Indian artist depicts female rage in the wake of #MeToo

Indian artist depicts female rage in the wake of #MeToo

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.

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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. 

‘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…

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