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On Loneliness: Making South Asian Art as an Unconventional Brown Girl

Words & Art: Syeda Mahbub

 

Syeda Mahbub is a Bangladeshi-American digital artist based in Queens, New York. In 2018, she began posting her work publicly through her Instagram and soon after, she created her platform Our Desi Canvas. On her platform, Syeda creates art that revolves around her own identity and experiences as a young Bangladeshi immigrant woman, as well as stories of underrepresented groups within the South Asian diaspora.


Like many young immigrants, I have struggled for years to understand my South Asian identity in the United States. I carried this inner turmoil with me to my teenage years, during which I found myself feeling very hollow and lonely. This loneliness wasn’t rooted in a lack of representation because I was always surrounded by Bengali immigrants and Muslim families in my Queens neighbourhood in New York City. And frankly, at a time when I struggled with my sexuality, body image, sexual trauma, and financial instability, representation in the media was the least of my worries. Instead, this loneliness stemmed from a lack of in-depth discourse and understanding of my South Asian identity and its history. In my adolescent years, I grappled with questions about my Bengali identity and the lineage of unspoken generational trauma I carried on my shoulders, from Partition to the ‘71 Liberation War. I wondered if I, and other Brown girls my age, were deserving of the toxicity of Brown culture—the toxicity that keeps us silent, submissive and fearful of crossing the bounds of conventionality. If not, how are we meant to break away from it? I experienced profound loneliness during this time, as I worked through my traumas as a young Brown girl, unable to seek the guidance of a community that still had its own deep-seated issues to work through. And that loneliness never seemed to go away. In 2018, during my first year of college, I began my art journey publicly through social media. Over time, I realised my true calling as an artist lies in dismantling colonial ideals of gender, sexuality, and class, as they are in large part the root causes of the toxicity and oppression within the South Asian diaspora. I began using my art as a storytelling device to highlight the complex and underrepresented identities within the diaspora. My work became a love letter to the South Asian community: a deconstruction of oppressive, colonial ideals to reimagine a world of love, radical social change, and unity.

While I am passionate about giving visibility to the diaspora through my work, I still struggle to find my own place within the community. Years before deciding to go public with my art, I had learned to make myself small in South Asian spaces as a way to cope with feeling undesirable or unattractive because of my weight and body shape, my big nose, and other unconventional features. These internalized feelings convinced me that I did not fit the beauty conventions of an idealized artist and would therefore never achieve any success, no matter the authenticity of my work. Although I would later go on to unlearn those beliefs, my fear and hesitation were rooted in reality. South Asians not only continue to uphold Eurocentric beauty standards, but our hyperfocus on beauty, and in turn wealth and status, comes from an elitist mindset. I highlight this in two of my pieces titled “Recipes for the Non-conformist Desi Woman” and “I Dream About Brown Fairies With Big Bellies”, both of which are depictions of unconventional Brown femmes existing and taking up space despite being taught to make themselves docile and small.

 
  

This elitist mindset, embedded in our culture during colonialism, only serves to isolate and “other” the groups deemed “unconventional”, including fat, dark-skinned, poor, undocumented immigrants, queer, trans, and nonbinary folks. I’ve experienced this isolation in many instances, especially as a Bangladeshi artist with a Muslim name, navigating predominantly upper-caste, Indian spaces, as Indian hegemony erases other South Asian and Indo-Caribbean narratives. It has been especially hard to realize that many South Asian folks who claim to be inclusive and support my art today, would not have engaged with me had they met me before I became an artist and created my platform. This practice of othering doesn’t only occur in overtly misogynistic and homophobic spaces, but even in queer and feminist spaces where elitism and desirability politics still exist in the backdrop. From fatphobia, colorism, and transphobia to elitism and sexism, they all continue to live and thrive under the guise of inclusive community spaces. You don’t need to look any further than your own social media feeds to see rich, upper-caste, and conventionally beautiful influencers and creatives dominating conversations around “activism”, whilst actively speaking over poor, working-class, dark-skinned South Asians. While social media platforms are not always indicative of reality, they still connect the diaspora from all around the world, and give some insight to the true violence and segregation that takes place in real life. And the responsibility falls just as much on South Asians who choose, for instance, to only support queer folks who meet our conventions of beauty, while disregarding more unconventional people whose inherent existence and “ugliness” makes us uncomfortable. We have to start recognizing our own biases against things such as class, caste, and appearance, and actively work to create safe and inviting environments for everyone to feel valued and loved.

Through my art, I aim to challenge and dismantle this exclusionary nature of South Asian culture by uplifting underrepresented voices in the diaspora. At its core, my art is also a love letter to my younger self, and all other young, fat, ugly Brown femmes struggling to take up space and working through their traumas today. My pieces on immigrant fathers, mothers, and daughters depict the complicated relationship dynamics and identity crises that arise within Brown immigrant households, while other pieces tackle gentrification, slut-shaming, anti-blackness, and queerness. When embarking on this journey to create space and dialogue for others, I did not realize how isolating it would all come to be. I have been feeling a growing sense of loneliness even in the South Asian art world, as I’ve seen many talented and gifted South Asian artists avoid creating art that is critical, and instead perpetuate elitist rhetoric through their work. Personally, I like to call this kind of work Samosa Art: artwork that only serves to highlight the glamorous and palatable aspects of South Asian culture, such as bindis and sarees, as well as samosas. Its tone-deafness and exploitative nature end up furthering the harmful narrative that South Asians are only as valuable as the material things from our culture. It paints a false image of the South Asian diaspora and our inability to engage in critical discourse, as though our sarees and bindis are the only aspects of us worth portraying. It also begs the question: Who is this art meant for? Often this artwork panders to white audiences, leading them to freely consume our culture without having to face the direct damage white supremacy and colonization have inflicted on South Asia. This kind of oversimplified and stereotypical rhetoric was found in Lily Singh’s humor back in 2014, when she capitalized on mocking her immigrant parents. Now, that content has transformed into surface-level, marketable, desi, “feminist” art that is void of any real commentary and is ultimately classist, casteist, fatphobic and queer and trans-exclusionary. Samosa Art is not only damaging because it lacks depth, but because it doesn’t push the envelope forward in a challenging way, and ultimately upholds the status quo. And while artists are free to create whatever art feels true to them, I see a fundamental connection between the lack of critical discourse within the South Asian community and the rise in consumption of Samosa Art because it is easily palatable and doesn’t challenge our perceived realities. Prior to realizing the messages I wanted to relay through my art, I also briefly fell into a cycle of creating Samosa Art (see below). This was primarily because I felt pressured to follow trends that favor the algorithm and create art that was similar to the marketable artwork I saw many other South Asian artists create. After much self-reflection and practice, I began to shift my work to more critical pieces that are true to my values. I plan to continue to develop my craft and ideas throughout this artistic journey.

It is also worth noting that there are still many incredible South Asian diasporic artists who do actively challenge and critique the status quo and celebrate our culture and heritage with nuances and a critical eye, but are often the ones whose work goes largely unnoticed. My aim here is not simply to criticize the toxic behavior that exists but rather to open a dialogue on what needs to change and how we can hold ourselves and each other accountable through this process. We, as South Asians, need to self-reflect and fully grasp our history with these oppressive systems. How can we spew anti-capitalist rhetoric when we haven’t acknowledged our own elitist tendencies? How can we support disenfranchised groups in America in the same breath that we uphold wealth, status, and other hierarchies in our communities here and in the motherland? How can our art be empowering when our idea of feminism is still deeply rooted in capitalist success, (i.e. desi female millionaires)? How can we claim to hold safe spaces for all while completely disregarding the existence of queer and trans folks? And why do we only uphold queer and trans people who fit our standards of beauty and are therefore deemed “palatable”? How can we claim to be healing collectively when we haven’t sat with ourselves to acknowledge our own shortcomings and internalized biases?

 

The answer is that we can’t. And admitting that you and I are just as capable of perpetuating these negative behaviours, is an uncomfortable truth to live with. Leaning into this discomfort, acknowledging how we all hold these biases and therefore must actively work to dismantle these hierarchies, engaging with the very people we have shunned out and healing from our own traumas and insecurities, are the first steps to unlearning our histories and reimagining our future. While it may seem like we are far from where we should be, I create the art that I do because I truly believe the South Asian diaspora is capable and deserving of unity and change.

 


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