Nimisha Bhanot’s art always captured my eye because of the deconstruction of patriarchy that is such a centralized part of her pieces. They weren’t necessarily diaspora fusion pieces, but work that provoked conversation on beef bans and the reproduction of casteism in the Indian national framework. Pieces that have particularly stood out to me are her menstruating goddess piece, which highlights the irony in women being forbidden in religious institutions when menstruating, while logically woman goddesses would menstruate but adorn the temples we are forbidden from. I adore Ironing Out Wrinkles in Your Perception, because a woman once told me that the image reminded her of me, and it kind of did when I had longer hair. I later found out that the model was an Eelam Tamil woman, and that portrayal of me (in some ways) was a reassurance that my identity was valid. I had an experience working for Nimisha as her model—she is doing an amazing series that prioritizes dark skin representation within the South Asian community coming. However, the primary thing that captured my allure to Nimisha was a conversation I had with her in a parking lot in her neighbourhood. We spoke of everything from the global art scene, the history of the neighbourhood, transgender rights, caste, travels, and of the wonderful people around her. I found that Nimisha, though so distinguished, talented, and acclaimed, was an incredibly comfortable and normal being. I found comfort in her. I did this interview with her in order to gauge the world in which her work unfolded, and her honesty truly captures her spirit and her resilient use of art towards advancing South Asian femmes.
SPICYWTR Mag was lucky to have a profound and wonderful conversation with Nimisha in order to gauge her pathways towards her current business, and the relationships she’s formed, the barriers she’s faced, and the dreams she’s cultivated.
How and when did you realize that you wanted to pursue art as a career/business?
I think I have always wanted to be an artist and have a career in the arts but when I was younger, I didn’t treat it as more than a hobby. When I was in school for biology I was very lost and felt I didn’t share the same motivations as my peers. Someone asked me, ‘If money wasn’t a problem, what would you do for the rest of your life?’ and that’s when I knew I should take the risk and I’m glad it’s paid off. I have more peace, more direction and I am much happier than before. Every bad day in this art life is infinitely better than any day in any other life for me.
Can you tell us about your South Asian showcase “Do You See What I See”? What exactly were your intentions with creating the showcase and who are some people who will be a part of it?
‘Do You See What I See’ is a group exhibition that I’m curating for the Zista Arts Society. They are a non-profit in Ontario whose aim is to provide a platform for South Asian arts and culture. When I met them in July 2017, I proposed a feminist art show and their team was very enthusiastic about it so we’ve been working together since. I wanted to put together an exhibition of South Asian artists addressing multiple contemporary feminist issues while working in different mediums. It was also very important to have a range of artists varying in levels of experience because I find the art world to be kind of pretentious and wanted to create an environment with an equal playing field that lent itself to the possibility of networking and mentorship between artists. We have established artists like painter Jagdeep Raina who recently had a solo exhibition at Grice Bench in Los Angeles and we have artists who are still in university or graduating like emerging graphic designer Pranavi Suthagar who created the brand Not Sari along with third-year Drawing/Painting student at OCAD, Cherry Kutti. We have artists who are not from traditional art backgrounds as well, like Gender Studies Professor Angela Aujla and journalist/activist/artist Hana Shafi who created Frizz Kid Art. Our reach extends beyond Ontario with brilliant artists like Sandeep Johal and Sara Khan who are from British Columbia. Of the artists above, many are working with painting, drawing, collage, textile or digital media, but we also have sculpture artist Anoop Caur participating along with photographers Zahra Siddiqui and Baljit Singh. This show also provides a peek into what’s happening in the South Asian art scene, which is very underrepresented in Canada. I’m hoping that as a result of this, some of our artists are able to make connections, which will aid in their growth as creatives and hopefully inspire more group exhibitions so that we have solid representation as a community.
Did you have support from your family in pursuing art as a career?
Not in the beginning no, but along the way yes. I think the turning point for my parents was when I drew a portrait of them for their anniversary and then again when they accompanied me at OCADU for National Portfolio Day. I still chose to go with studying science initially because I myself wasn’t convinced of the possibilities and of my own capability as an artist. When I dropped out of UTM they knew I was miserable and although they didn’t love the idea of me working full-time for 9 months, I had a plan and was determined to go back to school and I’m glad they believed in me. While at OCADU I made some very safe art and it wasn’t until my fourth year that I started shifting my focus into more political figurative art based on my identity. This was when I was met with opposition again because they didn’t understand why I was painting what I was painting but we talked it out like we talk out everything else and now I would say I have their complete support. It was a long journey but I am always grateful that they were able to let go of what they thought they knew about a career in art, were eager to learn more and now embrace the possibilities with me.
How has social media impacted your art or the way you do business?
I initially started sharing my work online so that I could have some motivation to create regularly and a platform to share my work publically because I had kept it so private for so long. As a result of continuing to engage in social media, I developed a following of people who were eager to buy my work. This led to the opening of my online store so that people could buy prints. Now I have a small business that allows me to work from home, pay bills and put money back into the business. Now the downside of all of this is that sharing your work online also means that people often take it for granted and abuse it, which can be very difficult when what you’re creating takes time, real money and is very personal. This is why I have an amazing lawyer who has been by my side since day one and is invested in insuring I know all my rights as an artist. I can’t control everything that happens but I find it very valuable to my business and overall mental health to have someone that’s got my back like she has mine.
With regards to how social media has impacted my work, I would like to think it hasn’t at all but that’s not true. I find that sharing your art on social media creates unrealistic expectations for production and over the past two years I’ve had to take breaks because I felt it overwhelming to be bombarded with all the things other people were doing. It put me in a place where I was constantly comparing, competing with others and this mindset is very, very toxic. It’s important to practice mindfulness, to take breaks and look at real art being shown in your community – I found these to be some practices that help me stay afloat. However, social media also allows you to connect with people around the world in ways like nothing else can and there is no price or value you can place on people telling you how much your work inspires them, motivates them and challenges their beliefs. Social media has allowed my work to travel to Australia, Singapore, Qatar, Russia, Johannesburg and even army bases in Iraq. I’m very excited to see over the next few decades how the Internet will change the scope of accessibility to art and all in all, am honoured to be part of a time in history where we are just beginning.
Does the art you put out have a story? What do you want your art to represent?
I wouldn’t really say it has a story, I mean aside from each body of work having the coherence to a theme of some sort. I want to create the art I never got to experience while growing up – I think this has been my greatest motivation. I want South Asians to see themselves in my work, for our women and femmes to feel validated, honoured and represented for their individuality in ways that our community has deemed as taboo or ‘un-South Asian’. I want to disrupt the norm in my own way and inspire others to do the same.
What is the biggest take away you’ve learned from the beginning of your journey as a creative to now?
Nobody is going to create opportunities for you, you absolutely need to chase after them yourself. Also to practice mindfulness – I cannot stress this enough. When what you’re creating is based on your life experiences and community, it comes with a mix of emotions – some which propel you into the future and some which draw you into the past. The best thing we can do is be patient with ourselves and do our best to be in the present.
What was one thing that held you back from showcasing your art in the early stages?
I felt there was no place for work like mine because I wasn’t seeing it anywhere, but I was also not looking very deep for it either. I also had some very grand delusions of being picked up by a gallery for representation with minimal effort and felt that this way was the only way to make it in the art world. The truth is that it’s not, there are many independent artists doing big things today because of opportunities they created for themselves. I feel like I have a more humble approach towards exhibiting my work, now more than ever and hopefully, this means that I will be able to part take in more opportunities to exhibit.
As you get older, what are you becoming more and more afraid of?
Oh man, what a question! I’m turning 29 in two days so this is hitting me like a ton of bricks LOL. I don’t know if I’m becoming more and more afraid of anything that I know I’m becoming more and more aware of my time on this planet and what I want to leave behind. I have always been comfortable with the concept of death but I don’t think I’ll ever really die. Every year I want to look back with pride knowing I created something that will outlive me, my family and any children I may have. I guess this means I’m most afraid of not leaving a legacy behind.
What are you most insecure about, and how do you get in the way of your own success?
I’ve always had this desire to be liked and be respected by everyone at all times and it is so unbelievably unrealistic. I’d get in my own way by putting myself down when I couldn’t form partnerships with other artists or gatekeepers, by making myself believe I wasn’t made for the contemporary art world. This is all nonsense! I don’t owe anyone anything and they don’t owe me. I owe it to myself to keep blinders on and stay focused on my vision.
What do you like to listen to while you paint?
I will listen to anything I’m in the mood for that day. Lately, I’ve been starting studio sessions by listening to La Verdolaga by Toto La Momposina, something about the percussions in this song puts me in such a happy mood. I listen to a lot of playlists which feature samples used in some of my favourite albums (which is how I stumbled upon La Verdolaga via Tidal’s playlist of samples used in 4:44) because it puts me in touch with music I’ve never heard before or probably wouldn’t seek out. A lot of Kanye West, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Brockhampton, Whitney Houston, Feist, James Blake, old Bollywood tunes, Radiohead, Dinah Washington, Peggy Lee, Etta James, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.
Which piece(s) are you most proud of?
I’m proud of all my work because each painting tells a different story about my life and the lives of individuals I’m inspired by. I think I’m most proud of the first painting I did of myself as a badass bride, titled ‘OG Badass Bride’ (2012). This painting gave birth to everything that came after it. It took courage to paint it and bring it home so I could store it in my parent’s house even though it made them so upset to see their daughter painted as a bride wearing a white lengha while puffing on a cigar. I think the next painting I’m most proud of is Ironing Out Wrinkles In Your Perception (2015). When I was in school taking figurative painting classes we never had models that had dark skin and this made me very anxious about painting women with dark skin. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I wanted it to be as perfect as it can be and was doubting my ability. I’m very happy with how it turned out, not just aesthetically but also for the meaning it has to Tamil and other South Asian women who have darker complexions who want to see their sexuality and confidence celebrated in art. This painting also inspired my current series exploring the perception of complexion within our community. The third painting I’m most proud of is Venus Shraya (2016). This painting is of Canadian artist/author Vivek Shraya, imitating a very traditional pose seen in Titian’s 1534 Venus of Urbino. It was very important for me to show the world her god-like beauty with this piece. I was involved from makeup to clothing, staging and photography before the painting was begun and it was one of the most personal and rewarding photo shoots I’ve done in a long time! My fourth favourite is tied between ‘Bharti and the Cheeseburger’ (2016) and Shameless Menstruating Goddess (Does God Get A Period?)’ (2017). These paintings both took a very long time to complete: Bharti – 180 hours and Shameless – over 300 hours. ‘Bharti and The Cheeseburger’ (2015) was inspired by the Maharashtra beef ban and the 2015 Dadri lynching in India and features Dr. Tanya Rawal of Saree Not Sorry, protesting while wearing a saree and eating a beef burger. This painting is reminiscent of pinup art and is playful, sexy and free but her gaze is daring, her pride in nationality is loud and she doesn’t care what India thinks of Hindu women eating beef. ‘Shameless Menstruating Goddess (Does God Get A Period?)’ (2017) is a painting of myself dressed as a Hindu goddess while visible menstruating through my saree. This painting speaks out regarding menstruation and religious taboos – I think it’s ridiculous that women are barred from prayer, cooking, cleaning, self-care while menstruating when men and women in Hinduism worship female deities all year long. It makes you wonder, ‘does God get a period?’
What advice would you give to those who want to go down a similar path?
I would advise that anyone choosing this life should just go out and get it! Print business cards, show up for openings, share your work online and in person within your community. Art can be unstable and sometimes life gets in the way and forces you to do something else, but nobody with a desire to create should ever stop creating. I’ve seen the urge to create manifest in people in their 60s because they didn’t get the chance when they were younger – there is no age limit on learning and potential. Take it seriously, find a space just for creation if you can or make one. Invest in good materials and learn about steps you can take to preserve your work to the best archival quality. Learn to document your work or find someone who can because once an artwork is sold, it’s gone and you need to have something to show what you’ve created over the years. Learn about copyright and moral rights you have as an artist in your country – most of this information is available online on federal websites for free. Lastly, learn to be patient with yourself and indulge in self-care – it will drastically improve your relationship with your work.
Who had the biggest impact on the person you have become?
I think my sister Monisha and my best friend Navdeep have had the biggest impact on who I am and their support is still shaping me into the artist and human being I have yet to become. Their unconditional love has helped me get through so much. Both don’t have careers in the arts but are eager to learn about it, participate in my ventures and love debating ideas with me. Aging with friends into adulthood is difficult and it’s so valuable to have people there for you who understand and see the real you despite how much your life changes. They are my centre when I spin away, they are home.
Learn more about Nimisha Bhanot’s and her work on her website.