Artist in Focus: Shehzil Malik

March 1, 2020

On art, activism and fashion…

Most artworks depicting the female, which are referenced or studied even in the 21st century, are made by men. Picasso’s women, Ruben’s women, Caravaggio’s women; they all have one thing in common: they represent the female form as witnessed, desired and experienced by men. It has taken years of fighting for rights and self-representation for female artists to reclaim or begin the process of reclaiming the female form.

Why does this matter? Because women aren’t only frail, beautiful ingenues or eternally youthful muses. Their proportions are not Rubenesque or always akin to delicate, dreamy creatures out of a Renoir. Women, like men, come in all shapes, sizes, colours and features. In a world where patriarchy still manages to sideline brilliant, talented women, reclaiming the female form and making it acceptable through art has been a constant struggle for female painters across the globe.

In Lahore, a local illustrator quietly managed to start the reclaiming, beginning with herself. Shehzil Malik, artist, activist and designer, is famous for her illustrations of brown women, most notably for an illustration with a simple message: brown is beautiful. The success of Malik’s art and the dire need for it can be gauged by how it resonated with women across the country and even among women from across the border.

For Malik, her ability to create art through introspection came about when an art teacher in school introduced her to Frieda Kahlo. Something clicked for Malik; instead of looking outward for inspiration and subjects to depict, she decided to start with herself.

It wasn’t an instant love affair, she explains. Like most girls growing up in the ‘90s, being bombarded by images of beautiful, fair women, Malik had a difficult relationship with her body. “My mother and sister both are extremely fair, I grew up being compared to them and being shamed for my skin colour. I used terrible skin lightening creams; creams that are now banned because they had mercury and various other bleaching chemicals that cause cancer and lasting damage but it seemed to be a small price to pay for being able to fit in,” she adds.

Even with her artwork, it took time for Malik to embrace herself. Time, exposure and feminism. When she looks back at her work from her teenage years, Malik can see how the body image struggles, speaking to her clearly through outlandish proportions. “I can laugh now at how absurdly I’d draw my features and proportions but back then I was in a constant fight with my body,” she elaborates. She wasn’t the only one. Turns out, more than half of millennial women have struggled with body image, anorexia or body dysmorphic disorder.

Perhaps that’s why Malik’s wholesome brown women, strong, happy and powerful in themselves and their skin, are empowering and accessible. Her women are not stick thin or deliciously voluptuous. They are beholden to their beauty but rather to the strength with which they navigate the world, something women tend to forget in a society that is obsessed with how they look.

Malik’s acumen isn’t just restricted to illustrations and commissioned work. She is an active, vocal feminist who likes to imbue her art with messages for social change, for tolerance and for a system of inclusion rather than exclusion. She designed the posters for Aurat March in 2019 and, for this year’s 8th March protest, she not only designed the poster but also a Facebook banner to go across your display photo (the banner itself was created by Leena Ghani). After the first set of posters in Lahore were ripped within four hours of being put up, she decided to put the poster online for free, so that anyone could download it, allowing the messaging to become viral.

Apart from being a social change crusader and illustrator, Malik has also collaborated with fashion to bring her philosophy even more to the fore. Her collection in 2017 for Generation, as part of their Step Outside initiative, was not only extremely well received but also sold-out quicker than both parties had anticipated.

Speaking about her collaboration with Generation, Malik admits that there were quarters voicing critique of her working with a commercial venture (activism and capitalism aren’t on good terms though capitalism often attempts to appropriate activist language and ideology to peddle more goods and perpetuate old power structures) but she only went forward with the entire collaboration after thoroughly vetting the production process at the brand, checking out working conditions and ensure that the brand’s philosophy towards women empowerment and social change were more than skin deep.

For Malik, stories, art and life are symbiotic. “Each image tells a story. Stories are the building blocks of life, they’re what help us connect and communicate on a larger scale. What they preach seeps into our collective conscious, validating what is normal and what isn’t,” she opines. That’s why she chose to put her messaging and her philosophy into clothing – wearable art. “What better way to get your message across than to wear it across your body,” she adds with a laugh. We absolutely concur!

Artist in Focus: Shehzil Malik advocating for brown women through art