How Malala Inspired My Painting

What do I have in common with Nobel Peace Prize winner & advocate Malala Yousafzai? We were both born in Pakistan and we both care about girls' education (albeit, she has risked her life for this cause).
 

Malala Yousufzai, Nobel Peace prize winner

Malala Yousufzai, Nobel Peace prize winner

That's where the commonality ends, but I absolutely admire this daring young woman who is changing the world. I encourage you to check her work out: www.malala.org. It is  Women's History Month after all!

My admiration led me to create this painting:

Malala is the youngest recipient and first Pakistani to win the Nobel Peace Prize, hence the title "Nobel Laureate." What a wonderful icon for young girls (and not so young, like myself!) to look up to; she really has raised awareness by bravely speaking up. 

I show the interior of a Pakistani classroom, but with the clothes in Malala's signature pink (rather than the traditional blue & white school uniforms). The view out the window is from a photo I took in one of my favorite places, the Hunza Valley, close to the same region where Malala grew up. 

Reflections One Year On

One year ago last Thursday, I had my opening reception for my Flawless show at Los Gatos Beauty Bar. 

Postcard I designed for the event.  Left:   Cinderella (  prints available ).  Right:   Hula (  prints available ). 

Postcard I designed for the event. Left: Cinderella (prints available). Right: Hula (prints available). 

It was quite the party! I brewed some beer and had a raffle with prizes ranging from limited edition prints to hair supplies. Friends and fans hung out to check out the 17 new paintings on display. 

IMG_20151113_135551.jpg

That was a watershed moment for me. It kicked off this amazing year of being a full-time artist. I've made myself a list to remind myself of how far I've come in a year - from finishing 80 paintings to participating in 16 shows, including being selected for the 50|50 Show at Sanchez Art Center - but suffice it to say that I am so thankful for all the people I've met and all of the opportunities that have come out of taking the leap to pursuing a career I love. I'm having a blast!

Who would have guessed that an art show at a hair salon could yield so much? 

Left:   All Out of Bubble Gum  ( original available ).  Middle:   Bookworm  ( prints available ).  Right:   Maleficent  ( request prints ).

Left: All Out of Bubble Gum (original available). Middle: Bookworm (prints available). Right: Maleficent (request prints).

Walking Away

There is a power in having the ability and opportunity to say, "No." Sometimes walking away means empowering oneself to do great things. 

Walking Away , 2015. 12"x12". Oil on canvas. Sold.

Walking Away, 2015. 12"x12". Oil on canvas. Sold.

This piece was commissioned by the same collector of "Expectant," who simply asked for a Chinese-style dress. I ran away with the idea, so to speak.

In my Flawless series I strive to reshape gender norms by refusing to apologize for femininity, recognizing that pretty isn't weak. 

Expectant

It's been awhile since I added new work to my Flawless series.  This figure is waiting for something - for what, we cannot know, but she appears happily expectant. 

Expectant , 2015. 12"x12". Oil on canvas. Sold.

Expectant, 2015. 12"x12". Oil on canvas. Sold.

This piece was commissioned by a private collector - she wanted a kimono, but gave me free reign on how to pursue that. I had a lot of fun creating the pattern on the dress, something that will start to appear more often, no doubt.

In my Flawless series I strive to reshape gender norms by refusing to apologize for femininity, recognizing that pretty isn't weak. 

Latest Flawless Series Addition: M.O.M.

Despite being preoccupied with my 50|50 daily paintings right now, I recently finished this painting for my Flawless series

M.O.M., 2015. Oil on canvas, 12"x12". 

I've been starting to do more paintings in dresses from around the world, and really enjoyed painting this sari from India. I was intimidated by the embroidery at first, which definitely took some time to do. But in the end I enjoyed the challenge and am pleased with the result. 

The title of the piece, M.O.M., comes from the name given to the Indian Mars Orbiter Spacecraft, which launched last year. There was this great photo and story of the women scientists involved in the success of the mission, which struck me both because there were more women (many of them mothers themselves) working at the Indian Space Research Organization than at NASA, and because they wore saris to work. So I wanted to celebrate these smart, successful and feminine women in my painting. 

In my Flawless series I strive to reshape gender norms by refusing to apologize for femininity, recognizing that pretty isn't weak. 

Schoolgirl (Vietnam)

Schoolgirl celebrates girls' education and portrays a traditional Vietnames au dai, influenced by my time living in Hanoi.

Schoolgirl (Vietnam), 12"x12", oil & acrylic on canvas, 2015. 

I lived in Vietnam for 2 years in high school, and one of the more noticeable icons there is the female student in her white traditional au dai, worn as the school uniform. They are often portrayed by local artists – for both foreign and local audiences, I believe – not just for their beauty, but to celebrate the education of women. Vietnam has a national literacy rate in the 96th percentile for both female and male youth, a huge accomplishment. Perhaps more impressive is the implication that the women are almost equally as educated as the men – again, uncommon in that socioeconomic category, one that can, perhaps, be attributed to Communism, where gender was not a dividing factor (as it is in many Asian countries).

Coming from Pakistan, which has a literacy rate in the low 60s for female youth (and the high 70s for male youth), seeing fisher-women and (female!) construction workers reading on their lunch breaks made quite an impression on me. So I’ve been wanting to do a painting on this for quite some time, and here it is. 

 In my Flawless series I strive to reshape gender norms by refusing to apologize for femininity, recognizing that pretty isn't weak. 

Nobel Laureate

Nobel Laureate is inspired by Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani activist promoting girls' education, who won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. 

Nobel Laureate, 12"x12", oil & acrylic on canvas, 2015. 

She actually shares the prize with Indian national Kailash Satyarthi. I was particularly struck by Malala winning for several reasons:

  • besides her, I could only name one other female Nobel Laureate (Marie Curie for Physics, 1903 & Chemistry, 1911). I've since looked it up (thanks Wikipedia) and it turns out 47 women have won Nobel prizes (compared to about 803 men); 
  • Malala is the first Pakistani to win this award, at a time when most people associate Pakistan with terrorism and violence; and
  • she's also the youngest person to win a Nobel prize, at age 17; yet in her acceptance speech (well worth watching), she challenged the leaders of Pakistan and India to meet and resolve their differences. 

What a wonderful inspiration!

I grew up in Pakistan at a time when there was a female head of state (Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister for two non-consecutive terms in the late '80s and early '90s). Politics being politics, it's debatable what her legacy is. Today, however, girls growing up there can proudly look to Malala as a role model and sign of hope and promise in desperate times, a living example of someone who overcame great adversity (including being shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012) and went on to create tangible change. Not only that, but one of the most prestigious award-giving bodies has recognized a young female from a modest background in the Global South. I feel like that would be an inspiration for girls (and women like me) growing up anywhere.

In the painting, I portray the traditional Pakistani attire called shalwar kameez, choosing pink because Malala often wears that color, but noting that this is not a portrait of her – it could be anyone, that’s why there’s no body, in keeping with this Flawless series. She is in a sparse classroom – a nod to promoting education for girls – with a window overlooking the Hunza Valley, one my favorite places in Pakistan (not where Malala is from) and based on a photo I took there (we lived in Gilgit, a couple of valleys over, but would go to Hunza for holidays). 


In my Flawless series I strive to reshape gender norms by refusing to apologize for femininity, recognizing that pretty isn't weak. 

Girlie Girl

Girlie Girl takes issue with this label being used in a negative way, as if being "girlie" is a bad thing. 

Girlie Girl, 12"x12", oil & acrylic on canvas, 2015. 

When I was in middle school my friends affectionately nick-named me “Girlie Girl.” If anyone else had done so I would have thrown a fit, having been called prissy (a word I despise) and made fun of for my fear of anything from mice to cockroaches (I have older brothers, what can I say?). I took being called "girlie" as an insult from anyone else, but somehow when my girlfriends called me that I didn’t mind. Still, I never really accepted that I was a girlie girl, since I didn’t care about fashion nor wore make-up nor heels; plus I played sports (albeit, starting in 6th grade and reluctantly at first; by senior year of high school, sports had become a lifeline).

Looking back, I kind of wonder, what does a “girlie girl” even mean? It’s kind of like that diminutive accusation that you “throw like a girl.” I’ve decided that I want to take back the phrase and turn it into something positive and strong, refusing to apologize for femininity (ring a bell?). I am a girl, and if I can embrace that fact and use it to my advantage, the rest of the game is downhill coasting. 


In my Flawless series I strive to reshape gender norms by refusing to apologize for femininity, recognizing that pretty isn't weak. 

Tomboy

This painting is kind of a challenge to the stereotype of what a tomboy is and who she’ll grow up to be. 

Tomboy, 2015. 12"x12", oil & acrylic on canvas.

I grew up with "tomboy" being a bit of a derogatory term, yet being a "girlie" girl myself, I was in awe of them. I was both intimidated by their confidence, but also jealous of their ability to be bold. They could climb trees and play sports better than me, take on the boys and refuse to be pigeon-holed into how girls were “supposed” to act.

As an adult, I started to wonder - were the spiteful myths about tomboys just a way to keep girls in their (meek and mild) place? Where did the idea even come from? I know there’s the equivalent for boys – the shy, sensitive guy being told he’s not “manly” enough. What a shame that we’re forced into these gendered roles.

I picked a pretty “girlie” looking dress because as adults, we meet people all the time who we have no idea what they were like as kids. The wearer of this dress may well have been a tomboy, who knows? Regardless, she is now a confident, flawless woman.

 In my Flawless series I strive to reshape gender norms by refusing to apologize for femininity, recognizing that pretty isn't weak. 

Ain't No English Rose

First painting of 2015:

Ain't No English Rose , 2015

Ain't No English Rose, 2015

I've wanted to do a pregnant dress for my Flawless series, and here it is finally! Don't be surprised if there's some follow up ones, the belly was fun to paint:)

The title is an obscure reference to the Dire Straits' song Portobello Belle, which includes the lines:

She thinks she's tough
She ain't no English rose
But the blind singer
He's seen enough and he knows
Do a song about a long gone Irish girl

As usual, having grown up listening to this song, I have my own interpretation, which may or may not be accurate. But I thought it was about a girl who was both tough and attractive. One who had true grit, as it were, and wasn’t just a pretty “flower” only good for decoration. I feel empowered by the song and wanted to bestow that feeling on this painting. 

You can view the painting live at Art Ark Gallery in San Jose from Jan. 10-Feb. 6, 2015. Check their website before you go since they have limited gallery hours. 

 In my Flawless series I strive to reshape gender norms by refusing to apologize for femininity, recognizing that pretty isn't weak. 

Fierce

Latest painting in my Flawless series, still waiting for a professional photo, but you can get an idea from this:

Fierce

Fierce

 In my Flawless series I strive to reshape gender norms by refusing to apologize for femininity, recognizing that pretty isn't weak. 

Throw Like A Girl

This painting was inspired by this op-ed I read, What Does It Mean to ‘Throw Like a Girl’? 

Throw Like a Girl

Throw Like a Girl

The article talks about everything from the physiological and psychological reasons why girls throw differently than boys, to the additional burden that female athletes carry of needing to look and act (off the pitch, at least) “feminine” while excelling athletically. I really like this quote:

 “Athletic activity encourages not only self-mastery but mastery of the space and time through which they become — not to become “strong like the boys,” but to realize the wholeness of their personality, to be free.

Funnily, I hadn’t heard about the Always #LikeAGirl campaign until after completing the painting, but it fits right in. Take a few minutes to watch this brilliant video:

Apparently it’s being used in schools all over the world, how awesome is that? 

 In my Flawless series I strive to reshape gender norms by refusing to apologize for femininity, recognizing that pretty isn't weak. 

She Wore Lemon

I’m a U2 fan. Mostly pre-2000 albums, and I'm not saying that to try and sound cool and knowledgeable even though The Joshua Tree came out a couple of years before I was born. Rather, I grew up on U2 since my parents are also fans.

She Wore Lemon

She Wore Lemon

The title for this painting is from a song called Lemon off the 1993 album Zooropa. While I read that it’s about trying to capture time with technology (thanks Wikipedia), I like to interpret it as a kind of love song to the desire a man can have for a woman. There's a certain desperation, but also almost a worshiping in the poetry of the lyrics that works so well with the music, it gives me chills. I didn't want to run into copyright issues, so you can read the lyrics yourself here

In my Flawless series I strive to reshape gender norms by refusing to apologize for femininity, recognizing that pretty isn't weak. 

Cha Cha Cha on Mars

I listen to a lot of podcasts while I'm painting and naturally they leak into my paintings from time to time.

Cha Cha Cha on Mars

Cha Cha Cha on Mars

I heard this story on This American Life about this young woman who has qualified to be on this civilian mission to populate Mars. It sounds like a hoax to me, but the reporting was so believable that if it is a hoax, it’s a very elaborate one. The whole idea is so absurd – both of trying to populate another planet and also that anyone would willingly go on such a suicide mission: no one who goes can come back to earth. Personally, I’m in favor of staying on terre firma

Anyway, I was painting this dress that I thought would be a good one for dancing the Cha Cha Cha, and one of my friends mentioned that the setting seemed “out of this world.” Since I was already thinking of the absurdity of that Mars story, I just put the 2 things together. Sometimes, there’s no better explanation than that…

In my Flawless series I strive to reshape gender norms by refusing to apologize for femininity, recognizing that pretty isn't weak. 

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

In these three paintings I started off thinking about women in ordinary places, what that implies about them, and what stories they could tell. 

The Ground Beneath Her Feet.jpg

The connecting title, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, is a reference to the Salman Rushdie novel of the same name that I was quite taken with a couple years back. At the heart of this novel full of magical realism and tectonic metaphors is a love triangle of two men competing for the love with this beautifully dangerous and incredibly selfish woman. While in truth I didn’t like the woman that much and sympathized with one of the spurned lovers, there’s this poetic pull around the whole idea of a woman being able to drive men crazy to the point of worshipping the very ground she has touched. I like the power it implies and I guess I’m playing with that in this triptych. 

Superhero

Superhero

Superhero was a happy accident because originally I was going to have a model on the top of that building and call it “Photo shoot.” However, as I was painting it became clear that it was a great location for that typical superhero stance, watching over the city from the rooftops above. And what better way to straighten out gender norms than adding another female superhero to the mix? They are few and far between, and often way too erotic. I purposefully didn’t call this “Super heroine” because when you Google image search that, you get a bunch of highly sexualized images that are, quite frankly, offensive. For the record, I am a comic book and graphic novel fan, the darker the better (Batman, Sandman, The Watchmen), but in general the female characters in this genre could use a little more personality (a shout out to Fables, which does this with an excellent cast of women in leadership and kickass roles). 

Hitchhiker

Hitchhiker

In Hitchhiker, the setting of a road in the middle of nowhere is something I’ve always been attracted to. I love road trips – some of my best thinking happens in the car – but where I grew up in the mountains you couldn’t see very far ahead of you. This view of the road vanishing into the distance is quintessential of the vastness, possibility and promise of the American continent.  However, the romanticized view of the hitchhiker from the 50s and 60s has been replaced with this fear of the serial killer (either hitching the ride, or, more often, behind the wheel). A lone female hitchhiker just sounds like the title to a horror movie. So I’m playing with this tension between romanticism and fear, painting the dress of a freely spinning dancer in blood red underlined by the ominous skid tracks on the road. Doesn’t that make you curious? I’m going to let your imagination do the rest. 

Hipster

Hipster

In Hipster, I was specifically thinking about how we see people (both men and women) all the time and make assumptions about them based on what they’re wearing. I’m as guilty of this as the next person – what can I say? I like people watching. And while I was painting this urban scene, it looked like the outside of a hip coffee shop to me and I started thinking about hipsters. I think it’s kind of funny listening to people (including myself) trying to explain what a hipster is, because often that description starts with a list of clothes and accessories, whether it’s skinny jeans, big frame glasses, belts or knitted sweaters. So we label the hipsters (denying the possibility that in the same moment someone else might be labeling us hipsters too), but we don’t really know what’s going on inside their heads, what they may or may not be doing, nor what their lives are like. You can learn a lot by interacting with someone, which may indeed confirm your assumptions; but more often than not you remember to recognize the humanity in each individual. 

In my Flawless series I strive to reshape gender norms by refusing to apologize for femininity, recognizing that pretty isn't weak.