Senna Ahmad, Hafsa Ashfaq, Anum Awan, Nazish Chunara, Nahal Hashir, Mariam Jajja, and Seyhr Qayum talked about their artwork, collaborations, process, and inspirations on WhatsApp over a period of multiple days.
Nazish: This is Nazish! Hi!
Seyhr: Hi guys! Seyhr here!
Nahal: Hey everyone! I'm Nahal :)
Senna: Hi all!!! I’m Senna!
Hafsa: Hi, everyone! This is Hafsa! Just checked out the art! Amazing, amazing work, guys. I’m in awe!
Nahal: Same. Just saw everyone's work. Absolutely amazing!
Seyhr: Hey guys—love everyone's work—it's all so incredible!! Should we get started today/tonight/whatever time it is wherever on the planet you happen to be?!
Nazish: Yeah! Let’s start this!
Hafsa: This sounds good!
Seyhr: How about we start with why we're doing this issue, in terms of pairing our art with the fiction that is meant to be new for desi people. How did that affect how you approached this intellectually and aesthetically?
Senna: Can I start if that’s OK?
Nazish: Yes please do!
Seyhr: Go for it!!!!!!
Senna: So one thing I’ve been really trying to push for in my own art is steering away from what I feel is the typical presentation of “desiness”—especially living in America, it’s so easy to get lost in this weird area of artistic tokenization. I felt that this desi lit issue had somewhat of a similar mission in mind so I was excited for this opportunity. When I was reading the stories and speaking with the writers I did what I could to take the stories for what they are instead of an “exotic” gaze, but still be true to my own voice. The discourse around desi art is finally evolving into something more authentic and less Orientalist, and it’s really exciting to be part of a showcase of artists and writers that are helping it evolve!
Nazish: Yeah, I, too saw that the mission of this issue was to steer away from typical desiness. Though, my art didn't always incorporate my Indian heritage until recently. Even so, it's just a little bit here and there—experimenting, mostly with language, which is why I think I was so intrigued by this pairing of fiction and art. I suppose, in a sense, I wanted relatively more desiness.
Hafsa: Yeah, I agree! And because of this, I tried to incorporate both Western and Eastern styles of illustration together for both my stories by using tiny desi trinkets and details here and there instead of making it completely desi, especially in the second one, where I tried to make three different panels that showed a desi version of mid-century modern illustrations.
Seyhr: I can relate to all this to no end! I think it's interesting that we all had similar thought processes—trying to leave the Orientalist gaze out can get really tricky, especially since I feel that it's something both “desis” and the rest of the world want to see in South Asian art. Which can get exhausting and confusing.
I think what really appealed to me re: the concept for this issue was its deviation from the norm (by which I mean self-orientalizing, standardized "brown" literature that I've read too much of). If I'm being honest I was more excited about reading the stories than I was about anything else—the illustrating/art part was secondary (yes I know I sound like a useless treacherous artist haha)!
Mariam: Yeah for me it was 1) The opportunity to work on a South Asian literary edition was one I could not miss.
Nahal: Well, I love making art that celebrates desi women and highlights social issues, so working on an issue that brought the focus on South Asian culture was an absolute must for me.
I usually incorporate traditional elements into my work along with some edgy typography, but for my first piece, I wanted to do something new for me and show a different aspect of desi women. The second one is kind of the exact opposite, as it showcases lots of traditional elements, and that was really exciting too.
I love how we all kind of went about this in our own way but we still ended up using our art to challenge the existing stereotypes about South Asians and celebrate our traditions.
Here's to redefining the concept of desi!
Nahal: Also, I'm really sorry I'm late to the discussion. I'm actually in Hunza right now, so I have very limited internet access. I might be a little slow, if thats okay.
Nazish: Of course it’s okay! Lovin’ the photos on your Insta about Hunza!
Nahal: Haha thank youuu! Sorry for the spam but everything is just so beautiful
Hafsa: I just saw them too! So beautiful!
Seyhr: So pretty!! Haha I'm so jealous—would much rather be in Hunza right now 😆. I'm not liking the heatwave in Islamabad right now!
Hafsa: Definitely 😅. Karachi is worse ☹️
Seyhr: Oh no! You have my sympathies!! I can imagine that Karachi must be sweltering! I agree with Nahal about the art challenging stereotypes about South Asians part; it feels like everyone was conscious of the socio-political implications of illustrating stories for an edition like this.
Hafsa: Thank you😒😒😒. Yeah, and this way the art caters to everyone which is pretty cool!
Seyhr: Yeah! It's refreshing that South Asian art isn't trying so hard to be South Asian anymore, just for the sake of it! It feels more organic and you're right—that means it's for everyone rather than feeding into a particular narrative.
Seyhr: I'm looking forward to hearing how Anum approached the edition but till they get a chance to text us. I’d love to talk about everyone’s artistic inspirations? Also, out of curiosity—the work that you guys did for this, is that the kind of work you usually do? I'm guessing not in terms of content lol since everything was story-specific, but content even just to an extent? Like, I basically just paint figures and portraits and so for the first illustration I did (Barri Ammi), it didn't even occur to me that the image could exist without a figure.
Hafsa: So the first story I worked, A Strange Call from the Mountain, was something I had done previously; the illustration style was something I was familiar to.
But, the second one, Raid on Madras, was completely different. I wasn’t too familiar how to go about with the mid-century modern style in the second story so I had to research on that a lot. I had to make it super retro too, add textures and play with the font too so that was hard but in the end, I ended up liking it more than my previous one!
So this opportunity was a great learning experience for me.
Nazish: The pieces I painted for these stories is definitely similar to what I usually paint with the exception of my first story, Ahsan’s The Installation, in that it needed to be dark. I tend to paint with bright colors; I love leaving negative space on the page, so it was difficult to gauge how dark to go and how much to fill in. There were a lot of elements from the story to piece together on one page. The process of making these pieces was familiar, however. I've been trying to translate words and sounds onto paper—imagining what they would look like, and so I was happy to continue to do that.
Honestly, it was really nice to be able to just do the work I do...without the pressures of what an Indian artist should do. Also, working with the writers was amazing. It was interesting to learn what they imagined for the artwork—but also were totally open to our interpretations.
Senna: It’s so interesting to see how, regardless of whether we’re part of the diaspora or actually living in South Asia, all of us have such a similar feeling of trying to steer away from what desi art should be! So yeah both my pieces are super different from each other. The Storms is more my typical minimal soft color style, and the other, Grand Tour, is TOTALLY different. A lot of my choices were affected by the stories themselves, I felt so much more “in my element” as I was reading The Storms, in ways it felt like the story was about me which I think reflected in the way I played with the illustration...I was more in my comfort zone with it.
As far as Grand Tour goes, I’m so excited for y’all to read and see how the map and illustrations relate to the story. It’s so different from anything I’ve done before, but I do think the uncomfortable (but incredible!) story did help me step outside of mediums I find comfortable!
Hafsa: I saw Grand Tour and I absolutely loved it! Can’t wait to read the story too!
Seyhr: I'm so excited to read all the stories because I have a feeling the images are going to feel totally different to me once I have! Senna—what was it like working with such a complex mother-daughter relationship for Sarah’s The Storms? As you said, that illustration feels way more like your kinda-minimalist portfolio, so where was that interpretation coming from?
Senna: So because I knew I was working on two different illustrations, I wanted them to be very different from each other in terms of my own style. The mother daughter relationship in the Storms, the inner dialogue that’s so similar to my own...so much of it felt very familiar, very comfortable. I was lucky enough that Kamil gave me The Storms as my first story...because I’ve never done anything like this project before, it felt better to ease into the challenge with what I’m familiar with.
I also saw the mother-daughter relationship in The Storms as fairly universal, which is why I decided to leave the characters almost faceless illustrations of characters I feel can sometimes limit ones imagination in terms of what a character looks like, and I felt that leaving them faceless would allow the reader to fill in these blanks as I did when I read the story.
Seyhr: So you really went out of your comfort zone to interpret Grand Tour! Was that scary? Obviously, it turned out awesome, but how?! Apparently Aatif’s story is a character-study of a misogynist? How did you feel about that particularly re: misogyny?
Senna: Yeah, I sort of took almost the opposite approach for Grand Tour as I did for The Storms. What stood out to me the most about Aatif’s story was the main character’s gaze and the descriptions of the city. With such attention to detail and close observation that the protagonist shared with us, I knew that I couldn’t take a minimalist approach.
The misogyny was...uncomfortable...at first. While reading, I thought of the countless times men who casted their predatory, hungry, and straight up creepy gaze towards me. This is why the eyes were so vital to the piece. It was important to me to display the all-too-familiar, all-too-terrifying eyes that police, that demand, that consume, until they’re done with you!
I think Aatif provided such an incredible comparison of the way Masood viewed and collected women the same way colonizers viewed and collected lands. I felt like Masood thinks of himself as an “explorer” of the world the same way Columbus did, when actually the outcomes of Columbus’ explorations were for selfish means. Thus the classic map with handwritten notes and drawings. That felt right to me. I wanted to make something that spoke to the visuals of a colonial era, but one that also looked like it was scribbled upon by Masood himself.
Anum: Hey all, sorry to be so late to this. I’ve been away camping for a few days without any reception!
To address why I wanted to do this project: I don’t typically work with writers or the literary world but a lot of my personal work centers South Asian narratives and aesthetics so it seemed like a fitting and novel collaboration.
I don’t do illustrations either so it was something very new and different for me to get into. Learned lots of new things in Photoshop which was cool.
Nazish: Camping sounds fun! Where did you go? This makes me think about how I love driving out to the desert to paint.
Anum: I went camping at Salt Point State Park in Northern California. It was so beautiful! Much needed break without technology.
Nahal: That sounds lovely!
Anum: It was so nice. I had it for a few months, it was totally a dream.[shares photograph]
Nahal: Oh this is gorgeous!
Nahal: I'm on vacation myself. Went to Hunza in Northern Pakistan and now I'm in Skardu in the same region
Senna: I was there this time last year, miss it so dearly
Anum: Oh whatt, that’s amazing!! My friends recently went and I’m in awe of their photos!
Nazish: Your vacations sound amazing Nahal and Anum!! Curious, just in general: do you guys have studios you work in? Where's your favorite place to create work?
Hafsa: I have a corner in my room that I love working in but I also loooove working in libraries for some reason. Also, it’s fun to see people studying medicine or business on their laptops while I’m illustrating😅🤙🏾 I don’t even know why!
Nazish: Hahaha that sounds fun!
Nahal: I love working in my living room because there's lots of light. I also have a pretty long commute so sometimes I just illustrate on the way to university.
Completely get what you mean about the libraries thing, Hafsa. I study dentistry and I mostly draw as a relief from stress so when it’s close to exam time I go to the library too. My friends are all studying and I just sit there and draw.
Anum: Libraries are cool to work in when I don’t have lots of things with me. I had a studio space until last week but now I’m back to working out of my bedroom which is not my favorite but very convenient.
Nahal: Oh a studio space of my own would be a dream come true
Senna: Yeah I wish I had a cool place to work, I’ve been doing everything from my basement, which...when I’m doing art things, turns into a bit of a mess!!
Nazish: Oh I totally understand! I usually just lug my supplies between my bedroom and living room depending on how I’m feeling that day! Hahah
Seyhr: Oh man I miss having a proper studio space that isn't either at my house or a friend's house 🤣. I was renting a space recently but it wasn't in the safest part of town so after a few months of trying to be out of there before sunset (and alternating between learning self-defense and praying lol) I went back to working at home. I have to say though, having that space—safe or not—did wonders for my work!
I find it's important to get out of the house to work too though so an artist friend and I set up a joint studio space at her place as well. So I'd split my time between her house and mine. Having somebody make art in close proximity to you is also—at least it was for me—really helpful.
(What's also really helpful is watching bad reality TV while working—I find it makes for great art! 😆)
Nazish: Did we ever talk about artistic inspirations? I think, Seyhr, you brought it up a few messages ago. Who or what influenced your art practice?
Hafsa: As a kid, I used to adore Nick Sharratt, especially his illustrations for Jacqueline Wilson’s books! I grew up drawing like that too! And I usually work with really bright colours and thick stroke lines.
I follow _a lot_ of contemporary illustrators on instagram who I look up to like @pollynor @andyrementer @kkkim.04 @andy_d_baker @onlyjoke and so many others! Plus I follow a lot of NCA/BNU/IVS (art universities in Pakistan) graduates who do an amazing job and inspire me a lot so there aren’t just a few famous people I look up to, it’s mostly students or current freelance illustrators.
I feel like just being an art student and surrounded by people painting, drawing or even sculpting kind of really inspires you every day.
Seyhr: Inspiration-wise there's so much material that i wouldn't even know where to start! That said, I look at a lot of urban art (murals; graffiti). My favorite artist is someone called Conor Harrington who combines urban art with fine art and his work is kinda representational but then kinda not (but completely incredible and mind blowing)
Nazish: Oh Seyhr—you'd probably really like Joshua Hagler's work too then. I really admire his work, and the way he dissects American history and portray it. I also really admire Vieno James, and his methods and how he ties contemporary culture into his translation of history. As far as classics though, Vasily Kandinsky has had a huge influence on my work. I didn't study fine arts (I studied fashion design and now I've gone back to college for Aeronautical Science) so when I did learn about Kandinsky, his work felt familiar and was inspiring when I was confused about what I was painting or why I was painting it.
Seyhr: I love Joshua Hagler's work! And I hadn't seen Vieno James' work till now—it's brilliant! Thanks for telling me about him!
That's so interesting cause I can kinda see the Kandinsky influence in your work! The pressure of "what am I painting and/or why?" can be crippling and I think we often forget that there's this whole tradition out there of believing in and appreciating the process of art-making for what it is. Can definitely be really liberating!
Also, holy shit re the Aeronautical Science part—super impressed right now! Was that something you'd always wanted to do?
Nazish: Yeah, I took a flying lesson a few years ago and fell madly in love—so I decided to go back to college. I really want to get into flight test engineering and designing experimental aircraft (there's that design itch again) Lol
Seyhr: Side note, did you ever work as a fashion designer?? I'm in the process of trying to start my own clothing line (been wanting to do it for years but was too scared that because I hadn't studied it, I'd be that brown girl who moves back to Pakistan and starts designing clothes that look like Christmas trees. Finally realized how stupid it is to not do something you've always wanted to for fear of being "that person" lol) and it's all a bit daunting.
Nazish: The first time around, I studied fashion design and work as a stylist and gown designer for a handful of years. I learned it wasn't what I really wanted. I then worked in textiles, and card design—I've done a ton of things. Haha. Starting your own line is fun! There's always fear—but it's so exciting, and if it's something you really love and enjoy and what to share with the world—I say there's nothing stopping you!
So Mariam, how did you come up with the aesthetic for the covers? What was the process?
Mariam: So—my design process depended on combining Eastern aesthetics with Western elements. The car ride of the two girls gives a feeling of a relaxed, laidback trip in contrast to Mughal inspired borders around it.
The other cover featured the apocalyptic world. That’s the cover sort of “from hell.” Highlighting the dark aspects of human behavior and activities. I feel like the idea was to keep both the visuals together to provide a window for the reader to interpret it in their own way and pave way to explore what’s coming next.
Nazish: That’s awesome! By the way, Seyhr—you went to school with Palvashay?! What was it like reconnecting for this project?
Seyhr: So Palvashay and I being paired to work on this was completely random—Kamil had no idea that we'd gone to school together. If you consider the fact that this is a pan-South Asian edition, the chances of this happening were really slim! It was great working with her; I knew she was writing but I hadn't read any of her work before this (at least since I was 17 lol)—I knew it would be great because I remember her being ridiculously smart and eloquent at school but in real terms I didn't really know what to expect. I was lucky in that neither of the two authors I worked with interfered with my process. It was definitely a collaborative experience, but they gave me the space I needed to plan the illustrations according to what made sense to me. They had a couple of suggestions that they mentioned at the beginning, that I was obviously happy to work with. It was really important to me that they were both genuinely on board with the illustrations and happy with them
Nazish: Then for your second story, you kinda stepped out of your comfort zone, right, because you work with bodies in general—but The Death of a Glacier has this immense scale to it! What was that process like?
Seyhr: Not working with figures doesn't come naturally to me lol but I hadn't illustrated someone's writing like this in years so to begin with, I was approaching the project from the perspective of doing something new and different, so I was happy to step out of my comfort zone. Figures for me are generally the grounding factor in my work so I had to be careful to transfer the bulk to the mountains instead. The work was also less abstract than my other stuff but honestly it was really meditative to make something that I wasn't making for an exhibition and that didn't have to resonate with my personal brand identity and blah blah blah. I did have to keep using reference images though which I don't usually have to after a certain point when I'm working with figures so that was interesting.
Whoops sorry for the dissertation I just sent you guys 🙈
Hafsa: To be very honest, in the beginning although Kamil had told me that this is going to be my interpretation of the story, I still thought both the writers will kind of really make me do the artwork according to them but it wasn’t anything like that! We discussed the elements initially and then everything else was entirely my own.
Aditya even let me get away with the descriptions of the characters my own way which was super, super fun. So I agree with Sehyr here, it really was a collaborative experience.
Seyhr: Also guys totally random yet pertinent question: HOW DID EVERYONE DEAL WITH KAMIL'S LONG EMAIL WRITING OBSESSION??????
(Don't worry the irony of asking this question after sending you guys a billion words to read is not lost on me 🤣)
Nazish: Kamil's long email writing obsession OR his text after text, lol.
Hafsa: Lol, yes! I’m curious about The Installation, Nazish. What was the process? Feels like you’re the only abstract artist also. How did you find a concept with so many elements?
Nazish: For Ahsan Butt’s The Installation, I read the story and then reread it and made notes, highlighted terms that were descriptive and ones that really helped me feel and visualize the story. This was the perfect story to do it with because it was so rich with movement. I took that list of words (and guidance from Kamil and Ahsan) and began painting various versions of what those words would look like on paper. What shape would they form? What color would they be? How large or small of a space would they fill? I was unsure of how many of those elements to use in one composition, mainly because I love to leave negative space in a painting – and it’s usually really calculated, but once the final piece came together, it was clear that the story was full and expansive and I needed to represent that vibe.
Hafsa: What was it like working with Devi by the way? You’d already read her book (according to Kamil)—what did you think?
Nazish: I was delightfully surprised to be paired with Devi! I work in a bookstore, so yeah I’d already picked up her book, The Atlas of Reds and Blues. It was poetic. It was aware. It was mundane in the sweet in the everyday life kind of way with sour realities. To know this is what our citizens are experiencing is painstaking. Devi writes so wonderfully—capturing the way a mind works—its constant acceleration. I read a lot of reviews after finishing the book, saying that it was unconventional writing. But what’s conventional about the way this world moves, anyway?
Hafsa: Your portfolio has these amazing paintings in a woman's profile silhouette, how’d you settle on artwork inside a woman's profile?
Nazish: Yeah so the paintings within a woman’s silhouette, I made a lot of them around the time Trump was elected president. I was with an art activist group and we were all responding to the election with our art—changing it to reflect what was happening. In The Atlas of Reds and Blues, we are led into an American world of racism and other prejudices through a brown woman’s eyes. Using the silhouette again was a no brainer. Painting this was felt straight forward, I think. Using reds and blues and blacks, outlining what could be a map – trying to depict what this woman was feeling or imagining to be home is what I was working towards.
Also, hii time's up. Kamil needs to input this stuff now...
Hafsa: Also, guys. I just want to end the roundtable by letting you all know that I absolutely loved all the artwork for the issue and I am really really excited to see them with the stories. Plus, being the youngest and with the least exposure, I personally feel like I’ve learned so, so much from all of you, especially from your work since it’s so different from what I do or what I am used to seeing so thank you all very very much. I hope we get to work together again someday! Cheers.
Nazish: So glad to hear that Hafsa. It’s been so fun. I look forward to learning more and seeing more of everyone’s art in the future!
Senna: It was such a pleasure getting to know you all more and I can’t wait to see what beautiful work you come up with in the future!
Nazish: I’m so excited to read these stories after learning about everyone’s process!!!
Seyhr: Agreed—this all sounds so fascinating. Really excited to read everything on the 10th!
Also guys just wanted to say I love everyone's work and it's been wonderful getting to talk to all of you! Good luck with your projects in the future—looking forward to seeing more of your work soon! If there's anything I can ever help anyone with, let me know! Ciao xx
Senna Ahmad is a DC-based graphic designer, photographer and digital illustrator. Much of her work revolves around her multi-faceted identity as a Pakistani American woman. Her work is inspired by the Urdu script, South Asian poetry, and the incredible strength of women in the subcontinent. Her work has been featured in Dawn.com, Scroll.in, Kajal Magazine, and other news publications. You can see more at sennaahmad.com, and find her on Instagram @sennaahmad.
Hafsa Ashfaque is 20 years old and from Karachi, Pakistan. She is a design student at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, and has been working as an illustrator on book illustrations and commissions since 2017. Her style varies from vector art to hand-drawn illustrations, but her signature style is anything hand-drawn with thick strokes and bright colors. You can find her on Instagram and Behance @hafsaashfaqq.
Anum Awan is an interaction designer and new media artist, based in the Bay Area, who crafts mixed-reality experiences by blending physical and digital media based on queer, immigrant and non-western narratives. They were born and raised in Pakistan and came to the U.S. in 2008 to pursue a practice in art and design. They are a graduate of Massachusetts College of Art and Design and California College of the Arts and have shown work at San Francisco venues including SOMARTs, the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, Gray Area and Joe Goode Annex. You can find her at anumawan.com and on Twitter @AnumAwan.
Nazish Chunara is a Los Angeles-based painter and installation artist whose works explore dimension, history, future, and sound by utilizing geometry and the Gujarati language. Her work has been featured in Venison Magazine and VoyageLA. You can see more at https://zishery.weebly.com/, and can follow her bookish and aviatrix antics on Twitter @chunara_zish and Instagram @zishery.
Nahal Hashir is a poet and an artist from Islamabad, Pakistan. While currently pursuing a Bachelors in Dental Surgery, she also works in a non-profit organization that helps to educate underprivileged children. Her art has a strong focus on social issues such as women's rights, body positivity and rape culture. Her spoken word poetry was featured at the Women International Film Festival and her artwork is forthcoming in Young Activists Republic Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @NahalHashir.
Mariam Jajja is a Pakistani designer and an illustrator currently based in Berlin. She has a keen eye for branding, story-telling and visual narratives revolving around Pakistan. Juxtaposing Pakistani pop culture themes and characters, her work aims to create a visual language that presents a positive image of the country. You can find her on Behance and Instagram @m.jajja
Seyhr Qayum is an American-Pakistani visual artist, who currently lives and works in Islamabad, Pakistan. She holds a BFA in Painting from Boston University, and has a diverse studio practice, ranging from making largescale oil paintings – a combination of representational and abstract visuals – to creating mixed media installations. Her work centers on female identity and empowerment in South Asia. Seyhr has exhibited her art internationally, including in the U.S., the U.K., and Japan. Along with her studio practice, she is a freelance graphic designer, who with a keen interest in filmmaking, has also worked as a production designer for short, independent films in Pakistan. She frequently writes and contributes articles to various publications exploring select aspects of the art world. You can find her work at seyhrqayum.com, and on Instagram @seyhr.qayum.