you want people's takeaways from the show to be?
It's something that people can come see and touch and experience and go, "This is like a distorted, goofy version of something we take for granted every day." For me, the Maggi noodle thing is just amazing because it's something I grew up with, it's something over a billion people eat—but here, I mention Maggi and nobody knows. The world is so much more than what we have here, and I would love for it to be blown up and unapologetic and in your face and filled with helium.
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