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“There’s value in starting difficult conversations”

An interview with designer and illustrator Shehzil Malik who is making a mark with striking pieces on feminism and pop culture

“There’s value in starting difficult conversations”
Shehzil Malik.

Her’s are not simple illustrations but a way of starting conversations on social issues that are universal — gender identity and equality. And these visuals speak louder than words. A Fulbright scholar with an MFA in Visual Communication Design who worked later on in advertising, Shehzil Malik is keen to use art for social change — to foster empathy, and bring awareness about issues related to women’s rights.

Of her several eye-catching pieces, one depicts an unnerved woman walking as she is mocked and followed by the male gaze. Thoughts like “Is my shirt not long enough?” trouble her as she tries to “just keep walking”. Shehzil says that she does not create such art to gain sympathies for being a woman but instead she wants to relate to those who suffer similar public discomfort. One of her Tumblr posts reads, “I hold people’s gaze. I basically realised: I have as much right to be here as they do.”

At the same time, she also enjoys representing her home, Hunza valley and takes immense pride in the strength of Hunzai women.

Malik just recently held a pop-up art show of her illustrations at The Last Word called ‘Notes to Self’ where she received an overwhelming response and her illustrations had to be re-stocked. Here, Shehzil Malik talks exclusively to The News on Sunday about her work and journey so far.

TNS: Tell us about your journey from working for corporate ventures to using design for social change.

SM: Ever since I was in college, I’ve been interested in how design can be used for social impact. My first job was at Uth Oye! a clothing company that gave a percentage of its proceeds to fund sustainable projects, and that experience set the tone for my career. I later got the Fulbright scholarship for my master’s degree, and coming back to Pakistan, I joined Ogilvy & Mather as an art director. I learnt a great deal and gained wonderful mentors at the agency, but I realised my heart was not in advertising. Since leaving the corporate life, I pursue collaborative projects with companies that share my values about social impact, women’s rights and ethical manufacturing. I am a part of IDIN (International Design Innovation Network) and am helping to organise an International Development Design Summit next summer. I also illustrate subjects close to my heart as way of starting conversations around social issues. There’s so much that can be done in this sphere and we need more designers and artists to step onboard!

On a personal level, I am happiest when I’m drawing. By expressing myself or highlighting some issue through my work, in some small way, I feel like I’m doing my part.

TNS: “If you didn’t see a brown badass female superhero growing up, how’d you know if it were possible? Enter: Desi Wonder Woman.”  Loved the description [the caption of one of your works] — is it challenging not to follow stereotypical thoughts? What kind of response are you drawing from people?

SM: It is absolutely challenging! I often draw badass women because I’m feeling very much the opposite of badass. The artwork reminds me to fight for the life I imagine for myself. People from all over the world have taken the time to write about and share the work and I’m touched every time.

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TNS: Your work suggests that you are ‘desi’ from the core. What are your emotions for Pakistan and how does living here influence your work?

SM: I don’t have any nationalist feelings, so there’s no patriotism in that sense. What I do have is a sense of responsibility towards where I’m from. In terms of my art, I try to create representations that tell stories from this part of the world. Stereotypes are convenient, but they create a myopic vision that influences how others perceive you, and how you perceive yourself. I want to draw and write about how I live as a Pakistani precisely because I was often berated for not being ‘desi’ enough. There’s no single lens through which you can define your identity (esp. not with manmade borders) and I love finding overlaps in human experiences the world over.

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TNS: Your illustrations act as visual metaphors for social problems. What convinced you to use art for this purpose?

SM: On a personal level, I am happiest when I’m drawing. By expressing myself or highlighting some issue through my work, in some small way, I feel like I’m doing my part.

TNS: Do the feminist themes in your art work also reflect your personal experiences as a woman in this part of the world?

SM: Feminism for me is about realising that women are people — equally deserving of all the rights and opportunities a person can be offered… To feel valued, to know that your voice matters and your decisions are yours to make are human rights we should all be afforded — man or woman. These ideas aren’t revolutionary or shocking. It’s simply how I think and how I’d want children to be raised — in Lahore or elsewhere.

TNS: Is it worthwhile to use art for social mobilisation?

SM: I think there’s value in starting difficult conversations or bringing awareness to social issues through discourse. I’ve been part of projects that were designed to create good in the world, with statistics to back the impact they have and I’m so grateful to people who dedicate their lives for these pursuits.

I’m also a big believer in what I call unintentional impact — you never know whether a conversation you have could help another person to find their calling, or simply feel like they are part of a community they hadn’t found before. I don’t think there’s a way of measuring the value of impacting a single person on a deeper level, which I find to be a completely worthwhile use of art.

TNS: What do you like most about illustrating?

SM: For me, it’s the most effective way to tell a story in a single image. It reflects my thoughts at the time and becomes a record of life experiences.

TNS: What is the best piece of advice you have received regarding your artwork?

SM: I don’t receive much advice about art, but I often look for advice on life. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is the encouragement to go out and look for your tribe. This is true for everyone. Until you find your people — those who feel strongly about the issues that matter to you and value what you value — you will feel like you’re the odd one out and that no one understands your internal struggles.

I think in a way I’ve used art to find my tribe and it’s made all the difference.

Sadaf Pervez

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