Henna Bakhshi on Storytelling through Art & Under-Representation

In an exclusive chat with DESIblitz, Henna Bakhshi spoke about her artistic inspiration and commissioning service.

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"I want my art to show people they’re not alone."

Henna Bakhshi is an emerging British Asian artist who is working to redefine the artistic landscape.

The artist, who tells under-represented stories through her creations, dabbles in fine art prints and commissioned illustrations.

Through her unique pieces, Henna adopts a storytelling approach to reflect on social justice issues prevalent around the world.

Plastered on canvases, Henna Bakhshi does not lack when it comes to progress.

So, to get a better grasp of her art and the importance of storytelling, we caught up with Henna Bakhshi to talk more about her journey and outlook.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

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I was born and brought up in Kent, UK. My mum is from Afghanistan and Kashmir and was raised in East Africa. My dad is from Pakistan. I live in London with my husband, two kids and our dog, Bruno.

I loved art as a kid and some of my happiest memories are of the wooden loft classroom where we learnt art in primary school.

In my memories, it’s always sunny, which is a reflection of how happy I was rather than the weather in England.

My parents were hard-working immigrants and wanted their kids to have financial security and a stable career.

Art didn’t offer that and so it soon fell by the wayside. Decades later, I picked up a paintbrush again and haven’t stopped painting since.

I’m motivated by making a difference. That’s always been my driver, through my career as an English teacher, working in the charity sector and now with the police watchdog.

I love food, family, friends and finding the fun in life. I dislike aubergines, waiting and unfairness.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

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I’m inspired by my experiences as a second-generation immigrant and social justice issues around the world.

My mission is to tell under-represented stories. There’s a story behind each of my paintings.

A news article, an experience someone shares, a post on social media, an injustice, an issue gaining no coverage or awareness – if it makes me feel something, I’ll paint it.

I have a lot of faith in humanity and I believe a lot of what is wrong with the world isn’t because people don’t care, but because they don’t know or they don’t know the full picture.

I want my art to show people they’re not alone, that there is always hope and that change is always possible.

Whatever our differences, there is so much more that unites us and we are connected in more ways than we realise.

Can you tell us a little about your art commissioning service?

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I use art to tell stories and that’s exactly what a commissioned piece of art does.

If you want a photo made into a painting, I’m probably not the artist for you. I want to tell stories. Your story.

It could be a milestone in your life, an obstacle you’ve overcome, a piece that captures your pride in your heritage or in being different – whatever is important to you. The piece of art becomes your story.

It’s a unique creative process of working with someone to capture their vision in a bespoke piece of art that is completely unique to them.

It’s a privilege and honour to hear people’s stories and if I can empower and celebrate them through art, it makes me so happy. And it’s a piece they can treasure forever.

Art has been so healing for me and commissioning a piece of art is a beautiful way to share that experience with other people.

How do you experience your own healing process through art?

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That’s such a good question. When I first started painting, it was January 2020 and we had no idea our world was about to be turned upside down by Covid.

When lockdown happened, I suddenly had more time to paint. It became a way to carve out time for myself and switch off from everything.

At first, I was painting anything I felt like – a field of lavender, the northern lights, a sunset landscape. George Floyd was killed a couple of months later and like so many of us, it hit hard.

I was having conversations with my friends and family I’d never had before. My mum told me how she thought racism was just something they just had to accept. I talked to my friends about the racism I grew up with.

Terms like microaggressions, colourism and white privilege were giving so many of us the language to describe our experiences. It was such a tumultuous and powerful time.

That was when I had the idea to paint about my childhood experiences of racism which became the first piece for Brown Girl Art.

It was inspired by a photo of me as a young schoolgirl and the racist comments I used to hear.

You’ll see my trademark fringe and red glasses but that could be any Asian kid growing up in 1980s England. That story isn’t just mine, it’s shared by so many others.

It’s from this shared experience that my art draws inspiration and brings me comfort and strength and I hope it does the same for others too.

How can we use art as a force for social change?

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I think the power of art lies in the fact that it’s for everybody. It can spark conversations on difficult topics, connect people from across the globe, challenge people’s mindsets and assumptions and inspire people to take action.

I’ve experienced all these first-hand and in a world which is becoming increasingly polarised, it’s even more important to find channels for communication.

Art is there for you to take what you want from it. It doesn’t ask anything of you.

It doesn’t care if you hate it, if you don’t understand it or if you love it. Art just is, which allows you to take it in without pressure or judgement. There’s something special about that.

Which of your fine art prints are you most proud of?

That’s so difficult to answer! My first piece will always be special because it started me on this journey.

But every piece tells a story so choosing one piece feels like picking which story is most important, which is impossible.

What advice would you give to aspiring South Asian artists?

Embrace what makes you different and uniquely you. Look at other artists’ work for inspiration.

Experiment with different mediums, get messy and enjoy the process! And last but definitely not least, find your voice and don’t be afraid to use it.

What makes you different from other Instagram artists?

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My technique has improved over the years but my fundamental style has always been bold colours, clean lines, faceless portraits and art with a message.

As an artist, I occupy a space not traditionally taken up by South Asian women, especially those who are second-generation immigrants.

There is a generation of young South Asians who are proud to embrace their heritage and culture and I’m incredibly grateful to have such strong role models for my daughters. But the second generation seems far less represented.

I hope I’m going some way to represent their voices.

Historically, the UK has produced fantastic South Asian creators. Household names like Shezad Dawood, Inkquisitive and Chila Kumari Burman have flourished within the industry.

The celebration and upwards trajectory of British Asian artists is more prominent than ever before.

And Henna Bakhshi is one figure who is clearly paving the way for other aspiring South Asian artists.

See more of the fantastic pieces by Henna Bakhshi here.

Ravinder is a Journalism BA graduate. She has a strong passion for all things fashion, beauty, and lifestyle. She also likes to watch films, read books and travel.