This Amazing Artist Challenges The Idea That All Indians Are The Fair, Bollywood Kind

Posted on July 7, 2016 in Art, Body Image, Cake, Tête-à-Tête

It’s no secret that mass media has a race problem – kind of like how the world in general has a race problem. As a result, people of colour rarely get to see themselves represented in the media they consume, and if they do, it’s a role riddled with stereotypes that (best case) is never developed or (worst case) treated as expendable.

Sometimes TV gives you a few token Indians with funny accents like Appu in ‘The Simpsons,’ or Raj in ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ and expects you to go “thank you come again.” But once in a while comes along a warrior with a paintbrush who decides to give it back to the master with the master’s tools. Or as our Marxist friends would joke, ‘seize the means of production’ to change what we consume.

Enter Srutika Sabu, Malyali-Canadian Desi-Futurist

If you haven’t see her gorgeous and empowering femme-centric art yet, you should. And if you’re confused about what “Desi-Futurist” means, take a cursory scroll through her collection and you’ll notice how she combines South Asian female figures with science-fiction environments.

As woman of colour with a background in science and a love for video-games, Sabu is pretty much a typical white geekboy’s worst nightmare. While her ‘Desi- Futurist’ art is a contrast to mostly white media representations, it is also a contrast to the fair-skinned North Indian that gets passed off as representative of all Indians in lands outside.

Sabu (who at 8 made the move from Bangalore, India, to Brampton, Canada) experienced it firsthand – “Non-South Asians, as well as diaspora kids, would tell me ‘Oh, you’re too dark to be Indian.’

The issue existed because of what population comprised the diaspora in Canada, as she explains, “…when I lived in Southern Ontario, where there’s a lot of Sikh-Punjabi people, I didn’t look like them, or have the same food or language or culture as them. Because I’m dark-skinned and South Indian, I have more in common with Sri Lankan Tamils than with North Indians. But I imagine if anyone from Nagaland or Assam were to come here and say they were Indian, it would blow the paradigm of race wide open.” But that improved once she made the move to USA, “where there’s both Gujratis and South Indians.

This certain idea of what an Indian is like is also because of how the West has been tutored into imagining us, says Sabu. “That’s what we export out of India, especially with Bollywood – which is Hindi films, not the language I speak at home, I’m Malyali. Even the media besides Bollywood – like Buzzfeed India – has Hindi-centricisms, and doesn’t necessarily do justice to what Indians are in diversity. And what people think of Indian food, here in North America, is not representative of all regions!

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“White And Gold” inspired by South Indian jewellry and clothing, water-colour and ink. Image Courtesy of Srutika Sabu

And it’s these oft-ignored diverse elements in Indian culture that Sabu brings to life in her own work. You’ve probably already picked out the anime infusions in her art – the large, reflective eyes, the flowy, liquid movements. The influences are palpable, and it is fantastic. But it’s also very South Asian. “I definitely try to borrow from the fashion – traditional jewellery styles or clothing and colour patterns, or stuff like putting jasmine in your hair which is super South Indian. But just having dark skinned women is incredibly important, and the most prominent South Indian-ish part of my artwork. One thing I’ve tried to do recently is explore the Kasavu pattern that we wear in Kerala – white with the gold border – and incorporate that in my artwork.”

How A Tryst With Anime Spurred New Expressions

Sabu’s interest in anime styles developed out of a love for ‘Sailor Moon’ – often considered an iconic feminist show about schoolgirls who saved the world with their magic powers. Sabu lists out the reasons she loves the Manga and anime production, “…It had a full female cast, and had so many expressions of gender. The franchise is also known for featuring complex and heartwarming friendships among femmes while they fight the forces of evil and is so gloriously unapologetically feminine. It’s groundbreaking.”

And it’s the versatility of anime that appeals to Sabu the most. “There’s anime and manga on anything you can possibly imagine – a guy who can bake breads with his hands, or this one series where Buddha and Jesus are roommates in Japan. It’s so diverse in terms of storytelling and art style. You can find something for everyone within it.

What she loves best about anime is how close it comes to myth making. “Myths are about telling stories, about very interesting characters, and are a great source to look at.” Among her own sources is a Pinterest folder labelled ‘South India’, and she draws on a diverse set of influences, adapting them into her unique aesthetic. “I’m definitely creating an alternate mythology of my own, which is the most anime-ish thing I’ve done, drawing character art with very fascinating costumes and personalities. I’m not sure if I explicitly borrow, but I do take visual cues from Indian mythology.

Sabu describes her art as ‘Desi-Futurism’ – a concept she created about a year ago, born out of her dream to create a South Asian inspired fantasy about “social justice issues, alternative narratives of development, re-discovering and re-interpreting cultural roots and how to navigate post-colonial realities.

Explaining further, she says “Afro-Futurism is where I pretty much borrow the idea from,” talking about an earlier aesthetic and political movement, which she called “refreshing and paradigm shifting.” Afro-Futurism, she dwells deeper, is “about re-imagining Black realities through imagined/re-imagined futures; about creating sci-fi, future mythologies outside Eurocentric ones; about being a person of colour, being alienated by your environment because a lot of it does come from Black realities within the United States.

But what really galvanized her Desi-Futurism was an academic trip to former European colony, Senegal. “My friends in the Postcolonial Studies department as well as local artists, scholars and community organizers, were having the most fascinating discussions and that’s when I realized we have a lot in common, culturally, and we had very similar understandings of the need to figure out development and civic engagement outside of this very western neoliberal framework – something that’s more sustainable, more true to our roots and critical of colonialism and imperialism which created and still to this day creates Third World inequalities. We are exploring our ancestor’s roots that was taken away or altered by colonial powers but we were also very critical of them – not like our ancestors did everything right. And Desi-Futurism is basically the desi-fied offshoot of this.”

Re-Imagining Not Just Race, But Able-Bodiedness Too

In the way that she reasserts dark skinned bodies (not only ignored, but historically maligned by multiple artforms) her art also asks questions about the social construction of disability, and our relationship to it in highly mechanized, technologically advanced societies. “It’s more about showing that people with diverse bodies exist and live complete fulfilling lives. And that visible and invisible disabilities, which artwork doesn’t always have. It goes back to the deliberate intervention in representations of people like us. People should not praise me for being novel about it, and people shouldn’t be shocked or surprised.

“Programmer,” digital painting. Image Courtesy of Srutika Sabu

Just as we see a certain representation of the ‘Indian type’ , the reason we don’t see this diversity in bodies is because we like to think of able-bodiedness as the default. However, Sabu reminds us that it’s a very temporary state. “Your body is pretty mortal. You get old. You could be diagnosed with a chronic disease tomorrow. You could have a major accident, god forbid, but these are things that happen to real people, and they have to adjust to their new reality. It’s not like medical science has the technology to fix this. If they did, it wouldn’t be a disability. Oftentimes the fact that places don’t have ramps for wheelchairs or are inaccessible for certain people – well it doesn’t have to be. We can make society accessible when we make it a priority. But we don’t always do, because abled-bodied people are generally privileged enough to not think about it.

Since representation is on the table (our Skype chat table anyway), we can’t help but ask her about her experience of being a woman of colour in STEM, a field that has devalued several female contributors, and been openly hostile to any morel. “I was incredibly lucky,” says Sabu, whose undergraduate years were spent at a women’s college that had programs to help with leadership, networking, and tutoring. “It was a very supportive and encouraging environment. If you had an interest, they made sure you went through. It also helped that both of my parents are engineers by training. They never thought that women can’t succeed in the hard sciences because well, my mother did pretty well. They were like, just study harder and you will improve, and I did. Having said that, in certain classes, I worried about saying something stupid. I was afraid to ask questions.”

Sabu recalls seeing a photograph of the scientists behind the recent Indian Mars mission, “and they just look like your normal everyday aunties, and I loved it! These are what scientists look like, but you’ll never see them in movies. This perception of STEM being not that appealing to women, in the sense that you don’t see too many women in it, goes back to representation.

On The Need For More Inclusive Science

“Penkutty” an ode to traditional Kerala dress, digital painting. Image Courtesy of Srutika Sabu

But what is the big deal if people of varied backgrounds and identities don’t participate in science? Sabu notes that it makes a huge difference. “When you create technology and do research you sort of bring yourself into it,” she says, mentioning how the lack of research on how AIDS affected women meant that many of them died, undiagnosed and untreated. She said even something as mundane as Instagram filters showed how technology is calibrated in favour of light-skinned races. “Take the Shirley Cards – the algorithms that Kodak used to figure out how their colours should work. Kodak got around to figuring out an algorithm that takes all colours in only when wood companies wanted to show colour gradations in their products, not because they needed to photograph brown people. That’s a technology bias.”

And the prejudice affects both how technology is created, and then used and enjoyed. We asked Sabu, as a creator of an alternate sci-fi space, what she thought about the gatekeeping in sci-fi circles. “I think it happens to technology in general, which is lamentable, because it determines what kind of science fiction tends to get popularized, and who can make money writing it. But Social media and alternative online communities (Tumblr and Reddit) allow you to enjoy things with people who also like what you want in certain genres, without the gatekeeping. In fact it’s much easier to ignore the gatekeeping there.

An avid video-gamer, she jokes about how it’s the same three voice actors in all the games, but the lack of diversity can be “uninviting for someone who is extremely aware of feminist politics,” she says. “You’re playing and you encounter something and think ‘this is totally made by a white hetero cis dude.‘”

Sabu finds that Japanese Role Playing Games offer a nice alternative. “Japanese Role Playing Games are targeted at the same people who grew up watching anime, who are now in their late teens and early twenties. It does have some anime tropes in it, but they try to spread out the gender ratios because it’s meant for a wide stream audience. The game that forever captures my imagination and inspires me to this day is ‘Final Fantasy X,’ which is inspired by Asian culture, especially South East Asian culture. I think it probably inspires some of my aesthetics for Desi-Futurism as well. And it has one of the most feminist characters of all time – Yuna.”

The geekboys will perhaps always be standing on corners trying to hand out certificates, but as Sabu says “In our age we have the choice to say ‘Uh, we don’t want your opinion.‘” The spaces and the media Sabu creates and occupies has allowed her to enjoy things without their approval, and that’s a cue we should all be taking. To being Desi-Futurists!

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“Character Designing” experimenting with Kerala inspired fashion, water-colour and ink. Image Courtesy of Srutika Sabu.

To see more of Srutika Sabu’s artwork and read about Desi-Futurism, click here!

Featured Image Courtesy of Srutika Sabu.