Learning Hinglish in New York City: An interview with Maria Qamar
Aug 28, 2019
Maria Qamar’s bright Pop-Art canvases have brought a splash of color to Richard Taittinger Gallery and New York City’s Lower East Side. Qamar’s exhibition FRAAAANDSHIP! explores some of the realities and challenges of gender, patriarchy, love and friendship. Her work is deliberate, purposeful, and created with a Desi audience in mind. She intends for it to speak to her cousins and friends. Having Maria and her work in the gallery has created an entirely new energy in the space, and introduced a nuanced feminist point of view. Mera Jism, a 5 foot vertical canvas, explodes off the wall, insisting that a woman’s body is a strong and powerful weapon. Qamar’s works challenge the patriarchy, but they also make you smile. Hai Rabba echoes back to Lichtenstein and reminds viewers of the exhausting reality of falling in love… again. But perhaps the most exciting element of Qamar’s FRAAANDSHIP! has been Qamar herself. She is articulate, poised, and sure of her work.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
eazel: What are your first impressions, after the opening of your first solo show in NYC?
Maria Qamar: I’m such a marketing person that I’m like “key impressions” what are the numbers… I’m super overwhelmed with the Love. The fact that people show up always surprises me because I’ve spent a lot of time alone making these things. I sit alone a lot with my ideas and my thoughts so having the physical presence of everybody is super important and that was my first impression, it’s like… holy crap there are people here!!
You identify your audience as Desi(i) and South Asian communities. Has this been true of your show in NYC? Have you been surprised by any of your fans or collectors?
I’ve been surprised positively by people that consistently engage with my work, but also bring family to engage with my work. I think that’s such an important thing to do generally with your family. To start at the root to explain this movement of feminism and empowerment and explaining that certain parts of our tradition are just too old school and too rooted in patriarchy. We (our fathers, uncles, aunties and ourselves) should all work with each other and have these discussions to eradicate some of those old-school shitty values or traditions which are just patriarchal bull shit.
But I think the crowd that was here, I mean anytime I travel or do pop up, is a crowd of people like me. Its girls, women and men that would be part of my family or my friend group. I was friends with basically everybody there, so it was a really good time.
Why was it important for you to do a show in NYC? and was it important for you to do a show in a traditional gallery space?
It does feel like it’s very natural for me to be here. Obviously, the art scene is more vibrant and I thought that it could use some diversity because many galleries are catering to a primary Caucasian audience. I just think it’s time to break that mold a little bit.
It really felt empowering me to say that this gallery show is for Desis by Desis, about us. It’s fun its light hearted and you can come and crash on some beanbags. You could take a nap on them if you want. I tried to make it as comfortable and unapologetically Desi as I could. I don’t want anybody to feel intimidated, because a gallery space is pretty sterile. There are white walls, price tags and a lot of people would just dismiss it and go, “I wouldn’t even walk in there, I don’t even understand art, its not for me.” But something like this, they have already interacted with online, they have already seen it in pop culture, and they have already seen it in the media. So now we can say, “OK you’ve already engaged with it outside, now welcome inside to look at it up close.”
You have to contend with the reality of being both a woman and a brown woman in an industry that still seems to cater largely to white men. Your work seems to address this head on. Is that intentional?
I’ve never compared myself to a white man, nor will I ever. I think for me what is important is to just talk about myself. I like talking about our things. I wasn’t born and raised in the West, so for me a lot of my roots and influences and things that I love and love doing are connected to my home, which is now half Desi and half Western. But I like that I can mesh the two on my own terms and not have my work compared to white artists because there is just no comparison. Yeah, it is Pop Art, but it terms of the context and in terms of everything else it has nothing to do with a white audience
You speak Hindi and Gujarati and infuse elements of these languages in your work. What does it meant to you to have this language incorporated in your work?
I speak Hindi and Gujarati and I understand lots of other dialects just by the nature of hanging out with such a diverse group of people. I normally try to keep it to Hinglish because that’s how I talk in real life. That’s how my brother and I talk, that’s how my cousins and I talk, so its very natural for us to speak like that. I wanted to keep that true to the work.
Tell me about the Lota (Shit Happens, Yar!, 2019).
The lota or the bodna is a device that has been used for centuries or maybe longer to clean your butt. It is an item that everybody in many Asian countries have next to their toilet (I mean I grew up with it beside my toilet). It is like a hand held bidet.
The reason I did it was because anytime someone that isn’t Desi comes over, we have this tendency to hide it or try to explain it because it looks like a watering can or a teapot or whatever. But over a billion people know what it is. But its our best kept secret. I think that It’s hilarious because somebody had to create it for that purpose, and that person is an artist, and that person should be treated as an artist. They engineered the spout perfectly so that the water goes to your ass. It’s a thing that I don’t think we should be ashamed of. I think we should blow it up and you know shit happens, it is what it is. That goes for a lot of our cultural things too, where once we were ashamed of certain aspects of it because we were made to believe that it wasn’t good enough, or it wasn’t normal or whatever. But its normal to us and there are a lot of us.
You told me once that you have always made art and that it was you were meant to do. Was there anyone or anything that encouraged you on this path when you were young?
I think hearing that art isn’t a space for women or that women can’t be artists, is something that drove me crazy. It drove me to just keep working and to keep drawing. I was in the arts. In my mind I wanted to be an artist, so why couldn’t I be just because I’m a woman? That doesn’t make any sense to me at all. I’ve known since I was a baby that whatever gender based restrictions or limitations were imposed on my were eventually going to be called out by me.
Making the choice to make art full time couldn’t have been easy. Is there any advice you wish you could give your younger self?
The only advice would be, “don’t doubt yourself.” But for a long time, I was my own biggest fan, which is one of the reasons I never listened to any of the shitty advice that I was given. Then it was proven to be false and that only made my belief in myself stronger.
How has your social media shared your art or your relationship with your work?
I think the digital aspect of the work makes people who might otherwise not be comfortable in a physical space feel more comfortable. Like for me, I wasn’t allowed to go out and make friends or join afterschool activities or sports teams or extracurricular things as a child so I made friends online which led to me having like extreme social anxiety. I’m still afraid to go to the grocery store by myself because there are too many people. I think having a physical space that mirrors a digital space really makes it somewhat easier for that community to transition into the art world if you’re younger and you’ve never gone to an art gallery, or you are older and you’ve never felt welcome in those spaces. To have that sense of family and sense of community is very important to me.
You are also an author, what inspired that Book and do you want to do another one?
I want to do an Art book, just to have quality images of my work just to have it documented. I would also add some more bits about my life that are a little more serious. As you know Trust no Aunty (Published in 2017, Gallery Books) is a satirical book about you know my dad throwing a shoe a boy he thought I was dating. Things like that are always funny, and a lot of my humor and my work is based on real life stuff. I would love to have a book that kind of celebrates my career that I have been so grateful to have for the last half a decade.
You illustrated Trust No Aunty. Did it start as an illustration project for you, or did you have the concept and then make the illustrations?
I worked with Simon and Schuster to create a concept for the book that originated from a piece of art that I made that said “Trust No Aunty.” They thought it would be really funny if there was a book that kind of told you or your younger self how to navigate the world of aunties advice. It’s a book that you can pick up and read for like 5 – 10 mins and then put down. Or it is a book you can read for like 5 hours and share with your friends. We tried to make it square so it was like Instagramable as well.
Do you have any ideas or plans for future projects?
I would love to have more of these shows. To do bigger, funnier, wittier, more colorful things! I love live shows and concerts and big venues so I want to go wherever the world of Pop Art can take me and it seems like that is kind of limitless at this point.
Yeah it seems like you love working!
I mean the crazier cooler things you can throw my way… I love a good challenge so that is something that drives me.
As we are winding up, are there any questions I should have asked that I didn’t?
No, I don’t think so.
Are there any questions that I did ask you that I shouldn’t have?
Ummm, probably the comparison about white guys. I don’t really care to talk about that kind of stuff. It’s not… Just because I’m pro us doesn’t mean I’m against you. It always ends up being like that when someone of color is making art they always get labelled as a Desi artist or a female artist. You never go to a white guy and say, “do you consider yourself a Caucasian artist or do you consider yourself a male artist?” Its never that way. Its always that way for women and women of color specifically.
(i) A person of Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi birth or descent who lives abroad. (Lexico by Oxford Dictionary)
FRAAANDSHIP! will be on view at Richard Taittinger Gallery, 154 Ludlow Street, until Oct. 6th.
Jenna Ferrey (PhD) recently completed Master’s degree in Art Business from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York City. Her thesis research focused on misogyny in the art world and argued at that a more nuanced understanding of misogyny as a systemic socio-political phenomenon is key to fostering equality. Currently, she works in research and business development with Richard Taittinger Gallery in the Lower East Side of New York City. Jenna holds a PhD from the University of Calgary, Canada, where she studied multiculturalism and religious diversity in Canada. She also holds a Masters of Philosophy degree from the University of Birmingham, UK, and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Ottawa, Canada. Prior to moving to New York City Jenna lived and worked in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her interest and passion for art developed first as a personal hobby and interest; the shift to working in the art market allows Jenna to marry her passion for humanities research with a focus on art in a business environment.