Illustrations by Indian artist Reya Ahmed.
Illustrations by Indian artist Reya Ahmed.

Artist Reya Ahmed’s women characters are extremely angry. It’s 2018, India has finally had its #MeToo movement, and these women have reason to be furious.

In her illustrations dedicated to witches, which perhaps best describes the current predicaments faced by Indian women, she paints a portrait of female rage.

In recent months, men have tried to thwart and undermine the efforts of the many brave women who have gone public with stories of their sexual harassment. In response, the accused men have tried to contort the narrative in their own favor, tried to get away with half-hearted apologies, or even blame the victims by maligning the women involved.

“I wanted to do something about those undermining the #MeToo movement by calling it a “witch-hunt”. So. Yeah. That’s why the three witches are cooking a corporate-looking hand I think. I figured nothing scares a man in a position of power these days like a #MeToo post does,” the 22-year old graphic illustrator said in an email, adding that anger and bitterness have been considered unseemly and often melodramatic emotions where women were concerned.

Sometimes, women are sarcastic and would rather display their softness to their cats than listen to nonsense from a male-dominated world. They struggle between being soft and powerful, between being compassionate and strong, defiant and embracing.

As a child, the Calcutta girl’s fascination with Bubbles from The PowerPuff Girls often spilled onto her artworks as she tried to perfect her yellow pigtails that curved like an ‘S’. Enraptured by Enid Blyton books, the Cartoon Network, Bengali literature and cassette music, Ahmed started spinning short stories spiced with small drawings. While most of her inspirations remained the same, she increasingly started relating to her identity as a Bengali Muslim urban woman, or rather a  ‘non-man’ person growing up in the millennial world and following the 21st-century-urban-feminist routine.

Women-centric art

Ahmed remembers starting out by drawing women – she says they have more elements for an artist to work with, but it is their representation that has always interested her.

“With the current power shift in our patriarchal world, I think I have just reached a point where I’m just not interested in what a cis-hetero (cisgender, heterosexual) man thinks or feels … And so, every time I have to include a male figure in my artwork (rarely, ha!) I’m like “Ugh, no. Not again”. And so what happened very subconsciously, is now a conscious effort on my part to only present a female or non-male perspective through my art,” Ahmed says.

It vexes her that womanhood has always been defined with respect to a man. Her efforts lie in portraying a womanhood that exists in its own right.

“Mainstream movies have always represented strong women to be this manic-pixie-dream-girl for a Woody Allen-esque film hero. So, what are women thinking of when they’re not thinking of romance? Are women really either a Samantha Jones or a Carrie Bradshaw? (Terrible example, but Sex and the City is sort of considered feminist, so…) How do women find their way around religion, or spirituality, perhaps? Why do all ‘chick-flicks’ end in a woman going from a ‘bad guy’ to finding a ‘good guy’? I think these questions have shaped my own reality as a woman, and so I’m trying to explore womanhood by rejecting these normalized notions. I hope to express womanhood through my art, where the reality of patriarchy exists, but not a male perspective on it”, she explains.

Distinct in her artwork is the over-sized, dramatic, oval eye that almost pops out of the female characters’ faces, inspired by and evolved with her love for Jamini Roy, an influential and celebrated Indian painter who hailed from West Bengal. Not only does it make her art look more rooted in Calcutta but also shows that she has a thing for women rolling their eyes at things (as she often does herself), and so they end up looking quite bored or sarcastic, instead of pretty and floral.

Cigarettes, cats, and Calcutta often occupy urgent, pivotal themes in Ahmed’s art, who believes “everything is better in monochrome.”

Her work takes on social patriarchal constructs in the country and does not spare religion. For Durga Puja – a Hindu festival celebrated in India, particularly in the eastern state West Bengal – she illustrated a 21st century goddess Durga flanked by her two daughters in large, smart sunglasses and flamboyant sarees. 

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‘Durga & Her Daughters’. Illustration by Reya Ahmed.

“Durga looks like she’s aged gracefully, has a certain wisdom and is cold and calculating in her ways. Her daughters look like they’re smart, still learning the ropes, but formidable in their own ways. The sons aren’t present, because again, I don’t care much for them,” she says.

One of her most popular illustrations was in response to the Calcutta Metro incident in May when a young heterosexual couple was beaten up by a mob because they were “standing too close” to each other in the train. Following the incident, students from across the city led protests against moral policing.

Ahmed found the hypocrisy of the youth mob nauseating. In response to the incident, she illustrated a parallel scenario where a young lesbian couple is standing and kissing in a compartment, while elders are outraged.

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‘Love in a metro feat. the Indian moral police’. Illustration by Reya Ahmed.

“A strange irony of the situation was that our ‘liberal’ youth often displays the same kind of hate to individuals who are not cis-gendered heterosexuals. In my head, I see the same violence being inflicted upon a homosexual couple by spiteful youngsters. And in this incident, while the anger was justified, the hypocrisy was not,” she said.

She is angry that there hasn’t been a vocal demand for safe spaces in the city when it comes to the LGBTQIA community.

“Yeah okay, a guy and a girl got beaten up. Imagine if it were two men. Or two women?” she wonders.

Ahmed didn’t illustrate two men kissing instead of two women because “same-sex relationships among women face the harassment of being ‘sexualized’ or ‘fetishized’ by heterosexual men, in addition to also being (seen as disgusting). Honestly, it was just cute how homophobic-heterosexual youth felt the need to protest for their safe spaces when they participate in such microaggressions against a community every day.”

Even in her ‘zine, Saintbrush, which Ahmed launched online in 2015 with one print issue, she navigates identity crisis, what it means to be an urban millennial and representing the city in a way that is not the generic dose of nostalgia and unnecessary cultural fetishization.

Ahmed, whose art has been deeply influenced by that of Marjane Satrapi, someday hopes to work on a graphic novel perhaps along the lines of Persepolis, that will explore the identity crisis of a Bengali Muslim in Calcutta.

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