CULTURE & ARTS

A Young Artist Wants To Give South Asian Women The Spotlight They Deserve

Pakistani American artist Ayqa Khan talks body hair, stereotypes and working on the Internet.

Peer into one of Ayqa Khan's electric illustrations and one of the first things you'll notice, undoubtedly, is the presence of lush body hair dotting the legs, arms and chins of her stunning characters.

The women she draws, flanked by a mix of traditional South Asian motifs and totems of youthful American culture, are not hiding their stubble. They sit, stand and kneel in poses that do anything but hide their hair, as they smoke cavalierly behind a box of mithai or cruise across a roller rink. More often than not, her female subjects are seen legs and arms outstretched, faces calm, cool and collected amid a backdrop of saturated purples, greens and oranges.

"My intentions are to normalize [body hair]," she explained in an email exchange with The Huffington Post, "because it is something that shouldn't be a huge deal considering body hair is natural and the removal of it is a social construct." The young, New York-based photographer and digital illustrator is just as direct when she speaks of her desire to counter the stereotypical images of South Asian women in mainstream media. 

"South Asian woman do not get enough representation in most spaces and I feel the need to express this in an organic way."

Khan describes herself as an "artist from the Internet," which is true -- her work can be found on a carefully curated Tumblr and her art-focused website. On Tumblr, she regularly interacts with her followers, many of whom thank her for presenting body hair in the way that she does. "I am actually crying because I have always been pained by my body hair but seeing you so beautiful and confident really touched my soul," one fan wrote. 

We reached out to Khan to talk more about her life online and beyond.

First off -- can you tell me a little about your background and your life in Brooklyn?

I am a first generation Pakistani American and have lived in New York my entire life. I was living in Brooklyn the past two years for school, but recently decided to take a break and move back home to Long Island. I felt rather lonely in Brooklyn and, although I’m back with my parents, those feelings have remained but in a more matured way. It’s great to have access to food and shelter without much responsibility, but living in my household comes with an unsaid pressure of picking a goal and working toward it.

My dad has no clue that I am actually constantly creating and working toward my individual goals. I'm not sure what he thinks at all. 

I read in one of your past interviews that you tend to shy away from labels, but can you pinpoint what influenced your decision to open up to the public and show your work?

The reason I was, and still am, so drawn to posting my work online is due to the Internet being a huge platform that is incredibly accessible. I always went to the Internet to draw inspiration when I wasn't able to go to a library or a museum. Furthermore, when I started coming across artists who posted their work online and were receiving active feedback, I felt compelled to try it out.

I never went to an art school or took any art courses so, not only did I not have access to a space to create, but there wasn’t anyone but myself to critique my work. It is important to me to progress creatively and the Internet allows me to watch myself through this process.

I was initially drawn to your illustrations because they so boldly show the presence of body hair on women -- something that commercial or conventional mainstream imagery doesn't always do. Was this a deliberate aesthetic choice? If so, why?

I am actively drawing body hair. My intentions are to normalize it ... because it is something that shouldn't be a huge deal considering body hair is natural and the removal of it is a social construct, yet the judgement and pain that comes with having body hair is one that is harmful and needs to be stopped.

I can say that I have received criticism from my past friends and family members about the thickness and length of my hair and how it’s “gross" and "unfeminine," so this attitude is one that I'm constantly trying to break.

Your work is also distinct in its color palette -- each image seems to have a hue that jumps off the page, despite you working in a two-dimensional realm. Are you influenced by any other artists or aesthetics?

I am very influenced by South Asian culture, especially in regards to clothing and cinema! But I am also very drawn to youth culture in America varying from different decades.

My development right now as a young adult has allowed me to become very sensitive to those experiences and I tend to draw a lot of inspiration from the emotions they provoke. I use different mediums to explain my displaced feelings. Mohammed Fayaz is an incredible illustrator who always inspires me. Some other artists I really enjoy are Hassan Hajjaj, Shirin Neshat, Hossein Fatemi and Shadi Ghadirian.

In both your illustrations and your photography, you include real faces and drawings that allude and seem to celebrate different aspects of South Asian culture. Is this an accurate thing to say -- and if so, is this an important part of your practice?

This is definitely an accurate thing to say. South Asian woman do not get enough representation in most spaces and I feel the need to express this in an organic way. A lot of representation toward South Asian culture, especially in media, tends to be very one-sided and stereotypical and these views aren't entirely accurate.

When it comes to appearances, fairer South Asian woman with European features are chosen to represent us. The guy who runs a gas station is always Indian. People who choose a "not so typical" career in maybe the arts or music are seen as "rebellious" and a "disgrace to the family name." When media projects stereotypes, essentially they are representing people as a whole. We all fall into this thin category of what it means to be from a certain race or group. When this is done, it makes voices like mine seem "radical" when in reality, I am just being myself. I'd like to continue breaking these boundaries.

As a young creative person navigating the world of art -- and the vulnerability of showing your work online -- what are some lessons you've learned that have helped you in your work and life?

Being an "artist from the Internet" is one of the most confusing and consuming labels I have yet to immerse myself in. With showcasing work online, I've learned that there is almost a responsibility that comes with projecting yourself. People are watching your work and supporting you, but people are also quick to criticize you if you do something wrong. People online only have access to your online persona and it's natural for someone to make an assumption about you, and that feels kind of desensitizing.

I always have to remind myself how important it is to keep a distance from the Internet because it is very easy to get consumed in a non-physical realm. Projecting my work online has also made me question my ideas of how I define success. The Internet can truly change peoples’ lives overnight and it's almost a bit scary since I've always seen success as something that comes with patience and hard work over a very long period of time. This isn't to say that I still don't feel this way, but I think the Internet can really speed things up in regards to opportunities and, potentially, jobs. I feel like we are at a point in time where the notions and traditions of what it means to be an “artist” is changing and that feels incredibly confusing but the great thing about art, is that art is constantly redefining itself. 

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