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Meet the Pakistani Illustrator Putting Representation at the Forefront of Her Art

By Yasmine Rukia

PAPER is partnering with MissMuslim, a lifestyle site dedicated to presenting the wide variety of lives and experiences of Muslim women, to feature essays from their writers. This week Yasmine Rukia writes about designer and illustrator Shehzil Malik.

Shehzil Malik -- feminist digital designer, Fulbright scholar, a member of the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN) -- is nothing short of incredible. The fearless Pakistani artists uses her unique platform to broker hard conversations about identity, women's issues, and social change vis-a-vis visual storytelling. Her work blends pop culture icons with old world consideration, and her graphics showcase vibrant colors and stark monochrome contrasts that allow her work to communicate critical thoughts under the guise of pop art, making her work instantly accessible.

We talked with the bold illustrator about her artist inspirations, calling herself a feminist, and the persistent need for diversity in media.

Tell me about the work you do and one thing you particularly love about yourself.

I like the fact that I'm curious; I try to challenge myself by trying new things. I work as a designer and illustrator, pursuing collaborative projects with companies that share my values about social impact and women's rights. I also illustrate subjects close to my heart as way of starting conversations around social issues.

What do you hope to accomplish as an artist?

To me, art is a means to tell stories that are authentic to my lived experiences. I strive to be honest in my work, to depict the nuances of our identity, to portray a point of view not often seen from this part of the world. I keep my goals open-ended because I enjoy being surprised. I would hope that by pushing what designers and artists can do in terms of creative collaborations and social impact, younger designers in this part of the world can see that a career in design can be more fluid and more fulfilling than a corporate job.

What influences and inspirations motivate you to create?

Inspiration is really everywhere if you're open for it. Artists like Frida Kahlo, Judy Chicago, Kara Walker and Barbara Kruger influenced me to be fearless in being myself. Illustrators like Yuko Shimizu, Marjane Satrapi and Asaf Hanuka show how art can incorporate our diverse cultural backgrounds while telling stories that are universally human at their heart.

Your Wonder Woman piece caught my eye — she's very iconic. And I've noticed that your pieces dispute colorism and cultural norms, would you care to elaborate about that?

Representation matters. Images that depict who you are or your aspirations change how you perceive yourself and can help change how the world perceives you. I draw imagery I would've wanted to see growing up — images of badass women of color — to show me that I am capable of more than the Pakistani conventions I was raised with. A lot of what I draw is also a reaction to feeling trapped by arbitrary societal norms. I'm older now and can disregard a lot of what is expected of gender roles here, but these conversations about perceptions of beauty, self-acceptance, and women's rights are all conversations that need to happen continually in order to change mindsets.

Your work carries undertones of the anxiety women experience due to the culture of victim-blaming (among other features of the patriarchy present in both western and eastern regions of the world). Do you call yourself a feminist?

I absolutely call myself a feminist! I genuinely want everyone to feel comfortable with the word and be happily feminist in their world-view. For me feminism means that women are seen as people- worthy of every opportunity and experience without gender getting in the way. Feminism works for both men and women by calling out outdated gender norms and patriarchal attitudes that hold us all back. It's not about assigning blame; it's about working together to change behaviors and mindsets that take away from our humanity. Culture and gender roles are more fluid than we imagine.

I know in the video game and comic book world, the call for more cultural diversity and representation upsets some people. Do you believe that politics should stay out of media or do you believe that media shapes politics?

Media and politics are intrinsically linked because both influence each other. Media representations can a help create empathy for those we know little about and shape popular opinion which in turn changes policy. We need more narratives, art and poetry from people of color so that our voices are heard and our specific challenges are addressed.

The brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks eloquently about the danger of a single narrative where the world is flattened to a Eurocentric perspective. I am the result of a post-colonial education and growing up I felt that no artwork or book reflected my multifaceted world-view. This is why I want to make art and design that reflects my experience as a South Asian Muslim woman. We need to tell our own stories to validate our existence, to change the status quo. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy made a film about honor killings and the Prime Minster took notice of a subject often swept under the rug. We need these stories to feel seen and heard. We need representation.

What are you listening to right now?

I've recently been introduced to the songs of Fela Kuti and I'm blown away!

What's the most important thing for people to understand about Pakistan?

Pakistan is hard to describe in a nutshell. It's a beautiful, raw, nuanced, chaotic, unjust, resilient, diverse, complicated. You have to experience it.

What words do you have for struggling artists?

Let your struggle be the fire that pushes you to create more art. Find a way to pay your bills, but never stop creating. Be good in your intentions. Put your work online; it's free. Talk to people different from yourself. Know that your voice matters.

Check out Mailk's work on her website.

Splash image via Instagram

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