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August 07, 2017

Maria Qamar On Serving Sass With Her Pop Art Renditions Of Desi Aunties

Text by Tina Dastur

She recounts the manner in which her experiences as an immigrant have influenced her unique brand of humour

As Indian children, we’ve grown up watching Hindi soap operas, all of which invariably feature one recurring character — that of the meddling and melodramatic desi aunty. She could take the form of an overbearing mother-in-law, a gossipy relative or even an inquisitive neighbour. But since most television shows imitate life, it’s fair to say that this character doesn’t exist solely on the screen. As teenagers and young adults, we’ve all been exposed to the menace of interfering aunties, who take more of an interest in our love lives than we do, constantly analyse our weight and enjoy wheedling out information on family dramas. But, this breed isn’t the sole privilege (more like bane) of us here in India. The desi aunty has also made herself a permanent fixture in Pakistani society…and no one knows and understands her better than 26-year-old artist Maria Qamar, founder of popular Instagram account Hatecopy.

Shifting continents
Born into a family that is half Bihari and half Gujarati, Qamar’s parents fell in love in Pakistan, and so her first nine years were spent in the company of Pakistani aunties before her family moved to Canada in 2000. A year later, the 9/11 attacks happened, and Qamar became a victim of racist remarks and incessant bullying at school. Resultantly, she retreated into herself and desperately tried to suppress her cultural identity in an effort to fit in with the rest. With a knack for creativity, she took up a job in an advertising agency and claims she would “sell myself to employers as the copy girl who hated copy”. But after about four years, she lost her job. Instead of sending her life into a downward spiral, this event actually emboldened her to pursue what she had always loved ­— and that was art. Her parents — both chemists — weren’t exactly supportive and kept harbouring the hope that she would grow out of her obsession with art and take up a ‘serious, stable job’. “I grew up in a matriarchal home; women controlled the money, made the rules and took care of the kids while also taking the time to enjoy and pamper themselves. My early years were filled with love and laughter. It’s around adolescence when the sugar coating melted,” states Qamar.

Sense and style
Today, the Toronto-based artist’s Instagram profile Hatecopy — which has over a million followers — is widely known for its dramatic interpretations of desi culture in her signature pop art style. “Hatecopy was my way of letting go of cultural and societal expectations and going back to doing what I genuinely loved,” she says. Inspired by artist Roy Lichtenstein’s aesthetic, Qamar’s style is an ingenious blend of classic American romance comics and desi soaps. Speaking about this unique amalgam, the 26-year-old explains, “It’s pop art. It is exactly what Lichtenstein had done back then, only now for a group of people that has been largely ignored by the American media for a very long time. I aim to make our presence known in the West as it is my home…and also because the conversation belongs to us, too.”

Pride and practice
Scrolling through her Instagram profile, one is greeted with hilarious takes on desi aunties (complete with their jhumkas and bindis) that are made doubly rib-tickling because of the vivid colour palettes, exaggerated expressions and dramatic speech bubbles. Hatecopy’s inadvertent beginnings in the aunty realm came in 2015 with Qamar’s very first sketch titled ‘I burnt the rotis’. Even though her caricature of the aunty was completely accidental (she was trying to imitate Lichtenstein’s works when she landed up drawing what looked like an aunty), the figure has come to define her art today. Aunties aside, there is one element that consistently appears in her works — drama. Talking about how it enhances the appeal of her art, Qamar elaborates, “Drama is cross-cultural. Love, betrayal, shame, anger, revenge…these are concepts everyone’s familiar with. The drawing is nothing without drama. The colours, emotions, lines and words synchronise to play with the viewer’s emotions.”

Daring and provocative, her work offers a lens into wily aunties’ thoughts and also tackles culturally sensitive issues that both desis in the Indian Subcontinent, as well as the diaspora, have dealt with at various points in their lives. Scheming aunties abound in ‘She stole my husband but she can never steal this recipe’, ‘I put salt in her chai’, ‘But that’s none of my lena dena’ and ‘I’ll step on her sari’. A generous sprinkling of hyperbolic mothers is also prevalent in ‘Yes, hello? Police? My son is listening to that rap shap music again’ and ‘Our daughter didn’t pick up the phone, Vinay! She’s obviously dead!!!’ More importantly, Qamar also attacks taboo issues that are entrenched in South Asian societies. In ‘We’re not having a daughter!’, a couple embraces and rejoices over the fact that they are not having a girl child. In another piece, a lesbian fearfully tells her partner, ‘Pitaji would kill us if he found out…’, only to have her lover retort with, ‘Pitaji don’t know shit, Shruti…’. “I think of it as a way to show the world what I witnessed in my life. A lot of it happens to be eye-opening stuff, but the truth is that a lot of desi women and girls go through these cultural obstacles in solitude,” she states.

Perhaps her most audacious work is Uncle Pride, which depicts two male lips, with trimmed moustaches, locked in a kiss. Although it is bound to ruffle the feathers of many regressive individuals, Qamar insists, “Uncle Pride is not offensive. It’s a celebration of love. It’s a way of life for a large group of people and it should be respected as hetero art typically is. I don’t think of my work as anything that exists for the sake of controversy; it’s simply a reflection of the life I and many of my friends choose to live.”

Fame and fandom
Today, Qamar has been featured in publications and even has her own website, where she sells merchandise ranging from Peek-a-Bua dresses and Nahi totes to ‘Str8 as a jalebi, baby!’ prints. What’s more, she’s been endorsed by female comedian Mindy Kaling, who is often seen flaunting the artist’s tees. A particularly covetable collection of delicate plates, where dainty floral designs frame images of devious desi aunties, is decorated with quotes like ‘Ever heard of salt, beta?’, ‘Is this samosa or sabotage?’ and ‘She will make a bad wife’.

However, even as she soaks in her stardom, Qamar can’t ignore the role the internet has played in helping her win her ticket to fame. “It has allowed me to carve a little space of my own in the world of art and design. I get to communicate and become friends with artists I have always admired,” she states. Surprisingly, even though the internet — more specifically, Instagram — has done wonders for her career, the artist’s favourite platform is not remotely connected to digital media. “The gallery will always be my favourite ‘social’ platform. I get to witness real people interact with my work and ask questions. I get to meet mothers, daughters, boys, girls and everyone from different walks of life.

It helps me to get to know the world and myself a little better,” she reveals.

The road ahead
Her book Trust No Aunty released worldwide earlier this month. Expanding on what it is about, she says, “Trust No Aunty is what happens when a girl has heard the word ‘no’ a few too many times. The book is about dealing with bad advice passed to us by our aunties. Also, recipes. I have a really good dal recipe in there!” Although her book will be the highlight of her year, the artist also has a few gallery exhibits, brand collaborations and tours coming up.

Her parents are still sitting on the fence when it comes to her career choices, but Qamar says that it doesn’t affect her as much anymore. “These days, I tend to do what I want. I’ve decided that if I have chosen an unconventional path, I must take responsibility for it and do my best to make myself happy first. The rest resolves itself,” she asserts. Having gone through the grind, Qamar shares her pearls of wisdom with fledgeling artists out there who are battling the patriarchy. “Fight, beti, fight!” she encourages, “Create your own lane and leave the door open for the girls behind you. This goes for boys as well.”

Although she has complete control over her career today, Qamar insists that she would not have done a thing differently on the way to getting to where she’s at. “I wouldn’t change a thing. My life is about constant growth and change. I want to get better with time, and I want everyone to grow with me!” she states. But even though she proudly flaunts her cultural roots today, she maintains, “A lot of humour is rooted in trauma. It’s how I cope. The effects of racism and abuse will never really disappear, but Hatecopy has helped me to find community and sisterhood. I am thankful for that.”

Doing It The Maria Way
Favourite print…‘I ran out of elaichi

A day off involves…watching Korean soap operas

Best thing about desi aunties…when they go, ‘Oh hoooo, Bollywood’ when you put on one layer of make-up

Song on repeat…Prom by SZA

Currently readingOne Day We Will All Be Dead and None Of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

If not an artist, I would have been…dead

Most frequently used desi catchphraseMeri izzat mitti mein mila di!

Would love to collaborate with… Ricardo Cavolo

A life without desi aunties…flavourless

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