Art Is Meant to Be Uncomfortable: Pakistani Artist Shehzil Malik
Digital artist Shehzil Malik. 
Digital artist Shehzil Malik. (Photo courtesy: Shehzil Malik)

Art Is Meant to Be Uncomfortable: Pakistani Artist Shehzil Malik

Shehzil Malik is not your regular 30-year-old. The Pakistani digital artist-designer from Lahore has become a byword for all things feminist and viral, with her artwork resonating with people within and across borders. Whether it’s drawing attention to the searing male gaze on the streets or policing of what women should or shouldn’t wear, or graffiti of a gigantic woman riding a bike and even feminist fashion - Malik’s distinctive art has been creating waves.

Trained in communication design, Malik was initially surprised when she found her personal art going viral on social media and opening doors for global collaborations. "I’ve always been interested in how design can be used to promote social change and I’ve chosen jobs and projects based on this principle. Funnily enough, its been the personal illustrations I draw to let off steam that have become what I’m known for.”

The Quint caught up with Malik to talk feminism, art and using social media as a tool. Edited excerpts:

How difficult is it to be a professional feminist artist in Pakistan today?

Shehzil Malik: I personally feel I’ve been lucky- I have a great set of parents who are cool with me pursuing anything so long as I do it well. Professionally, I’ve worked with good people in advertising - but an agency job wasn’t for me. I had the support I needed to go solo, find collaborators that shared my values and now I’m able to pursue and initiate projects that I feel passionate about.

The feminist ideas are how I see the world as a woman- no one asks me to draw those - it’s just who I am. The fact that they resonate with others is what makes it so interesting. I love representing ideas not seen or talked about in our society.
(Photo: The Quint)
An artwork by Shehzil Malik. 
An artwork by Shehzil Malik. 
(Photo courtesy: Shehzil Malik)

Has peer validation ever been an issue?

SM: I’m usually overwhelmed by how nice people are. I personally want to see more creative expression coming from young people in Pakistan - an authentic portrayal of our lives in art and poetry and music and film - and I think other people are equally excited when they find something that’s relatable. I personally don’t think one should be too hung up about getting validation though - the purpose of art is to express yourself, question the norm, be uncomfortable - it’s okay if everyone doesn’t like it.

(Photo: The Quint)

As the battle for equal rights intensifies across the world, as an artist, what triggers and hampers your creativity the most?

SM: There’s such an information overload that I think its easy to get triggered all the time - especially if you follow the news on social media.

I don’t draw about current affairs because I need time to decompress and think about the issues at large. I take my time and pick the battles I want the art to tackle.
The artist hard at work with her team on a graffiti.
The artist hard at work with her team on a graffiti.
(Photo courtesy: Shehzil Malik)

You share a lot of your work on social media. How effective is it as a tool to spread art? Vis-a-vis your art, how do you feel about what goes viral on social media making an actual impact in real life?

SM: Social media has been a game changer because it removes the gate-keepers in terms of who gets to see your art. Without any connections or contacts, I’ve been able to reach an international audience and talk to people directly. It’s been instrumental in helping me find collaborators.

The artwork that’s gone viral is surprisingly not my happy flowery artwork, but usually the darker, deeply personal work. I think it hits a nerve with women if you talk about our fears and insecurities, the things we find hard expressing. The real life impact of art is hard to gauge but I would hope the conversations it starts and the way people add their own story to it while sharing it lets them express themselves, to challenge the status quo.
(Photo: The Quint)

What inspired your fashion line? How has the response to it been? Is it available outside Pakistan?

SM: The fashion line was a capsule collection with a local clothing retailer, Generation where we worked together to create a line with artwork of bold women and feminist text. Inspirations ranged from the writing of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Muslim artists like Shirin Neshat and Hassan Hajjaj, and the work of Basquiat and Shepard Fairey. The response to it was amazing- it was quickly sold out and it made me happy to think Pakistani women embraced the message.

Having art on clothes takes it to public spaces and have a life of its own. I’m now toying it the idea of creating a product line of my own.

Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol seem to be obvious inspirations. Who else inspires you as an artist?

SM: Well spotted! I also love contemporary illustrators like Yuko Shimizo, Tomer and Asaf Hanaka, Marjane Satrapi, Broken Fingaz, Swoon, Jasjyot Singh. I’m inspired by art that’s beautiful, honest and representative of the artist and and where they’re from.

What are your current and upcoming projects? Any plans to visit India soon?

SM: I’m currently working on a bunch of books all with narratives about kickass women from South Asia and Africa! They’re non-fiction picture books and I’m very excited!

I would love to visit India; I follow the art and design scene and it looks very happening! Please call me over! :)

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