Priyanka Paul is a brilliant teenage creative who has already experienced some success on a global scale. Her artwork highlights women of color and shatters the status quo.
In Paul's Goddesses series, she offers an alternative to the traditional images associated with royal and divine women. Instead of presenting them in typical crowns and other regal adornments, she illustrates them as liberated figures who represent the power in expressing versatility. Through confronting and embracing her own culture, her art affirms the notion that "there's much to celebrate and much to condemn."
From Mumbai, Paul spoke to The FADER over email about what connects her to girls who receive her art's messages from across the globe, the impact of patriarchy in India, and how how she continues to create for the unheard.
How’d you get into using illustrations as a medium to portray poetry and images of women?
Poetry isn't something mainstream. There are probably just a handful of people who want to actually read poetry on a social media site. Amazing poetry's just being scrolled through. Which is why, when you combine visual art with poetry, you're not only enhancing poetry, giving it more definition perhaps, you're also creating a wider audience who could relate to poetry but never knew that before. Using poetry and illustrations to chalk out women issues, to me, is a way of activism and rebellion. I'm drawing and writing the things, I probably can't voice out in a conservative society. I want to talk and draw about things people aren't talking about.
How often are you drawing or writing? What’s the process like?
I'm always carrying around a doodle journal. Most of my digital work is done on my phone. I'm almost always into either my journal or my phone, drawing. In order to convert my idea into art, I sketch out the main figures onto my journal and take a picture, which I then trace digitally. Then there's colour scheme selection and what elements go where. I write instantly when I have to. It goes from connecting one idea to another idea to another till I've managed to conjure something.
You love your Goddesses series and it offers a diverse aesthetic to women who are considered regal. The Japanese Sun Goddess, Amaterasu is dressed in a kimono but it’s open and some her breasts are showing. What’s the impact of creating images of goddess in such layered ways?
My Goddesses series was an illustration based on the poem "Pantheon" by Harnidh Kaur. It depicted the goddesses as modern age feminists. The poem basically talked about these goddesses from different cultures reclaiming their sexuality, of being as sexually liberated as men are. The main idea for drawing the goddesses in that sense and also Amaterasu was to give them a radical hipster vibe with which young women everywhere could connect to. The main point of Amaterasu's breasts being shown is the fact that breasts are, universally, more offensive than actual serious issues. Slut shaming is prominent everywhere. Telling any woman that she can't wear this or she can't wear that basically converts into she isn't a whole person capable of making her own decisions and hence needs regulation from the patriarchy.
Why are boobs offensive? Why are blobs of fat over-sexualized to the point that when seen even in their naturally intended state of use (breastfeeding), they're deemed as 'perverted'. The goddesses’ illustration celebrates women in their natural state, unabashed and vociferous in their own ways. All of the goddesses depicted are seen as epitomes of feminine power, which is why it seemed fit to represent them as epitomes of feminist liberation.
What do you want to convey, specifically with these type of illustrations?
I'm a feminist. I come from a country where the middle class doesn't talk about sex openly. We don't have a lot of sex-education in schools, we keep our daughters in our houses as much as we can, and we teach our daughters how not to provoke molestation or rape. Objectification is not seen as an issue here. In a recent rape trial in India, the rapist's lawyer defended his client by saying that a girl is like a flower and should be kept safely at home, if left on the roads she will be walked over or crushed. Your value as a woman is strongly defined by your bonds to the patriarchy.
What else am I, if not a mother, daughter, sister? Nothing. Women being sexual entities at par with men is something unthought-of. The whole 'Men will be men' and 'Women are sluts, but men are studs' is a rampant idea. The new age Indian woman, I believe is moving ahead. We're talking about these issues. I believe, we're privileged to be able to talk about it because we weren't killed at birth due to our gender. I'm conveying all these issues through my poetry and illustrations.
What norms or ideals are you challenging in your own community and culture?
India as a country is livid with misogyny in every corner, and it's not even seen as something out of the blue, something to be opposed. It starts from right at birth, if you have new born daughters, it's almost natural for random strangers to pity you for not having a son. It moves on to the taboo surrounding periods, to not sending girls to school in rural areas, to wage gaps, to getting your daughter's married off as soon as possible, to dowry cases, to women not being allowed to inherit property, to having to give up your career after marriage.
There's domestic violence being hushed up on the pretext of upholding cultural and family values. As a teenage girl, you could ask your parents why they didn't let you go out as much, or didn't let you wear something you wanted to and they could answer "Because you're a girl." And you'd have to bear with it, no more questions asked. I'm trying to ask these questions. I want better answers than "It's because you're a girl." Or "It's a bad world out there." You've got to be aware that you're unconsciously contributing to the world being bad.
Indian bodies have specific characteristics. According to the laws of natural selection and human evolution, we've always had bodies unlike the Europeans. Today we're struggling with accepting that, we're breaking down ourselves, our bodies, and our colours. We're racist to the people of our own race. We shouldn't be. I want people to know, that my colour doesn't define my worth. Mental Illness is not taken as seriously in India. Gender roles are alive and kicking. Religion governs the lives of the majority and the effects of that are surely debatable. There's much to celebrate and much to condemn, and I hope to do both of it.
I create for every voice that believes their life shouldn’t be limited by autocratic social constructs, for every voice that wants to scream out loud what they think, but a noose around their neck muffles their voices.
As a 17 year old young woman, what are some of the things that you see your peers in real life or in the internet realm struggle with in terms of identity?
I see so many of my female peers dealing with body image issues or how their face looks and how as women we're subjugated, how we've been taught to aspire for lesser. I see barriers to female expression. I don't see as many raw and strong voices as I would like to see and I think a part of it is because a lot of young women don't think they need to speak out, because they don't know better. Mental illness, suicidal tendencies are seen as "acting out" or "hormonal imbalance." It's a serious problem if mental illness is being equated to juvenile drama.
What do you see them embracing?
I do see my female peers today embracing their bodies. I see women of colour separating their bodies from western standards of beauty and celebrating their bodies. I see power and knowledge as set goals for women. There's the ever-growing concept that there's so much more to aspire for than marriage. I see the building of a supportive sisterhood. I see women loving themselves without the constant censoring, without the whole world trying to distort their identities.
What do you want to see in the art world?
I want to see more activism in the art world. I think as artists we're given sheer magic in our hands, that we learn to train. Art can channel an array of emotions. I believe we can do so much more than creating visual pleasure with our hands. Art can aid so many learning processes. Protestation through art, I believe is a twist on the whole Gandhi's non-violent agitation, and I think it could work. Art for peace and change is what I truly believe in.
What voices do you create for?
I create for every voice that believes their life shouldn't be limited by autocratic social constructs, for every voice that wants to scream out loud what they think, but a noose around their neck muffles their voices. I want to speak for the margins, the lost teenagers, the ones who've faced oppression, the ones who've been told that their pain is not worth being validated. I really really want to be part of this current art revolution that creates for the current millennium that believes in coherent normative change.