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SARAH NAQVI speaks in detail about her feminist beliefs, creative inspiration and total bewilderment with society. At just 20 years old, Sarah has a superior understanding of societal issues than the majority of world leaders. We truly salute you, sister.

Tell us a little about yourself …
I’m 20 years old, currently studying Textile Design at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. I mostly work with a range of different mediums, because I don’t want to limit myself when it comes to expression, but embroidery is certainly one of my biggest strengths, especially with the issues I tend to work on and the fact that it has been tagged as ‘women’s work’ and that ‘it’s too girly a task’. With every stitch I make I hope that it challenges these common apperceptions and shows how much strength and voice every piece can carry.

Do you feel that your institution encourages or tries to inhibit your choice of themes?
So there’s this funny story from when I was 15, and even back then my dressing choices (I was quite a weird little kid) were quite unusual, so the occasional spats between me and my parents weren’t uncommon. I remember my Dad calling me ‘a rebel without a pause’ after tirelessly trying to win an argument with me and, well now that I think of it, I really stuck by it. Which brings me to college where I really started to break away from everything that held me back, and how much I’ve become exposed to because of the people and the place itself. It all began here, like I had all these thoughts and an intense urge to do something substantial, and actually change the way things are because it’s really easy for us to become indifferent to things that should actually make our blood boil, especially when we’ve been exposed to it since the very beginning. The most common way we deal with it is getting conditioned to these things, but I can’t ever imagine just standing there and not doing anything about it.

How has your art been received in your home country?
Once I started putting my work up on social media and other portals for people to view, it was quite the rollercoaster ride. There was immense support from so, so many young girls and the majority of the feedback and criticism was positive and constructive. That said, the backlash wasn’t that easy to handle. On multiple occasions I received threats and nasty comments from anonymous people, mostly via messages on Instagram and interestingly enough, a couple of my artworks were even taken down from Instagram for obstruction of community guidelines. This honestly gave me even more incentive to work harder than ever because it proved my entire point! It’s so hypocritical how it’s okay to have highly sexualized and altered images of women all over the site, but a completely normal biological form of a woman’s body (sketch) is considered obscene!?

Being creative can be a cathartic process for many, what do you personally get out of making your art?
My work on topics like menstruation and body shaming began out of sheer need, disappointment and realisation that one’s best work comes out of struggle. So in times where we can’t even walk busy streets at night without having the fear that we won’t make it back home safely, it only seems right to at least try and make things better. And, because I strongly believe that feminism is so much more than just issues limited to yourself and experiences you’ve dealt with, but is rather about empowering every girl who has kept quiet for too long.

What initially inspired you to make art on the female body?
I first started working on “The female body with respect to body image” and issues relating to it in a course conducted by Nitesh Mohanty, where I began my journey of truly expressing myself. Nitesh (a visual artist) was such a brilliant mentor and an even bigger inspiration. I was extremely motivated by the works of strong and bold women like Ghada Amer and Shirin Neshat; their work speaks volumes and has paved the way for young girls all over to really be inspired and grow to their full potential. While going through the process of understanding the female body through different perspectives, I came across questions that may or may not have been answered, but it certainly did churn the wheels in motion and brought me closer to validate, inquire and question things like, “what is healthy?”, “who decides?”, “what is natural?”, “why do we conform?”, “why are we apologetic?”, and “how much space do we deserve to occupy?” Through my research, I came across terms like ‘visual diet’, which is what your brain feeds on and what you let inside. So say you’re a 13-year-old girl and your ‘visual diet’ consists of magazines that promote unrealistic body standards and show the latter in a bad light, as a young naive girl you start to give up things you love for the sake of a glossy front cover. And that’s when it begins, it only grows unless recognised, which is hardly the case ever. Which brings me to the Indian context where even though eating disorders are prevalent, the statistics say nothing. It is one thing to know that there is a problem and then going onto solving it, but it is another to not know that it even exists, which is the case here. The first step to recovery is always recognition. A topic so taboo that it won’t see light of day till we change the way we portray and present the body. This is why I felt the need, and even more so, a moral responsibility as a human being and an artist, to address this issue through a medium that I can best express myself with. The want to finally stop being a spectator and be a part of changing something that has bothered me for so long was why I started using embroidery to share my thoughts. Embroidery is such a versatile and ancient art form which, interestingly, has been termed as ‘women’s work’, and so it only makes sense that people will relate and understand this universal language. All these things made me realise that, it is only when one loves and respects their own body, that others can too. The idea behind most of my artworks, in really simple terms, is that we live in a society which is suffering from the effects of many a years of deep rooted patriarchy, which has created, cultivated and enforced an idea of the ‘ideal’ woman. A woman who appears, behaves and carries herself in a certain acceptable manner. We are also part of a culture that celebrates and worships our Goddesses, so then why is there a disparity in the way we treat our women? If we don’t alter our Goddesses, why do we do it to our women, and construct a certain acceptable image for them to fit? All women are Goddesses, let’s start treating them the way they deserve.

In your opinion, what can the mainstream media do to change the way menstruation is represented?
Personally, social media can be one of the most powerful platforms an artist can have to reach out to different people from all over the world, and besides, the goal is to reach people who aren’t exposed to these issues because they happen to play a major role in their prevalence. It’s fairly easy to convey messages to someone who already understands these ideas, but it’s really remarkable if one can penetrate into that part of the population that has turned their heads away from these matters that they find so shameful. And so, when I put up my work about the taboos surrounding menstruation, no matter what your view might be on the topic, it does make you question. And if not question, as long as a conversation is started, whether good or bad, the exchange of ideas itself is enough to start a dialogue and, therefore, make a difference.

Which cities would you most like to exhibit your work?
When it comes to exhibitions, I want my work to travel far and wide, reach out to everyone it speaks to. New York is one place I’ve always admired when it comes to expression and acceptance of art, so I guess that’s a big one from my list.

The subject of body positivity is strong within your work; what words best reflect the images you create?
The one thing that remains constant in every piece of artwork that I make (work on body image), is staying true to who you really are, regardless of what others want you to be. Once you learn to love yourself, others will too. It really isn’t half as easy as it sounds, but that’s exactly why we need work, and energy that reminds us of how wonderfully flawed we all are, is what makes us all so human and beautiful.

The issue of patriarchy is still burning; how do you hope your work is contributing to putting out its flames?
Whenever I’m asked how my work challenges the oh so prevalent issue of patriarchy, I have only one thing to say; patriarchy exists because we have let it, and it’s not them and us. It’s every single one, everybody. Each time we kept quiet when we saw things happen and did nothing, said nothing. Each time we conformed, fit ourselves into boxes that weren’t made for us. Each time we let it happen over and over and over again. So with every piece of artwork I make, I aim to change this.

What are your plans after you graduate?
After graduation I plan on either taking a year to focus just on my art, or apply for scholarships for Post Grad.

Instagram: @naqvi_sarah