Brightly coloured comic strips laced with sinister undertones tackle mental health, lack of representation and our fucked up view of love, head on
It’s fairly normal practice to keep a dream diary. Recounting the weird and wonderful things we think and feel while sleeping and then frantically googling possible illogical meanings may seem like standard behaviour, but why don’t we do the same for our nightmares?
16-year-old illustrator Panteha Abareshi found herself putting pen to paper a year ago when her health took a decline and she found herself in hospital. Inspired by directors like Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, to call Abareshi’s work dark would be a small understatement. Working through both physical and mental health issues, illustration became an escape, and a way to translate her own view of the world to an audience who often fail to understand the complexities of being a young woman.
Despite tackling huge issues through her artwork, such as stereotyping of women of colour and our fucked up view of romance, Abareshi’s work is borderline satirical and totally relatable. Because what else can we do but make light of the situations that often make us feel most alone?
What made you want to start exploring the darker side of romance and how does this manifest in your illustrative identity?
Well, as a girl growing up in western society, I was bombarded with these societal standards and expectations for romance and intimacy from a pretty young age. We young women are conditioned to measure our worth by our ability to fulfill romantic tropes and to have our greatest aspirations based around relationships, intimacy, and long-term commitment. I was asked how many kids I wanted to have, and what my dream wedding would be when I was in fourth grade! How ridiculous is that? it pissed me off then, and it pisses me off now.
And as we get older, there's more and more pressure to form intimate relationships. We're constantly asked about first kisses, and who our crushes are. We measure our worth by how desirable we are to the opposite sex. It's exhausting and upsetting and I'm so over it. What about those who struggle with intimacy? Who don't enjoy, or aren't comfortable with being physical with someone else. Those of us who struggle with intimacy and affection are not represented at all.
My image of ‘romance’ is warped, I suppose. I don't have this idealistic image of marriage, or "true-love". And so with this understanding of the reality of romance, I never got into the media portrayal of love. This one-dimensional image of relationships, where everything is focused around intimacy, affection and romantic gestures is what's giving unrealistic expectations to people. Romance is painful, it's sacrifice, it's compromise.
“Societally integrated racism translates with upsetting fluidity between art, literature and all forms of media”– Panteha Abareshi
Representation of mental illness is an important element to what you do, but you present issues in a slightly tongue in cheek way. Do you think it’s important to inject humour into serious issues? Does this help with coping?
My sense of humour is weird, twisted dark, obviously, and I think that I put a bit of that humor into my work because a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. It does help with coping, of course, and I'm always one to make light of my situation. But I think I also inject humour into my work to make it easier to understand for those who may not relate to the issues my work reflects. If I presented my work without any humour, or funky things to mix it up, I think it would be a bit too much, or a bit too striking for some to handle. Even those who might not understand the content to it's full extent can still appreciate the humour and aesthetic of the pieces.
On the subject of mental health conditions, how do you feel about the stigma still attached to these issues and what can we do to reduce this?
When you tell someone “I'm mentally ill”, there's these images of 50s era sanitariums and all these negative connotations that are attached to the words, just because of society being undereducated as a whole. Depression, anxiety, bipolar and other illnesses are widely misunderstood, and a lot of that is because of underrepresentation and misrepresentation in the media. Whenever a character has mental-illness on TV, or in a book, they rarely are given any other sort of attributes, or any depth. They are boiled down to their affliction, and represent the mental-illness as a slew of stereotypes that leave the audience with a completely wrong image of what individuals with mental-illness are truly struggling with.
We need to normalise the notion of having mental-illness, stop seeing it as some grave, taboo disease, and start spreading the understanding that it is something so many people struggle with, but it is treatable and can be managed and dealt with just like any physical injury or illness. It's very interesting for me, living with a chronic physical condition as well as mental-illness, because I often feel like my chronic condition is taken more seriously than my mental illness, when in reality my depression and anxiety are much more difficult and painful for me to live and cope with. Especially in teenagers, there's this mentality with the older generations that we're all just horny, moody balls of sweat. And while that may be true for some people, the stereotype that all teenagers are moody leads to a lot of cases of depression and other mental-illnesses being swept under the rug.
I really do try to give more accurate representations of mental illness through my artwork, and express the struggles that come with my depression and anxiety through my illustrations. Art, especially graphic and contemporary illustration, is a great way to spread an accurate representation and understanding of mental illness because it's so accessible to the population, especially with social media making it easy to see and share.
Do you hope to subvert the stereotypes of women of colour within your illustration?
I want to normalise women of colour being represented in art. That's one of my mottos. When WOC are seen in art, they're always boiled down to their skin tone and sexualized. The stereotype that WOC are inherently sexual is so prevalent because when women of color are represented, they are they’re skin tone before they are anything else. The current default for characters in comic strips, and contemporary illustration is white women (or white people). The comic industry is white, male dominated. I shouldn't get flooded with excitement when there's a POC character in a comic by my favourite artist, and yet I do, because it's so out of the ordinary.
And of course, this all ties into breaking down the standard that holds European features and fair skin as the epitome of beauty. Normalising WOC in artwork means acknowledging the beauty of POC. When an artist, or a writer, or a casting director for TV goes to create or find a ‘beautiful’ character, the default is a white person. Societally integrated racism translates with upsetting fluidity between art, literature and all forms of media. Through my artwork, I'm joining the movement to uproot all the standards that go against and marginalise WOC and POC.
Check out more of Panteha Abareshi's work here