Sarah Naqvi is always naked—or rather, her art always is. The 20-year-old Indian artist and textile design student crafts intricate depictions of the female body, exploring oppressive standards of femininity to showcase the beauty in imperfection. Combining traditional needlepoint with radical feminist imagery, her art is as sweet as it is subversive. Through her detailed drawings and embroidery, Naqvi highlights the female experience, making even the heaviest period look delicate. And in a world of Snapchat filters and flawless selfies, she’s more focused on reality.
BULLETT caught up with the artist to talk stained panties, sanitary napkins and having a voice.
Tell me about your process.
When I start out with an artwork, I usually follow a pattern which begins with ideating, research and making lots of sketches and random doodles until I land on something that really does justice to the message I’m trying to convey. The reason why I do all this preliminary work is because the topics I choose to work on are very close to me and everyone it connects to. These issues don’t exist in isolation and we are all part of their existence. We are all part of the problem and we also happen to be the solution—it’s just which one we choose to really be.
What themes do you explore in your work?
I’m just trying to bring substance to art—not just beauty. The themes I work on are heavily inclined towards women empowerment, sexuality, and most importantly, understanding the future that’s at stake when we trivialize these matters. I’ve been taught ever since I was a child to fight for what’s right and speak up for anyone who has been kept quiet. For me, that’s what feminism really is—standing up for one another, because if a girl in some part of the world is denied basic rights, it’s not just her battle, it’s ours.
Embroidery has been tagged as ‘women’s work,’ that ‘it’s too girly a task.’ With every stitch I make, I hope to challenge these common misperceptions and show just how much strength and voice every piece can carry.
Your work subverts the male gaze and traditional beauty standards by representing all different types of bodies in non-sexual ways. Is that an important aspect of your work?
The female body has been objectified for so long now, it’s hard to see it as anything but a sexual symbol. […] The more we are exposed to a real biological figure, the faster we can start calling out the standards that are set around us. […] My sketches show what it really is to be comfortable in one’s own skin and that once you learn to love yourself, others will too. It really isn’t half as easy as it sounds, but that’s exactly why we need work and energy that reminds us of how wonderfully flawed we all are, which is what makes us so human and beautiful.
Menstruation is also a recurring theme. Why?
Menstruation and the stigma it carries in India first occurred to me when I was a little girl going to the pharmacy to buy sanitary pads with my mother. The entire exchange of hush hush whispers, and the man wrapping the packet of pads in an opaque black plastic cover was so fascinating, as if she was buying something illegal. I still I face awkward glares at any store when I ask for tampons or pads unapologetically. […] My work ‘Embroidery on a Tampon’ and ‘The Stained Panty’ came from the constant depiction of periods as blue gel and liquid on pads in commercials—what are we, Smurfs? Demonising the natural needs of the body is not only stagnating our growth, but ruining our ability to adapt. From almost non-existent sex education to centuries of myths surrounding menstruation and sexuality, we now live in an age of tolerance and acceptance where we must choose to celebrate diversity and open ourselves to the realities we have been running away from for so long.
What role does feminism play in your art?
Growing up in a fairly conservative society, everyday sexism wasn’t uncommon. But what really made my blood boil, was the indifference I saw all around. We’ve been conditioned to believe there are roles assigned to each of us, and if you are to fit in, you must follow them blindly. I really don’t buy it—I don’t believe in the standards that have been force-fed to us by a society that’s suffering from the effects of years of deep rooted patriarchy that’s created, cultivated and enforced the idea of an ‘ideal woman.’ [..] The thought of just being a spectator and not being able to create change gets me restless.
‘Embroidery on a Tampon’
Do your pieces get flagged on Instagram?
A couple of my artworks have been taken down from Instagram for obstruction of community guidelines. This gave me even more incentive to work harder than ever, because it proved my entire point—it’s so hypocritical that It’s okay to have highly sexualized and altered images of women all over the site, but a biological form of a woman’s body as a sketch is considered obscene? Seriously?
What do you want people to take away from your art?
Most of my art uses the medium to start a dialogue, whether it provokes or just pleases. As long as it starts a conversation, it’s made an impact.
What do you hope to achieve with it?
My work began out of sheer need and disappointment, as well as the realization that the best work comes out of struggle. In times where we can’t even walk busy streets at night without the fear we won’t make it home safely, it only seems right to at least try and make things better.