Shehzil Malik: “We need more voices and more stories”
Shehzil Malik is an artist, designer and illustrator. Her work features themes of gender equality and creating social change through design. We interviewed her about her work and experiences as an artist working in Pakistan.
A great deal of your work features the issue of street harassment. Can you talk about the difficulties of navigating public spaces as a woman? What triggered your wish to address this topic?
I made a series of artworks about the difficulty of going for a walk as a catharsis for the emotions I was feeling at that time – how something as commonplace as walking felt like an act of rebellion in my household. I had never expected this artwork to be seen and understood by so many people, both in Pakistan and overseas. It’s been eye-opening to see how many of the experiences faced by women are common across societies. My thoughts about the difficulties faced by myself change and evolve with time, but certainly Pakistan offers a uniquely gendered approach to life. We haven’t invested in our public spaces with women in mind; our cities are not pedestrian-friendly and our society is severely class stratified. All of these add up to an environment where women stepping out is not the norm, and those who do so face a hostile environment in which men are not accustomed to their presence.
Your artwork often features women in cool and original clothing. How important do you think dress is to self-expression? What are the issues around using dress as a means for self-expression in an environment where women’s bodies are continually sexualised?
I think clothes are not only a form of self-expression, but as an artist, clothes offer a canvas unlike any other- you have the ability to transform women into waking artworks that can start a conversation. While designing clothes, I was struck by the notion that whatever women wear is always seen as a political statement. It’s not just about sexualizing women’s bodies; it’s a matter of power and control. Societal opinion on what it is considered acceptable defines the clothes you are ‘allowed’ to wear. I chose to design straightforward silhouettes, but with provocative prints. I think it’s fascinating how within the narrow framework of a Muslim society where modest clothing is a requirement, we have a thriving and sophisticated fashion industry. Women will always find a way to express themselves despite constraints.
When did you decide you wanted to be an illustrator and designer? How did you get into it?
I’ve been drawing since I was a child, so I knew I wanted to be an artist growing up. Going to art school made me realize how design is art with a purpose and that illustration is a powerful tool for communication. I’m still learning and growing, and it’s amazing to use your work with storytelling and humanity as the core ingredients.
As a woman, has it been difficult pursuing this career?
My parents have always been supportive of my pursuing anything so long as I was good at it! My first job was as art director of a socially conscious clothing brand and my second was as art director at an advertising agency. I have never experienced discrimination in the work place because of my gender. I think the only difference I noticed earlier in my career when I was working non-stop was that I was told that I was spending too much time working and that my priorities were out of order: marriage comes before pursuing a career. That’s also a very Pakistani point of view – men here are subject to the same pressure albeit to a lesser degree. I choose to ignore these suggestions!
In terms of the creative process for your work – can you explain how a piece comes together? How long does it take to finish a design?
Every project is different. I take the most time deciding what to draw, while the actual drawing is a quick slap-dash process for me. I tend to overthink everything and so deciding the subject matter and how it fits into contemporary Pakistani visual culture is what I spend the most time on. Commercial projects are more straightforward and it’s fun to collaborate and create something I would not have designed on my own.
Your art is strikingly contemporary, with the use of cartoon imagery – but how far are you inspired by Pakistani and South Asian art and crafts?
I’ve always drawn in a comic-inspired manner- probably because of growing up obsessed with American comic books and cartoon shows. Once I returned to Pakistan after my Masters abroad, I changed what I drew to deliberately incorporate Pakistani imagery- from our architecture to textiles, our complexion and clothing choices. I care about representation. I often try to combine Western influences with Pakistani elements to draw a more authentic picture of my life here- a snapshot of how my friends and I dress and think. I want to draw art that I could relate to as a young Pakistani, an alternative to the mainstream stories you hear about this part of the world.
How has Pakistan changed over your lifetime?
The change can only be described as pretty drastic. Post 9/11 Pakistan is a far cry from my childhood. I couldn’t have imagined the kind of security crisis we now experience so often here. The increasing intolerance, the rising feelings of hopelessness against the changes we see. After the political upheaval we experienced recently it’s easy to fall into despondency.
What do you hope to accomplish through your art?
This is a constantly changing idea. Like most artists, I tend to live in my own head a lot and so it’s very much about my feelings at the moment. What I’ve been told is that my artwork has been able to express an emotion others share which has made them feel represented and seen and I can’t think of a better outcome of creating art.
You are creating a huge buzz with your talent. Did you ever think your work would spread as far as it has done?
I don’t think I’ve fully understood the success and praise I’ve received. I’m overwhelmed and so grateful to be able to make a living off my art. That in itself was my childhood dream; the work being seen by so many people blows my mind.
Do you have a stand-out career highlight?
It has to be the fashion line I designed in collaboration with my favourite Pakistani clothing brand. I was given free rein to design the collection and I ended up drawing strong women and feminist statements on clothes. Seeing people embrace the collection and its message has been such a thrill!
In an interconnected age, we’re seeing a great mix of cultural influences. How is that reflected in your work? Are there tensions between Western and Eastern aesthetics, and if so how do you bridge them?
I tend to look at this interconnectedness as a good thing. We need a counter to the overt racism and tribalism we are now seeing worldwide. We have so many shared human experiences, and art is such a strong medium to create empathy. Whether it’s drawing a brown Wonder Woman or deliberately drawing women with a mix of East and West, I want to blur the lines of identity we are often defined by.
In your opinion, can you tell us why is art important in the world we live in today?
In the age of the internet we now have a barrage of opinions and information coming at us at every given point. Art can cut through the clutter and communicate an idea succinctly – hitting home by appealing to our emotions. Art can influence opinions, challenge the status quo and communicate your political leanings. Being a creator of art comes with its own responsibilities: what is the message are you communicating and what is the result you want?
Can you explain the purpose of the Wall of Tolerance project?
That project came from the initiative taken by the Democratic Students Alliance to protest the rise of extremism after a suicide bombing occurred on Easter Sunday 2016 at a local park. A bunch of us got together to paint a message of peace on the boundary wall of the park and it was an emotional experience for all of us. We talked to families visiting the site as well as the policeman stationed there. It was a small gesture to feel less helpless in the face of such tragedy.
Do you think that a positive change can be achieved in Pakistan?
I recently worked on a book by Aisha Saeed where she writes about Pakistan saying, ‘If everyone decided nothing could change, nothing ever would.’ It’s true.
sister-hood is about empowering women of Muslim heritage, for any women out there who may wish to do what you do – is there any advice you can share?
I constantly question myself and what I do, and my advice would be to not hold yourself back, even if you don’t have all the answers. We need more representations of women, especially Muslim women, because there is so much diversity and complexity in our experiences. I shy away from blanket statements about what it means to be a Muslim woman precisely because it differs so much from person to person. We need more voices and more stories so we can represent a wider spectrum of women and validate and talk about these rich lived experiences.
To see more of Shehzil’s work, you can visit her website here.