Content warning: mentions of physical violence
Manal Mirza is leaning forward with her arms folded in her lap. Her lips are pursed, and she’s shaking her head. “It has been a crazy year.”
She’s expressing a universal opinion – something that feels increasingly uncommon these days. We’re chatting on Zoom, mulling over the tumultuous year that has been 2020. “There’s been a lot of changes for me, for everyone. When I compare it to 2019, I’m just like, ‘Oh my God’.”
Chatting from her suburban family home in Chicago, the 26-year-old designer and illustrator admits that even though this chapter in our lives has been unprecedented, she has had time to focus on her art and access more freelance opportunities. “In a way it has been a blessing in disguise. It was a time where I was able to reflect within.”
In such an uncertain period, art has remained one of her few constants. Manal tells me, “It’s part of my identity, it’s the way I process emotions. It’s like being in a relationship, it’s something that I have to maintain.”
“When I was younger I didn’t even know how to read, but I had a stack of picture books and illustrations. I would go through them every night.”
As a child, Manal was constantly surrounded by artwork. Both her mother and father studied graphic design in Pakistan, before migrating from Lahore and Karachi respectively to the US in the 80s, where Manal was born and raised. “When I was younger I didn’t even know how to read, but I had a stack of picture books and illustrations. I would go through them every night.”
Now that Manal has inherited and executed her parent’s dreams, she feels evermore grateful to them. “Especially my dad. He’s like, “I see what you’re doing and it’s making my younger self happy”. Having somebody believe in me makes a huge difference.”
Since then Manal has been busy launching her online shop, drawing up new prints and celebrating her work on the Little People, Big Dreams children’s book series, which spotlights the lives of outstanding people.
In August she was commissioned to illustrate the Malala Yousafzai story of the collection, saying that illustrating a children’s book is something she’s “always wanted to do”. “It was a great opportunity. It’s nice to know that I can do that.”
She expresses how, over lockdown, her artwork has been part of her support system. Even though picking up her pen and starting on work can be a sluggish process – “I’m a master procrastinator” – once she gets started her creative flow is “never-ending”. “When I’m there, I’m there – and I know I’m going to be there for a couple hours.”
On Instagram, Manal is known for her colourful and thought-provoking vignettes. Often, they explore the trials and tribulations of contemporary South Asian Muslim womanhood. She cites miniature paintings and Mughal art as some of her biggest influences. “I really love looking toward those pieces for pattern inspiration. I feel like the designs, the colours, the floral patterns, when you see them, you’re taken aback.”
Manal sees visual art as a form of lingua franca, a bridge language, helping her to clearly express her emotions. “You can create anything you want, it’s just pure imagination. It’s universal.”
Her signature illustrations are often accompanied by satirical yet relatable captions, reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein. Most of her captions are based on real life conversations she has with her close-knit group of friends. “I think when I post a caption, I am talking to one of my friends and just saying what’s on my mind.”
With her peers she is able to discuss things like gender and race. They carefully listen to each other, even when their perspectives differ. “We all have different spectrums of how we view things. Some people are conservative and some are more liberal. There’s a variety in that sense.” Though their attitudes may vary, they still rely on each other for moral support, helping each other digest the constant stream of news flooding their phones. “We’ve always leaned on each other talking to each other about something. There’s constant communication.”
Manal is quick to assert that most of her work isn’t inherently political. Despite this, it is politicised by dint of her South Asian Muslim American identity. She says that first and foremost, her work is “personal”.
However, in late October Manal posted an illustration that read “An opinion: My religion is not entertainment”. The picture nods to the increased state-sanctioned surveillance of Muslims in France by President Emmanuel Macron’s government, and the skewed media coverage the story was getting.
The President was responding to the decapitation of the 47-year-old middle school teacher Samuel Paty after he showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in class; reviving France’s free speech debate, although at the detriment of French Muslims, many of whom felt increasingly isolated by the Republic.
Manal admits that at times like these, she chooses to use her art to speak out, especially because her faith is so closely tied to her identity.
“Even though it’s such a personal thing, it becomes political. It’s hard to not be connected to politics. It’s hard to not be involved or not affected by it. Maybe that represents other Muslims and how they feel, but that’s not really why I’m doing it. I’m doing it for myself and my frustration.”
For Manal art can be cathartic, especially when she’s reacting to especially polemical news stories. “With the really political stuff, it’s like therapy. For some people it’s journaling, for some people it’s yelling or screaming, but for some people it’s making art.”
This year Manal has been using her artwork to explore the intersections of her South Asian identity and her womanhood. She says that sometimes people are shocked by her art, even though she is being as candid as possible when displaying snapshots inspired by her own life. “All women have thoughts. We go through things all the time, but what we think is not always shown.”
Social media has created a more accessible and democratic gateway for artists to showcase their work. “Back in the day, you had to be invited to art galleries”, Manal says. “It used to be more exclusive but now it’s more inclusive, so you’re seeing a lot more perspectives and different voices.”
More and more Muslim and South Asian women illustrators are currently exhibiting their work on Instagram. This has meant that Manal doesn’t feel an individual responsibility to represent the opinions of whole communities, a task that is logically impossible. “There’s not just one type of South Asian person. Everyone has their own interests. We’re not just one person, there’s not just one label on us as people.”
Instead she’s using her platform to speak to those within South Asian and Muslim communities, an action she feels gives her the room to be nuanced and specific about the experiences she chooses to make visible. “When you make artwork for people who aren’t within your community, it looks different versus when you’re talking to your own community. Now that we’ve represented ourselves to the outside world, let’s talk about the real stuff.”
“Because there’re so many artists on Instagram, we’re able to finally look within ourselves,” she adds.
Whilst Manal feels a sense of freedom in being able to lean on the shoulders of fellow artists from the diaspora, she still tiptoes the line between using her art to reflect her own opinions and using it to reflect the opinions of her peers. “I don’t want to misrepresent my own community. You can be the nicest person in the world, but somebody is going to be offended.”
Ultimately though, she says she wants her work to provoke deep thought and reflection, hoping to encourage viewers to dig beneath the surface and interrogate the themes and discussions behind her work. “I want them to think more deeply about it, just get them to think.”
During the pandemic Manal has had time to reminisce how her art career has taken off over the past year, but she has also been looking forward to the forthcoming year. “There’s somebody new that’s going to be in office, so I’m hoping that things do change. I hope the atmosphere changes, where there aren’t so many opposing sides, or where there’s a huge divide.”
Whatever happens next, Manal is hopeful. “I’ve always been an optimist. I’m hoping for a brighter future.”
You can follow Manal Mirza on Instagram here, or visit her webshop here.
Feature by Sana Noor Haq. Sana is a journalist and pop culture fiend. Her first love is literature because she believes it can be an artistic form where stories from the fringes of society can be brought to the fore. @sananoorhaq
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