The Desi Instagram artist tackling cultural appropriation

Maria Qamar’s satirical art paints a harsh, and hilarious, reality of Asian culture – and it isn’t all bindi-wearing bliss

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Courtesy of Maria Qamar via Instagram

In a world of fast-growing multiculturalism, the line between appreciation and appropriation of cultures steadily blurs. As far back as 2003, Gwen Stefani donned a bindi in No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” music video, and stars have been following suit ever since. Both Selena Gomez and M.I.A have come under fire in recent times for cultural tourism in their music videos, the latter being forced to scrap hers altogether. In the mainstream, cultural appropriation is perhaps most obvious by the sheer number of bindi-adorned girls at music festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza. Asian, black, Native American and other marginalised groups are persistently having their cultures appropriated by those who feel entitled to it, thereby perpetuating a harmful power dynamic.

With everyone from actress Zendaya to fashion designer Dries Van Noten weighing in with an opinion, one self-defined ‘Desi artist’ (where Desi means a person of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin who lives abroad) encompasses all aspects of her culture ­– not just the shiny, pretty sticker for your forehead. Born in Pakistan, Maria Qamar of @hatecopy moved to Canada as a child. A natural artist, she began to depict the realities of growing up in two cultures in pop art and posted the results on her Instagram, rapidly gaining a following as other Desi women – myself included – identify with her bittersweet truths. I spoke to Maria to discuss her witty and provocative art ahead of her second exhibit, Shame Shame, in Toronto.

How did you first start drawing your pieces?

Maria Qamar: I actually had to hide the fact I was doing it. After I drew my first piece, ‘Burnt the Rotis’, I told my mother, ‘Oh, you know those drawings I was making at home, and you were asking what I was doing? OK, well I’m painting them now and the job search is going great too.’ But now my mum is getting very bold and savvy; she wants me to make this a full-time business.

So why did you choose pop art as your artistic style? Have you always drawn in that style?

Maria Qamar: Not really. A lot of it was testing the waters of different styles. It was kind of a long process getting to where I am now. And then more recently it was all about finding the style – ­that took my whole life. I didn’t actually know that this style I already drew was very similar to pop art, so I’m very comfortable drawing it.

It seems to be a very organic process, then?

Maria Qamar: Yeah, I can honestly draw in that way so I’m more comfortable drawing my ideas into the pop-art scenario than I would be (doing it in a) realist or abstract (way). I think of something that’s not Desi-related, an easily imagined scenario. I usually draw the characters first, and then I think about what they could be thinking at the time.

“We’re overshadowed by tradition and obligation and things that we can’t relate to because we’re not in it” – Maria Qamar

There are so many women and girls relating to your art because it’s very real to them as well as humorous. With all the recent focus in the media on cultural appropriation, what made you decide to hit back with your “Is This Gori Wearing a Bindi Again?!” piece? (‘Gori’ is a word used by Indians to describe white girls.)

Maria Qamar: As I said, I draw the images first, and then think about what to write. In this case it had to be something that puts them on the spot. It’s like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ I got fucking angry.

Your Instagram seems to be a space of community because it unites people who share similar experiences, such as the understanding that fairer skin is more valued in Asian culture, and the pressure to marry. These are the things you have to live through to really understand.

Maria Qamar: It is really funny, because the whole point of this pop-art Indian thing was so that I could take the most American – the most western thing – I could find, which were American romance comics or novels. I wanted to take the most iconic thing, which is the soap opera, and blend them together. Right now it feels like I’m taking their shit and throwing it back at them, saying, ‘Here it is, you made this. This is all you.’

Is anyone offended by your art?

Maria Qamar: A few people have been offended by me more than the work itself because they know I was born in Pakistan and they have their own opinions of what they think I might be. So they bring in factors that have nothing to do with the work. They look for a divide. ‘Well, OK,’ I say. ‘Look, it’s doing well. I’m making work that I really love. What’s wrong with it really?’ People are always looking for a fight, so my response to those things is that it’s Desi art. I don’t have an agenda. You relate to it, you laugh at it, and people love it.

Some of the topics you discuss in your art are more taboo, particularly in Asian culture. Your piece for marriage equality entitled ‘Uncle Pride’, for example, would certainly be considered forbidden by traditional types. Why do you choose to portray such messages?  

Maria Qamar: Because I’m not like that. I’m not like that and I exist and I’m doing OK. It wasn’t ever supposed to be a rebellious thing, which is the concept of the show as well. I’m not trying to be rebellious for the sake of being rebellious and to piss everybody off and step on the toes of my family. It’s just that people exist differently in the west. We just do. We’re raised just like Americans or what-have-you in the west, but we’re overshadowed by tradition and obligation and things that we can’t relate to because we’re not in it. We don’t know. Yeah, we’re going to go out and hold hands with a guy or make out in public because these things are allowed here, and that’s all we know. It’s funny that it’s seen as rebellious, and, yes, I have a feeling that what I’m making might be a little bit offensive, with my parents in my head going, ‘Shame, shame, shame, you shouldn’t be doing this.’ But you know, why not? I just let it simmer, and the people who laugh with me, laugh with me.

So the art is very much as personal as it is public?

Maria Qamar: Yes, you get a taste of like Desi-American or Desi-Canadian culture – any Desis who are not living in India – because it’s just like somebody who’s from a place where if you’re caught kissing your husband, you could go to jail. So for somebody looking at the Instagram from there and seeing me do what I do, that would be like, ‘Oh my God, that’s crazy,’ but that’s the norm here. We’re all just out in the open. We’re all cool about it. 

See more of Maria Qamar’s work here

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