"When you belong to two different communities it is incredibly difficult to decide who you are and want to be"
Nimisha Bhanot is turning the art world on its head with her ‘out of the box’ representations of South Asian women in her oil paintings.
She is defying the ‘good girl’ Asian stereotype by showing Desi women in traditional dress smoking and posing as pinup models.
By adding a contemporary twist her beautiful pieces of art are also very political and really reflect the issues young Asian women are currently facing.
Her bicultural background as a Candian Indian also influences her work, and she uses her dual identity as inspiration for her paintings.
In an exclusive Gupshup with DESIblitz, Nimisha Bhanot talks about the challenges of being a South Asian woman in the art world and how feminism influences her work.
How did you first get into painting?
I’ve always loved art since I was very young but didn’t take it seriously until I was in university for science. I realised that I wasn’t loving what I was learning but instead was becoming more curious about art in its absence.
I switched programs and pursued art because painting is the only thing that makes me happy and I wanted to learn all I could about it. Why should I struggle and suffer from anxiety over qualifying for medical school when I could be happy and become the best painter I could possibly be?
Who is your biggest inspiration in the art world?
I’m really inspired by artists that break the rules. Some of my favourites include Jackson Pollock, Kehinde Wiley, Sarah Maple and Raja Ravi Varma.
What tools do you use in your work?
Just the regular brushes, oil paint, linseed oil and some alkyd mediums to speed up drying or help with fine lines.
What are your experiences using different mediums like sculpting and ink painting?
I don’t have much experience with sculpture aside from some Form & Structure courses I took during first year. I really regret not learning pottery while I was in school but my plan is to learn a thing or two sometime this year.
Before changing my thesis in fourth year, I was making paintings of ink falling and diffusing in water, which were based off of video I had taken.
I still have 150 video stills so every once in awhile I make a small ink painting to give my brain a break from painting portraits all the time. I love how organic and free the forms are in these compositions, it’s like a deep tissue massage for my brain!
How has being both Canadian and South Asian influenced your art?
I struggled a lot with my identity when I was growing up and it’s played a big part in who I am today.
I made a lot of abstract work when I was in school but I felt that making art about my identity was the best way to go because it’s always changing therefore it never gets boring or repetitive. There were only so many different ways I could drop ink in water!
What do you think about the portrayal of women in classical and contemporary art?
Women were always the subject of the gaze in classical art, there were many times where they are portrayed being unaware that they were being observed.
Contemporary art seeks to portray the female gaze; instead of being watched, she is the one looking back at her viewer.
What are your thoughts on the third wave feminist movement that is currently in full swing?
I think this is the right way to approach feminism as it’s more inclusive of all groups and helps deconstruct gender binaries. I think the Internet and social media are playing a large role in the current movement.
“As the Internet continues to be more accessible so does knowledge, so in my opinion this is the perfect time for third wave feminism.”
Your artwork focuses a lot on debunking the good Asian girl stereotype, where did you get the idea to do this?
Growing up, I watched a lot of Bollywood movies and was always thrown off by the way many films portray contrasts between the ‘good Indian girl’ and the ‘bad Indian girl’. Pooja is the ‘good girl’; she is religious, subservient, modest and aspires to marriage.
Tina is the ‘bad’ Indian girl; she went to school abroad, drinks, smokes and has no respect for her parents or their image in society. This way of thinking associates being ‘good’ with a certain degree of Indian-ness and being ‘bad’ with a Western influence.
When I read Mohan Bhagwat’s comment about ‘Bharat’ becoming ‘India’ and the rise of Western influence being the cause of rape (after the Nirbhaya gang rape) I honestly had enough.
I am a product of the South Asian diaspora and I can confidently say that sometimes I want to be like Pooja, sometimes I want to be like Tina and this doesn’t make me any ‘type’ of woman but rather means that I am confident in my identity.
When you belong to two different communities it is incredibly difficult to decide who you are and want to be, let alone having to decide if you’ll be perceived as a ‘good’ Indian girl or a ‘bad’ Indian girl.
The women in my paintings do the same, their portrayals are a combination of signifiers of South Asian and Western influences and they mimic the act of accepting and rejecting when one creates their bicultural identity.
Have you ever thought about focusing on contemporary issues South Asian men face?
I have and I hope to explore these ideas next year, I can only paint SO fast!!
Are there other artists creating works focusing on challenging the way South Asian women are portrayed?
Yes and I thank the Internet for helping me discover them. I would strongly suggest that your viewers look up art by artists like Vivek Shraya, Dark Matter Poetry, Ayqa Khan, Maria Qamar, Tanya Rawal of Saree Not Sorry, Angela Aujla and my all time favorite Sarah Maple.
Some of these artists write or perform poetry, some work digitally, some paint and some draw but all of them challenge perception and the concept of individuality and that’s what I love about them the most.
Are there any challenges you face in the art world being a woman of colour?
I would say that the art world may not have been very accepting of women let alone women of colour in the past but that a lot of this is changing. Toronto has a great art scene that is really supportive, I just wish they would support more political art.
We have people from all over the world in our great city and thus many great artists making work about identity but a lot of galleries (not all) just want something that is easy to sell or fits in with current trends in contemporary art – they don’t want to show art that addresses societal perception of marginalised communities because it requires them to answer some tough questions.
What are you currently working on?
My next series of oil paintings seek to appropriate themes and aesthetics in classical portraiture and honour social media icons in the South Asian diaspora.
My models include Tanya Rawal, Dark Mattery Poetry, Vivek Shraya and Sanam Sindhi. All of these individuals use clothing, makeup, jewelry, poetry and art to propel their social activism and share it through social media.
I believe that the rising popularity of social media groups and their influence is one to note in relation to the South Asian diaspora.
Whether they explore sexual, gender or racial identity these individuals are creating communities online and sparking discussion for the world to be involved in and I think that the best way I can honor them is to immortalise their work in paintings so I’m very excited.
Later this year  I’ll begin a new series which explores complexion and body image in the South Asian community.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to pursue a career in art?
I would advise them to never stop writing, singing, painting or acting and to share their work with their community.
Whether you are posting pictures on Instagram of your paintings in progress, blogging, sharing performance poetry on Youtube, participating in poetry readings, or applying to exhibition opportunities in your community it really helps to get your work out there.
Art is very personal and sharing work means putting yourself out there to be critiqued and judged.
You will be surprised with all the positive feedback you get and how good it makes you feel about yourself. I get negative feedback every now and then and yes it may sting a little here and there but it’s feedback and it helps me when I’m making new work so I see it as a win-win.
Nimisha Bhanot is a talented young artist with a key eye to uncover the social issues and lives of the Desi community in the West. Her paintings portray a visible juxtaposition of the traditional with the modern.