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South Asian artists reimagine how we see the pandemic and social distancing

South Asian artists reimagine how we see the pandemic and social distancing


In times of crippling uncertainty and deep human struggle, art gives people hope.

Separated from loved ones and burdened with news of the pandemic, art brings much needed solace, helping us ground ourselves in a world that seems unreal and incomprehensible. Digital artists are creating masterpieces from the comfort and safety of their homes and building a sense of community while Museums and galleries across the world remain closed to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

ProperGaanda reached out to South Asian artists who are reimagining how we see the pandemic and all that it entails; from pieces that embody hope to those that aim to spread awareness, art remains a universal medium that transcends language barriers. 

“Creating digital art during this time of self isolation has been an extremely creative and enjoyable process,” shares Surur Ahsan Hafeez, from @SpacedOutJalebi, “With life slowed down, I feel we have the opportunity to focus on personal projects and think in a more wholesome way without the daily distractions of work and life in general.”

Surur’s work on the pandemic highlights the need for social distancing using colourful elements that can be found in truck art, featuring a Pakistani woman from a movie poster in the 70s.

“The idea behind this piece was to highlight the concept of social distancing using the popular tongue in cheek Urdu phrase “Faasla rakhein warna pyaar ho jaye ga”. It translates to “Keep a distance or you will fall in love” and is painted on the back of Pakistani trucks, so other vehicles around are reminded to maintain a safe distance,” shares Surur.

“Here, this phrase has been tweaked to incorporate the word “Corona” to bring into context the message of social distancing in a light hearted way amidst the panic ridden messages we see daily during this pandemic. The message is to encourage individuals to stay safe and maintain a safe space amongst each other.”

Surur is a Creative Graphic Designer with a Bachelor of Design Degree from OCAD University. She won the Gary Gray Award for her Final year thesis and landed her first job at JWT, one of the top international ad agencies, in Toronto. You can follow her work @spacedoutjalebi_.

Digital illustrator Maham Sohail’s work on the Covid-19 pandemic is two-fold, while one piece highlights internal struggle, the second looks outward, showcasing a vacant and unreal world.

“Its been a challenge to keep my creative flow up during the quarantine, but art has been great way to release pent up emotions during this difficult time and provide relief as well as entertainment for others,” shares Maham.

No Sunny Side by Maham Sohail

“I made this illustration on a day when my friends and I were feeling particularly irritable and helpless. It was this feeling of not being able to do much except read the news.”

Internal Ghost Town by Maham Sohail

“Staying up one night, I couldn’t help but crave human contact outside the house. There was a feeling of vacancy I couldn’t shake. So, I made this. An abandoned planet overrun by strange vegetation with the remains of some sort of life.”

Her work can be followed here.

Shehzil Malik’s work on the pandemic is dark and demands attention.

by Shehzil Malik

“I think this is coming from trying to wrap my head around the sheer enormity of this pandemic and realising that the experts are saying we are at war,” replied Shehzil when I asked her the meaning behind her piece.

“Not to cause panic but to underscore the gravity of the situation where if we are not cautious, we will collapse our healthcare system. If the doctors at the frontlines die, the results are unimaginable.”

Shehzil Malik is an internationally published book illustrator who focuses on human rights, feminism and South Asian identity. She is a Fulbright scholar and leads a studio that works on social impact projects.

Daft Draft is another South Asian illustrator who has amassed a lot of popularity in the recent past, with their nuanced commentary on social norms.

Fomo Nomo by Daft Draft

“Creating in isolation has been a bit of a challenge as the anxiety of Covid-19 has been weighing down on me and as an artist,” shares Daft Draft, “I have to really fight it in order for my creativity to stay afloat.”

“This piece (fomo nomo) is a light hearted take on Covid-19, trying to make people feel better about being isolated. The whole idea of FOMO fails to exist if there is nothing to really miss out on. I chose an Urdu font simply because I wanted to experiment with new ways of designing.”

Daft Draft, is a Pakistani-Canadian illustrator and copywriter with a degree in Advertising from OCAD University. Born and raised in Karachi, Daft Draft has been living between Karachi and Toronto in the past decade and is extremely passionate about creativity of all sorts, whether it’s art, or their second love; cooking. “Humour is something I find comfort in and has become a part of me in the last year.”

Zoe Harveen Kaur from ZHK Designs tells me, “The isolation period is actually really helpful to my work. It allows me to reevaluate my art, realise what I want to create and formulate new projects for the future.”

Zoe’s piece shows a woman of South Asian descent dressed to the nines, but with two additions: a mask and gloves.

“The piece above was created to not only raise awareness about the current quarantine period, but to remind everyone to continue loving art, fashion and style.” Zoe shares that she is using this time to connect with other creators and work on collaborations.

As an artist, ZHK focuses on South Asian trends and traditions, while fusing those cultural practices with Western ideals. She began illustrating 3 years ago. “I definitely strive to educate others through my art, whether it be on myself or on a piece of South Asian history.”

Pakistani digital illustrator based in Turkey, DigInk, also used a mask and gloves to add to his ongoing series on Mughal art.

“What would a Mughal look like in present day isolation lifestyle?” asks DigInk.

“Creating artwork in isolation isn’t that hard for me. I’m in Istanbul anyway so I’m far from the world as it is,” he shares when I ask him how quarantine is effecting his creative process. “However, it has given me more time to work more, and the topic of isolation relates to everyone thus it’s getting more and more engagement. However, I’d take getting back on our normal life than engagement any day.”

Digital Illustrator Ammara Sikander has curated a three part series on public awareness.

“A smile is happiness you will find right under your nose…….. Let’s not touch it.”
“Truth sits upon the lips…….. DON’T TOUCH THEM”

The illustrator behind Patri Aadmi, reimagines what “The Last Supper” would look like if it was painted in the present.

Patri Aadmi also shared that staying and working from home was affecting his work. “Ever since isolation, my pace has dropped massively because of work-from-home scenario at my day job. And since my work is inspiration based, theres is very little happening right now apart from corona.”

Sabah Nawar, the illustrator behind Saba Noir, is using this time to revisit her passion for drawing. “I was through a lot mentally last year I’ve seldom drawn since then. In one way, it’s nice to have the time to draw.”

Sabah Nawar is a graphic designer and artist based in Pittsburgh. She currently works as the graphic designer for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and takes freelance clients as well.

Thashali, the illustrator behind Mon__ara, reimagined Disney’s Mickey Mouse during the pandemic.

“During the height of panic buying and price gouging, I wanted an image that represented the absurdity of consumerism. Disney’s Mickey Mouse represents both corporate wealth and the complete opposite of what we are feeling right now: fearful and uncertain of the future. Inspired by Banksy, I thought that juxtaposition would be interesting.”

Thashali is currently in med school. “We were dismissed from our hospital rotations. I want to help and be useful in a healthcare setting during this pandemic but the best way for me to do that right now is through social distancing and self-isolation.”

“Curating content is my tranquility in this chaos. Everyday, I’m awed by the resilience of the human spirit and I know this too shall pass.”

“It’s a very common hearing that great artists go into isolation in order to create great art but for me as an artist I like to analyse my environment, people, different roles, characters, and subjects surrounding me,” shares 21 year old Farwa from Sialkot, Pakistan. Her work shows the characters of the popular Bollywood film, Kal Ho Na Ho on a cassette with the message “Stay Home, Stay Safe.”

In Pakistani culture, Chai has a strong association with family bonds and conversation – and many of us are probably turning to it at this time of turmoil.

“As a digital artist in this day, age and situation I think art has secured a greater place than just being ‘cathartic’ for artists who create content. I think taking up on witty banter and pairing it with art gives a new twist to relate to this quarantine we are all going through as a society,” shares Eesha Dawood, a Lahore based digital illustrator who is doing her undergrad in Istanbul.

“This piece was inspired by a few childhood favourites of mine, the show Winx Club” and the film “The Last Unicorn”. I like fantasy art but I’ve noticed there’s rarely a brown skinned person shown in it so I decided to make it myself,” shares the illustrator behind Sleepy Soy Milk.

On creating in isolation and drawing inspiration, she adds, “I actually haven’t been creating or posting much because it’s definitely hard for me to feel inspired during this time since a lot of my inspiration comes from surrounding myself with creative people and going outside so it’s been tough but I’m trying to get through it.”

Graphic Designer Mahnoor shares she curated this piece while watching the news on Covid-19 during isolation. “What is bothering me is this situation and all the people who have to sit at home and worry.”

Here is another piece of work from Mahnoor, titled Quarantine Mood.

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