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3 South Asian Women On Being An Artist And Growing Up Between Two Cultures

A Conversation With Horsepowar, Hatecopy, And Sanaa Hamid.

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Pakistani-Canadian artist Maria Qamar, British Asian Photographer Sanaa Hamid, and Canadian Rapper Horsepowar are three South Asian creatives rapidly making a name for themselves. In each of their respective art forms, these women are re-evaluating and reappropriating South Asian identity in a relevant and exciting way.

Collectively, their work captures the spectrum of experiences that come with living amongst two cultures, building them an international fan base of young desis who see their everyday realities reflected in their work. I sat down with them to discuss their work and experiences growing up between two cultures.

Priya: Can you give a brief introduction about yourself and how you got started?

Maria: I'm Maria. On the internet I go as Hatecopy. I make art/memes by combining old American comics and desi Aunties. I started really pushing my art last year, when I was unemployed from my desk job and wanting to take full advantage of all the free time and freedom that comes with living outside of mom and dad's house.

Sanaa: I'm Sanaa! I'm an artist working primarily with photography. It aims to explore my Pakistani-British identity while rejecting the narrative that it should be painful to not "fit in." It's not my attempt to assimilate, it's my attempt to build and decide who I am on my own terms...unapologetically. I have a background in photography and graduated back in 2014.

Jasleen: Hi Everybody! I'm Jasleen (Sassleen) Powar aka Horsepowar. I'm a rapper, theatre graduate, wordsmith, foosball champion, a90's Bollywood fanatic, and a desi gyal who's trying to unlock the universe one verse at a time. I started rapping from spoken word poetry at the Vancouver Poetry Slam at Café Deux Soleil. From there I joined the Van Slam Youth team while being involved in my school's theatre program. In my second year of uni, I wanted to be like Andy Milonakis and Tom Green, and rap about funny stuff because I was tired of my depressing teenage poetry that was too dark for my own good. I've always been obsessed with music.

Priya: Growing up, being Indian meant being different, and I definitely went through a period of feeling that difference was a burden. It was something that happened to me rather than who I was, and was never something to celebrate. How did you feel about your Asian identity growing up?

Maria: There were no role models for young desi immigrants to look up to on the Disney Channel, so we looked down on ourselves. As a child I assimilated too quickly. I figured if I was going to be attacked for being a desi, I could pretend to be something else and, for my sanity and safety, was forced to mask my identity. However, at home nothing made me happier than a solid 3-hour, corny-as-hell, desi Rom-Com.

I always told myself that the end goal was to be "normal." Normal just meant white, because nothing about hanging out at the mall with boys without parental supervision until 9pm was normal in a desi home.

I figured if I was going to be attacked for being a desi, I could pretend to be something else and, for my sanity and safety, was forced to mask my identity.

Sanaa: Honestly, I completely dismissed my background while growing up, even though I felt constantly Other-ed. But it's been my photography that actually allowed me to delve into myself properly and now I'm so proud of who I am, so I'm grateful for it. I was the same as Maria, I just tried to assimilate as much as possible. I actually remember at school when I was about 7 or 8, all of the (white) children were going around telling each other what their parents names were. Linda. Pete. Victoria. John. I was frozen with the fear at the thought of them all turning to me, and having to revealing my parents names and their reactions, their mockery. I quickly withdrew myself from the conversation and ignored their questioning. I felt the sting of being different, but also a shame for feeling that way. As I grew up, I heard the word "paki" spat out of the mouths of my peers, and began to feel the extent of my difference; I even began to hold a resentment towards my ethnicity. Flash forward to now and I am more than happy to waltz down a road in my shalwar kameez and jhumkay and face the side-eyes and commentary.

Jasleen: Growing up with siblings hella older than me meant I had their support and guidance, and my siblings never took being Indian as a burden. I mimicked that. I remember I went to India in the 6th grade for my sister's wedding and came back and did a presentation about it while wearing a salwar kameez. I had no shame wearing my suit to school even though I had people looking at me like, "woah!" I grew up dancing to Bollywood tracks and took Shiamak Davar's classes because I wanted to find a community of people who enjoyed Hindi music as much as I did. There were definitely moments in my life where I was told I was too "white-washed" because I did stuff like listen to Black Sabbath or wear weird clothes. That was interesting because according to some Indian people in my school, I wasn't "brown enough." But now as a woman, I've furthered my appreciation of my culture by strutting it out loud in everything I do.

Priya: As a kid, I had very few role models that looked like me beyond my own family and Bollywood. I feel like I didn't realize the impact of that until I was much older. Who were your role models growing up?

As I grew up, I heard the word "paki" spat out of the mouths of my peers, and began to feel the extent of my difference; I even began to hold a resentment towards my ethnicity. 

Maria: I had no role models growing up. I think the first time I really noticed the presence of a desi in the media was when I saw Jasmeet's (aka JusReign) very first video in my late teens. Since then, his videos have always been close to me. There was just nothing else like it out there. They were inspiring and funny, and really helped me to open up and share my story, too.*

*He is not paying me to say this.

Sanaa: It took me a long time to figure it out, but I think the first time I was exposed to desi culture in the mainstream was actually Bend It Like Beckham! And obviously I saw glimpses of Aishwarya in Devdas or Pakistani dramas my mama was watching, even though I was usually rolling my heavily-eyelinered- 13-year- old- goth eyes! Now I immerse myself in South Asian culture and I appreciate it a lot more.

Jasleen: Definitely my siblings. Also I remember I really looked up to Moesha. Damn, I really wanted Moesha (Brandy) to marry Usher. Nelly Furtado came in my life in the 3rd grade and my eyes lit up because she was from Victoria, an island near Vancouver. She put things in perspective — that anyone, anywhere, can do big things. Then, in the 7th grade, back in 2005, my brother showed me MIA and I had never felt more understood. "The (po)WAR in me makes a warrior"- MIA.

There were definitely moments in my life where I was told I was too "white-washed" because I did stuff like listen to Black Sabbath or wore weird clothes. 

Priya: Who are your role models now? Where do you find your inspiration?

Maria: I now get my inspiration from a place that I know doesn’t lack representation: DESI DRAMAS (insert evil laugh/camera zoom combo).

My current role models are any and all desis making appearances in mainstream media. I truly believe they are filling a very, very important gap that can drastically change a young desi’s life. Girls like Jasleen, Sanaa, Sanam (@Trustmedaddy), Lilly Singh, Mindy Kaling, BabbuThePainter, Kiran Rai, Rupi Kaur, Ayqa Khan... they are all necessary. I constantly look at their work and think of how happy I would have been to see them flourishing if they were around when I was young.

Sanaa: Honestly I’m such a big fan of both Maria and Jasleen so I’m having my own fangirl moment! But yeah, there’s this powerful network of cool brown girls online, not even just necessarily South Asian creatives. WoC who are vocal and passionate inspire me every day. I can’t imagine how it must feel to be growing up with such an accessible network and abundance of role models, though I don’t claim to be one of those. There’s kind of a pressure to have all the answers, but I think having that space for growth and developing our thinking and creativity is important too.

Jasleen: Seriously, desi internet has brought me so much joy. I’ve connected with so many dope sisters from around the globe and there is a mutual understanding of support. I love it. It inspires me so much. My siblings are still the main role models in my life. I really want Nicki Minaj, MIA, and Mindy Kaling to take me under their wing and act as Senseis. I think I would take over the world, heh! I get my inspiration from everything — my experiences, my dreams, my fears, and love.

Priya: Sanaa, your project Cultural Appropriation: A Conversation sparked a lot of conversation about the line between appropriation and appreciation. What's your personal take on it?

My series of photographs in “Cultural Appropriation: A Conversation” gained so much attention and I kind of cringe now because I’ve grown so much in my thinking that I see a lot of flaws in it. I created a seemingly neutral stance as the photographer when actually I wasn’t neutral at all, it was more about making it palatable for the (white) mainstream audience. I think appropriation is categorically harmful when white people adorn themselves with the “pretty” parts of an oppressed culture, that is undeniable. The part that winds me up the most though is when people are called out for appropriation and they have the arrogance to deny any responsibility or acknowledge the problem.

Of course there is a way to “appreciate” another culture, but it’s by doing so respectfully, not by assuming a right to it. Even desis need to be careful about what we try and claim as a culture, because there’s a lot of crossover, so there is a definite need to adjust our thinking before we rush out to scream appropriation. But in terms of that series of work, I still get so many emails to this day. Asking me is ___ appropriation? Am I allowed to wear ____? I don’t make the decisions! It was about encouraging thought before you wear something that might be offensive and deciding for yourself. But lord, if I see more white girls wearing bindis during festival season this summer, I might just pick it off their foreheads for them.

Priya: Jasleen, you never shy away from personal or 'taboo' topics. Your lyrics and whole aesthetic really challenge the widespread misconception and expectation for Indian women to be submissive, invisible, and quiet. How important is it for you to challenge these expectations? Is it a conscious effort on your part?

View this video on YouTube
 I guess you can call me the troll under the bridge. I feel like if I’m speaking honestly from the heart, I’m sure people out there will connect. 

Jasleen: I’ve always been a chatter-box. I say the wrong shit at the right time and it feels so damn good. Maybe it’s because I’m the baby of the family, I can get away with a lot of stuff. But I’ve always been vocal about my feelings and I’m one sensitive person... it’s the pisces in me. I just remember older family members always telling me that girls shouldn’t be speaking so much, especially that loud. But I like to piss annoying people off, so it would only fuel me to go further. I guess you can call me the troll under the bridge. I feel like if I’m speaking honestly from the heart, I’m sure people out there will connect. I always remembered in school, teachers would say that no question is a dumb question so if you’re thinking it, feel free to ask away because someone else might be too nervous to ask. I was that kid. I had no fear about looking stupid because I wanted to learn. I think I’ve carried that further. Both my parents talk a lot, if you know Bill and Pinky, you know that it might be hard to get a word in a conversation with them. Now imagine their child: yep, that's me.

Maria, have you noticed a difference in how South Asian and non South Asian people respond to your work? How do you hope your work speaks to people?

Maria: I like that non-South Asians buy and share my work with their South Asian friends. It says to me, “hey, I may not fully understand what this means but I know Ashok would appreciate this.” I also offer white people a way to share safe, non-problematic, Apu-free jokes with their desi colleagues. You’re welcome, guys.

Priya: How important has social media been for you in terms of building a community and getting recognition for your work?

Maria: I like to think of my Instagram as a gallery that is always open to exhibit my work, 24/7. It’s a space that welcomes my ideas, helps others share and discover the work and gives my friends a way to provide feedback. I purposely refuse to sign any of my illustrations because I aim to be someone whose style can be recognized without a large, tacky watermark spelling it out. It also helps others to remix the work their own way, kind of like a meme. I love when I see someone tag me in posts that may have forgot to mention or credit me. It only means my approach is working.

Sanaa: Agh so important. I can say with confidence I wouldn’t have had 99% of the opportunities I’ve had without the internet. Nor motivation and self belief! I’m so excited to share new work now, because I know I have a wonderful group of people ready to receive it as well as offer feedback and support, and they've been there for a couple of years now. I appreciate it so much, those names I’ve been watching, liking, and reblogging since I’ve been creating. I’ve made such wonderful friends through social media. And a lot of the time it all started from a tweet.


Jasleen: Oh lordy lord, I would not be where I am, or as confident in my work, if it weren’t for social media. I am so blessed to be living in an era where I have access to the world at my fingertips. It’s so easy for me to create and release a song to the public, without any help from labels. The community of artists that I vibe with have mostly all been through the Internet lurking. It puts things in perspective for me as an artist for setting goals because it allows me to think globally. I’ve noticed that India really digs Horsepowar, and because of social media, I am able to connect with the motherland and share my story from Canada.

Priya: Do you have advice for women of color trying to make it in creative industries?

Maria: I read this somewhere and it stuck with me: “Be the person you needed when you were younger.” Women of color have this special, instinctual sisterhood mentality that’s unique and uplifting. If a WoC chooses to reach out and enter the creative space right now, you can be guaranteed there will be girls like us that are happy to help out.

Sanaa: Reach out to others who are slightly ahead of you, who have already been where you’ve been. It’ll make it a hell of a lot easier if you have a casual mentor to give you advice. If there’s any young photographers out there, email me and I’ll try and listen and help if I can. Also, don’t pressure yourself to churn out work at a consumable rate. I’ve actually slowed down my creating process to ensure my work doesn’t come and go with the current trendy discussions.

If a WoC chooses to reach out and enter the creative space right now, you can be guaranteed there will be girls like us that are happy to help out.

Jasleen: Do you. Don’t change for nobody. Embrace every inch of your existence because you are a piece of art. You are marvelous. Don’t be afraid to contact anyone who inspires you or intrigues you. Be humble, be real, be human. Appreciate the pain because the highs are coming, ride the wave, enjoy the ride and surround yourself with those who respect themselves and respect you. AND, if the work is good, it will speak for itself, but if your work isn’t where you imagined it to be, keep at it because you need to work work work work work work (trust Riri).

Look out for:

The next Hatecopy exhibit 'Don't Cry Over Spilt Chai' in May 2016.

The new EP 'Out 2 Lunch' from Horsepowar

Sanaa Hamid's new YouTube Channel.