Global Editions

Digital art and brown bodies

Local artists are using their lived experiences to tell the stories we all know but never hear in popular narrative.
by Luavut Zahid

When one thinks of Pakistani or South Asian art, the image of a porcelain-skin woman in traditional Mughal clothes comes to mind. It wouldn’t be surprising if you also thought of her holding a parrot or a sitar, or perhaps you would think of a woman dancing, her brightly coloured angharka twirling around her. Even contemporary pieces will offer much of the same Mughal dancer/princess imagery in the name of promoting local culture.

However, Pakistani digital art and artists have slowly begun disrupting existing narratives, creating space for a more real version of what it means to be brown and Pakistani.

Frida Kahlo is famously known to have said: “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” But when one sees the same angharka twirler make an appearance even in multiple pieces of contemporary art, albeit with a modern spin, one has to wonder where one fits.

That is the problem with media and art created for a predominantly white gaze. The South Asian fetish reigns supreme, and Mughal dancers, with their peacocks, musical instruments and princes, continue to rule the popular narrative. While Western cultures have scores of artists depicting their lives, big or small, we seem to be lost in the shadows.

Thankfully, digital artists are starting to push back existing stereotypes and making their presence felt.

Komal Ashfaq, known for her Karachi but Haunted comic, says that the medium has very low barriers to entry. “You have millions of tutorials, one tablet, a copy of photoshop, and you’re set,” she says. Technology essentially makes it possible for anyone to be able to tell a story.

Local artist Shehzil Malik is known for her bold pieces, often centered on the lived experiences of women in Pakistan. She feels that digital art has democratized the art world where you do not need to network or have connections to put your art out. It has given a lot of artists access.

Omar Gilani, known for creating fusion pieces that mix the Pakistani identity with popular sci-fi, agrees. Digital art offers such a wider playing field. Omar feels that digital art takes away the limitations that artists are normally subjected to. “The digital realm allows endless exploration,” he says.

This endless exploration has provided many Pakistani artists the breathing space to reexamine their identity. Taking Frida’s route, many have begun exploring what it means to be brown and Pakistani in their work.

Finding Pakistan in dystopia

Anytime I look at the global media landscape and zero in on a Pakistani character, I’m not surprised to find their depiction being more appropriate for Arabs, Afghans, Iraqis, and others. The brown colour of our skin has somehow led to our identity becoming more and more muddled.

We have become so used to lazy, inaccurate depictions of brown skin, that in the 2008 Iron Man, when Tony Stark’s Afghan captors began speaking in Urdu I didn’t even notice anything out of place at the time.

A few years down the road, when Bloody Nasreen first came out I remember feeling mesmerized. The shalwar kameez wearing heroine smoked, didn’t mind blood on her clothes, and brandished both a katana and guns. She, too, was killing terrorists, seemingly doing a better job than Iron Man.

Finding one’s identity reflected back through art has an empowering effect on visibility. An example of this reflection is Arafat Mazhar’s short Shehr-e-Tabassum, the story of the “happiest country in the world”, where a faltering smile is quite literally a crime. Though the story may look like it is selling a cyberpunk future Pakistan, dystopian in its every strand, one can’t help but connect the dots between their lived reality and the film.

Arafat Mazhar’s Shehr-e-Tabassum is the story of the ‘happiest country in the world’ where a faltering smile is quite literally a crime.

It has come to mean different things to different people. The short film was introduced to audiences in Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad, where a conversation almost always followed the screening.

“In our tour, we had incredible conversations with audiences on the themes they saw. Everything from one’s experiences under patriarchal society, the pressures to hide mental health, capitalist exploitation, climate change, to high school kids who can relate to pressure from parents and bullying,” he says.

Machinepur’s robot, Circuit, struggles with existential questions, much like human beings.

Shehr-e-Tabassum borrows its name from the late Intizar Hussain’s dystopian Urdu short story Shehr-e-Afsos. For Arafat and his team, the cyberpunk short was very much about how the team saw themselves than how they were normally seen. “In some ways, the project was more about seeing ourselves than being seen,” he says.

Another dystopian tale that hits home is Machinepur. Created by Maaz Maudood, the short film depicts the story of a robot called Circuit. We follow his thoughts, his anguish, as he goes about trying to figure out his purpose in the world. Maaz attempted to tell the story of every single person, and not just in Pakistan. “The film is relatable for everyone, but it has been shaped in a way that it’s easier for Pakistanis to relate to,” he explains. The storytelling reminds one of childhood audiotapes called Cassette Kahaani.

Although Maaz created Machinepur to appeal to anyone looking for meaning in their life, one cannot ignore its very Pakistani orientation. Maaz decided to tell the story in Urdu because of the dearth of meaningful Urdu content.

“I made Machinepur to make people realize for one moment where their life is headed and encourage them to question their own selves about it. To change the way people think or feel is not a side effect but the actual purpose,” he explains.

Digital art allows for new perspectives, ideas, and identities to emerge. The unprecedented opportunities afforded by technology can be used to reconstruct our identity in the postmodern world. In the same vein, both these projects evoke a sense of dread and belonging simultaneously, by bringing existing issues to the forefront and painting them in dystopian colours.

X marks identity

Identity is made up of many different things. Ethnicity, culture and race are just one of the many ingredients that make this human soup complete. For some artists, finding their Pakistani roots means having to shed their earlier assimilation or integration with other cultures, especially Western ones.

It was this need to see beyond a purely Western narrative that led to self-taught Omar Gilani creating one-of-a-kind pieces offering a fusion of sci-fi and local culture.

Pieces like this one borrow from the West, but the result is purely Pakistan. If anything, it would be great to see the next Mad Max movie feature Pakistan Vehicles. Credit: Omar gilani

Jonathan Kearney once wrote that “Digital time and space often carries with it the metaphors of the massive, the rhizomic, endless intertwined connections.” Digital art has given artists like Omar the space to connect these elements together in the local context. His pieces create connections between Western narratives and replay them for the local gaze. With each piece, the work is indeed rhizomic in how it expands existing identifiers of local culture to connect with a larger reality.

From a desi-looking truck hovering outside a dhabba in the sky, and a Maharani, dressed in what looks like expensive bridal wear, ready to strike with electricity bouncing between her hands, each image is his version of Pakistani identity. But these unique pieces started out as just a side project.

“I wanted to see how a sci-fi aesthetic would fit within a desi context, and it snowballed from there. I did not really expect to keep making them, but they were just so much fun to do. I draw my inspiration from older sci-fi works, literature, and art,” Omar explains.

Digital art helped Omar get in touch with what it meant to be Pakistani. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with what the majority wants, this was his chance to get in touch with something deeper. When he looked around, all he saw was negative news about the country, although it has so much more to offer.

Komal Ashfaq’s Karsaz churaik sometimes makes friends

“In a fantasy or sci-fi world, those things cease to matter. I could focus on what I wanted to, helping me connect with my culture at a deeper level,” he recalls.

Similarly, Komal’s longing for her own identity and her home city of Karachi led to the creation of Karachi but Haunted. The webcomic revolves around the story of the famous ‘Karsaz ki churail’… she’s a beauty, till you get close.

“Too much of the media I consume is either Western or Indian, I couldn’t find enough art and story from Pakistan so I thought I’d do it myself,” she says about her work. Where the comic originally began with the story of just the churail (witch), it has since branched out to include other scary, mythical characters popular in the country.

While in the US, Komal wanted to create something that connected with the audience back home. Her comic is less about representing Pakistanis to the outside world and more about reconnecting with what it means to be from Pakistan. If the outside world does peep in, it must do so on her terms.

“I don’t want to explain Pakistan to an international viewer. I want them to enter the narrative and go with it. The way manga and anime do not bother to explain what Japan is, they just go with it. I wanted this comic to be like that. Pakistan is full and real and doesn’t owe anyone an explanation,” she says.

While Karachi But Haunted originally began with the story of just the churail, it has since branched out to include other scary, mythical characters popular in the country.

Shehzil’s journey was somewhat similar. She began her work as a digital artist over a decade ago, taking inspiration from mostly Western sources and influences. “We don’t realize that we are a post-colonial society and our references come from media that we consume from other parts of the world,” she notes.

Identity is an internalized, self-chosen regulation system that showcases a connected inner world that becomes the bridge between the inner self and the outer world. As time progresses, a person renegotiates what their identity means to them.

This is obvious in Komal’s work. Similarly, at the start of her career, Shehzil’s work was more aligned with Western styles. However, when she eventually landed in the US to study, she realized none of her work represented where she was from. That was the turning point for her art, where she began infusing Pakistani history and politics into her work.

Artisting while female

Where visibility is an issue for brown people and Pakistanis in general, it is an altogether different level of invisibility when we talk about women.

In most cases, Pakistani women are caught between the Mughal princess and the perpetual victim, leaving no space in between for more. Digital artists are now using technology to wedge into this space to reclaim some.

As an artist, Shehzil has observed women using these tools to find their voices. “I’ve noticed that women are thriving in this space and are telling personal stories that they are otherwise unable to tell,” she says, noting that this medium allows women to take up space, even anonymously, while building online communities. Digital mediums allow people to express themselves in whatever way they want to without having to build personal connections. Women are using this to their advantage, branching out in women-only spaces online.

There is a certain kind of strength that comes out of being able to speak one’s truth.

Shehzil wanted to see more art and stories that relate to her own experience. “I’m very nerdy, very into politics, and very interested in gender,” she says while explaining the inspiration for her work.

These elements come together in the form of pieces that people can often relate to. Technology allows for immediate cultural transmission, taking meaning and amplifying it across the digital world. What was once accessible to only few is now up for consumption to many.

This work is significant because it produces a very local, contextualized meaning, beyond the white gaze or Western narrative. It steers clear of stereotype town and heads towards a more representative look at what it means to be a Pakistani woman.

While Shehzil’s work focuses on what is, Fatima Baig’s work takes on what could be. Her panethnic experiences have resulted in a unique perspective on what it means to be a woman and Pakistani simultaneously.

Throughout her career, Fatima’s exposure to different cultures have allowed her to create a different reality for women in her mind. The fact that she belongs to Hunza, and is an Ismaili, has had a significant part to play in how identity formed for her. Where she is from, women are both independent and liberated, in some cases even more so than the men.

This panethnic exposure and identity also became the reason for her to reexplore her ‘brownness’. She is a fair-skinned artist, working with images of women coloured in all shades of brown. There’s her skin colour and then there’s her political identity.

“i’m not brown in the technical sense, but i’ve always been amazed by how rich brown skin is, “Fatima Baig says. Her work is peppered with not just her own experiences, but also the lived experiences of women around her.

“I’m not brown in the technical sense, but I’ve always been amazed by how rich brown skin is,” she says. Fatima’s work takes inspiration from the many women she has come to know overtime. Her work is peppered with not just her own experiences, but the lived experiences of women around her.

She is often asked why she only depicts women in her work, and why my women always have a leisurely or lazy disposition. The social issues typically attached to women are missing from her pieces. “My work goes a little in reverse. I want to imagine a world without the issues,” she explains.

“At times people tell me women are doing nothing in my pieces. They are hanging out, drinking tea, etc. Given how terrible things are in general, when I sit down to draw something, I end up creating more calm and soothing pieces rather than going for negative pieces.”

In Pakistan, work like Fatima’s offers a respite from the everyday reality that women are subjected to. Her pieces reclaim space digitally, in some ways making up for what is missing in the real world.

Fighting fetishization and stereotypes

While in talking to these different artists, I realized our discussions were an attempt towards peeling back the layers of stereotypes towards a fresh uptake on identity formulation. None of the artwork fit the mold of what is known as traditional Pakistani art, and yet all of them put forward a part of the country that often never makes it to the conversation.

As an artist, Shehzil has observed women using digital spaces to find their voices: “I’ve noticed that women are thriving in this space and are telling personal stories that they are otherwise unable to tell.”

Arafat’s team was told to avoid showcasing the work locally and instead send it to foreign festivals. Its content was deemed too dangerous, but that was precisely why it was needed locally. At the end of the day, no matter how well received it would come to be abroad, it was second to how it was perceived in Pakistan. This was an interesting decision, given that Pakistani art normally wins awards in foreign events when they showcase the terrible lives of those stuck in the Global South.

In reality, art and personal stories are the antidote to stereotypes because they give nuance to a conversation that is happening. Stereotypes are perpetuated by those with the power to be heard. Digital art and social media create that space where the nuance can be inserted into the conversation.

Fatima chooses to ignore those criticizing her decision to only work with women as the subject. When she is told to make something else, she tells people to make things themselves.

“I think it’s great that it’s being understood that representation is important but we must now go a step further and see whether this is meaningful representation or just a superficial effort,” she says, adding that “where there are not enough stories it becomes easy to tell just one,” she adds.

Visual art has a very direct way of communicating with people. An argument can be made for how the instant nature of its connection allows digital art to amplify and provoke change. But can art alone do that?

Komal has her doubts. “Art within capitalism perpetuates fetishization and stereotypes. It is a field often dominated by groups with power or popularity, not necessarily by representation or quality. For example, Pakistan’s drama serials are dominated by men,” she says. The same patterns can be observed even in the art world, which is organized according to white and Western tastes.

“The paradox is that the only thing you can fight this sort of art is with art,” she adds.

Maaz, however, believes that art is anything but aggressive and it is out to fight nothing. “It is kind and pure, and has the ability to mold even the most jagged rocks into a perfect sphere” he says, pushing for the idea that anything pure will create an impact on people’s hearts.

However, for many artists and those consuming their work, digital art can be extremely liberating. It helps creators go beyond tropes and typical genres. “What is a Pakistani story in space? A Pakistani superhero? Pakistani futurism? Pakistani magic? The possibilities are endless,” Arafat says, and rightly so, Mughal princess be damned.

Luavut Zahid is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.