Seeing Nimisha Bhanot’s work for the first time was like falling in love. It was this blissful, transcendental moment of realization that I had finally found the very thing I had unknowingly been looking for my whole life: a portrayal of South Asian girls who were not conservative or “traditional”, who were confident, bold, beautiful badass, and who had no time for judgement or social norms. That’s why I was so excited when Bhanot graciously agreed to let me interview her for OCA!
Bhanot is an Indo-Canadian artist based in Toronto and has become very popular because of her Indian pinup girl painting series in which she confronts traditional attitudes and expectations of South Asian women and breaks barriers to open dialogue on sensitive issues such as rape, which have become a hot topic in India since the death of Jyoti Singh in 2012.
OCA: How did you first get into art?
Nimisha Bhanot (NB): I’ve always loved art and when I was younger I treated it as a hobby. When high school came around I took Visual Art every year because it was fun, relaxing (I used to feel stressed a lot about grades) and because it would help me maintain my average. When I was at University of Toronto-Mississauga (UTM) I was in their Life Sciences program and I hated everyday of it, so art became therapy for me to help me manage stress and the confusion in my life at that time. My interest in art continued to grow while I was doing Life Sciences and I got to a point where I had to drop out because I was never happy and as a result was struggling in school, this is when art became my life.
OCA: Asian parents are often stereotyped for looking down on the arts, and for not encouraging their children to pursue arts as a serious career- what was your experience?
NB: Initially, my parents were not very supportive because they thought art was a hobby. My father is a finance professional so to him, the instability of the arts was concerning. As I continued to experiment with different techniques and materials they themselves became more interested because I was always making art in their basement. When I had to pick universities in high school they wanted me to pursue art because they didn’t think I could do science, but I’ve always been a bit of a rebel so I did the opposite of what they thought I should do. Sure enough after a year and a half, I knew I had to drop out. My parents weren’t happy that I was quitting the sciences and giving up. At this point I think they were more concerned about me not having a degree rather than where it was coming from. It wasn’t easy for them to let go of the fact that I was going to be ‘behind’ in comparison to my friends, or let go of the fear that I’d drop out again but I think they knew I was happier and that definitely gave them some peace and belief in me again.
OCA: Where do you place your art in terms of the South Asian artistic tradition or the contemporary art scene?
NB: I think I’d place myself right in the middle of both scenes. The purpose of combining Eastern and Western aesthetic in my work is to communicate my diasporic identity. I went to art school and looked at a lot of American and European art, but felt I couldn’t see myself in it so I wanted to change that because I knew that if I could relate, many others would be able to as well.
OCA: What inspired you to start your pinup work, and what message do you want to send through it?
NB: I’ve always loved American pinup art because I envied pinups for being a symbol of sexy patriotic pride, meanwhile in our community, the words ‘sexy’ and ‘patriotic’ are rarely ever put together. You see, India is a woman and what ‘type’ of woman she is will either protect her from the male gaze or make her the subject of it. On a broader scale this is the core of the problem with the perception and role of all South Asian women. If an Indian woman has sexual confidence, drinks, goes out late at night or has male friends; she is considered to be ‘un-Indian’ and therefore cannot be the bearer of patriotic pride, let alone ‘sexy patriotic pride’. She is to be shunned and treated as an outcast. This really struck a chord with me because growing up I was proud of being both but could never place myself between being South Asian and being Canadian. Sometimes I was too white for my heritage, sometimes I was too brown for my country. I decided to start painting these pinups so I could challenge the way South Asian women are perceived while also correcting the vintage American pinup and portraying her as a woman of colour to be more reflective of modern diaspora. Instead of appearing aloof and unaware, there is a strong emphasis on the gaze in my pinups. They all look back at the viewer almost as if they are aware that they are being judged. I think that Bollywood, South Asian soap operas and our culture does enough to shun the (very real) women I’m portraying, so I’m immortalizing them in my paintings because they deserve to be celebrated and not just swept under the rug.
OCA: How have people within the South Asian community, as well as people outside it, received your work? Have the reactions differed in any way
NB: Overall, people in both communities have received the work very well and I think it’s because the paintings are beautiful to look at and because their meaning is relatable to anyone that’s ever grown up with two cultural identities. I always show my work in downtown Toronto and there is a very multicultural crowd here. I’ve had South Asian, European, African, East Asian, Caribbean, even Australian viewers all tell me different stories about how they relate to my work and I consider myself very lucky to inspire and empower so many different people.
OCA: You kind of became an internet celebrity (at least among the online Asian community) after a Buzzfeed article featured your work. How has the attention from that been?
NB: The attention post Buzzfeed India’s article about my work has been great, I cannot complain, not even one bit. I received (and still get) an insane number of emails from people all over the world telling me how much my work means to them, how it empowers them and comforts them. I’ve had opportunities come out of the exposure that I never would have imagined 8 months ago, so I’m very grateful because that one article *as cheezy as it sounds* kind of changed my life. I haven’t had negative experiences, but I’ve read some negative comments online from people that have take offense to some of my subject matter. I appreciate all feedback whether it’s good or bad, because it teaches me how people perceive my art and informs future work.
OCA: What are your plans for the future?
NB: Well, I’d like to get into grad school and do an MFA sometime! I really love being in school, I love being challenged and I think that at some point I would love to teach too. I’ve had some great teachers and professors over the years that have shaped the way I work and I want to do the same for others. Until then I will keep painting, showing and sharing my work. I’m going to be starting a new series this winter which will explore complexion and body image and I’m very excited about this one – stay tuned!
To see more of Bhanot’s work, follow her on Instagram @nimishabhanot