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Shehzil Malik: A contemporary visual artist breaking boundaries through her art

Image taken from Shehzil Malik’s Instagram

For artists, art can be many things. It can be a way for us to show our creativity, to reach out to the world in a meaningful way, and sometimes, it can be a way for us to let off steam. But most importantly, art is meant to create waves. It is meant to touch on and highlight topics with engaging visuals. An artwork is a story or a collection of stories being told. One such artist is Shehzil Malik, who is making a statement that among the many things art can be, it can also be political.

Each week at Arts to Hearts Project, we talk about a female artist who is breaking barriers in the art world. This week, we are taking a look at Shehzil Malik, who has cracked the code of finding the balance between doing what she loves and creating a career out of it.

Portrait by Kayhan Anjum Suleman – Image taken from Shehzil’s official website

About Shehzil

Hailing from Pakistan, Shehzil Malik is a visual designer and illustrator who creates art based on her life experiences. She has done her masters in communication designs from RIT, Rochester. Apart from creating stunning illustrations, she also believes in being an advocate for social change and constantly challenges patriarchy with her work. Shehzil has primarily worked with digital art, and has explored themes such as feminism, colorism etc. She hopes that her work can help make women realize of their power as individuals.

Taken from Shehzil Malik’s Instagram

Shehzil has worked on countless social impact projects through textile, publications, digital art, and public art. In 2019, she served as a contributing artist and panelist at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Her work has been featured in Forbes, DW, BBC, New York Times, and CNN, and she has worked with notable brands/organizations including Google, Marvel, Penguin Random House, Oxfam, and Malala Fund.

Google Doodle by Shehzil Malik

Finding her niche

While the audience only sees the art an artist puts out, there is an entire journey that came before it, that we as viewers, have not witnessed. From realizing that an inner artist resides inside you to listening to that inner voice to finally nurturing it, the trajectory of every artist’s journey is different. Shehzil always found strong inclination towards art and her childhood also revolved around watching anime and drawing. At the age of 15, she coded her very first website, so, for her, transitioning to this line of work always felt natural. It was when Shehzil was in school, and decided to opt for some other ‘real’ career (or as the society has conditioned us to believe), that she realized that she was the happiest as an artist.

Installations by Shehzil Malik at the British Council global headquarters

Over the next few years, Shehzil went to an Art school and then to U.S for her scholarship, and decided that she wanted to be a designer. However, as she was away from home, her art started to lean a bit more towards ‘home’.

It takes maybe leaving where you’re from to look at it with fresh eyes.

Shehzil Malik for TPR Pod

This is a common experience many artists go through. We can move on to greater things, away from what we used to call home, but we never forget our roots, and keep going back to them. As a south Asian woman from Pakistan, Shehzil felt a huge gap in representation, especially in the west. That is when she deliberately started to make political projects. She knew that even though she loved to make art, she also did not want to waste her or everyone else’s time. After she came back to Pakistan, she went on to explore different ways of designing and did some field work, and ultimately realized that it was drawing where her heart lay.

For artists, experimenting and getting out of the comfort zone can be the answer, as this is how you can know for sure what suits your style and what you enjoy doing. In case of Shehzil, exploring showed her the paths she could embark upon, and by living them one by one, she was able to settle on what resonated with her the most.

If you think you don’t have the experience or don’t know what you’re doing, that’s normal and true for all of us. We are all learning by doing, and that’s what makes life interesting.

Shehzil Malik for RIT

Exploring social and political themes in art

Shehzil’s decision to become a self-employed designer and illustrator came from her past experiences as an artist and a south Asian woman. Once she was back in Pakistan, she continued to draw, and for the most part, her art revolved around socio-political themes. Whenever something would bother her, she would come home and angrily draw about it. She started to put her work on her blog, and soon it started to gain much-deserved attention. One of Shehzil’s earlier artworks that received an overwhelming response was her artwork ‘Brown is Beautiful’.

Artwork by Shehzil Malik

In the artwork, a brown-skinned woman is seen crushing Fair and Lovely, a skin-lightening cosmetic product that’s branded as a must-have for any woman that does not fall on the universal criteria of being ‘fair-skinned’. The inferiority complex that has been attached to brown skin, especially in the south Asian culture, is something that still persists to some extent. By crushing the product, the woman is crushing all the baggage and inferiority complexes that come with it – or at least she hopes to.

Shehzil’s art does not just address colorism, but the entire culture that perpetuates patriarchy and puts women down. From addressing the male gaze in her art to celebrating diversity, Shehzil has been able to touch on multiple social issues that need to be addressed.

I personally don’t think one should be too hung up about getting validation though – the purpose of art is to express yourself, question the norm, be uncomfortable – it’s okay if everyone doesn’t like it.

Shehzil Malik for The Quint
Artworks by Shehzil Malik

We can see how important art is for Shehzil, and how it really is a means for her to express her thoughts and frustrations. On her Instagram handle, where she has more than 50K followers, Shehzil can be seen engaging in discourses that tackle topics as sensitive as domestic and sexual abuse by using powerful imagery.

I tend to use art as a way to process events, thoughts, and feelings- especially when it’s related to causes that affect women and minorities.

Shehzil Malik for Dissdash

Reaching a global audience with her art

Not all of Shehzil’s art is riddled with heavy subjects, as she also creates art that’s non-political, and still very Pakistani. From the very beginning, Shehzil has been open about her style and chose to follow it instead of making her art more palatable. She decided to explore her South Asian identity, because it spoke to her, and that authenticity in her work has since led her to bag noteworthy projects.

Without any connections or contacts, I’ve been able to reach an international audience and talk to people directly. It’s been instrumental in helping me find collaborators.

Shehzil Malik for The Quint

Recently, Shehzil was asked to illustrate for Marvel for their upcoming show, Ms. Marvel. She was asked to be part of the story and use her artworks to represent Kamala Khan’s heritage as a Muslim/Pakistani-American superhero. In the end, it all boils down to diversity, which Shehzil has been a proponent of!

Original artworks in the background designed by Shehzil Malik
Shehzil Malik’s post on her official Instagram

What’s remarkable about Shehzil is the way she has managed to hold on to her identity and has used her art to convey something many fail to spell out. The taboos in our society, which more often than not, are swept under the rug, are boldly illustrated in her work. Her intersectional feminism has guided her throughout in her artistic journey, and it’s quite apparent from the heavy subject matter her art deals with. She was fortunate enough to find a way to speak her mind, and most importantly, was able to stick to them when it came to navigating her art career as well. Her art is not just a means of making a statement, but it is also a reminder to all struggling artists, especially female, that you can firmly hold your ground, and still find your place in this world!

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