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Aliya Ghare Talks About The Confluence of Activism and Aesthetics In Her Illustrations

Design Log 14 Jun

Aliya Ghare's work talks about about global issues like queer identity, nuclear proliferation and indigenous communities in her vivid visual aesthetic.

  • Aliya Ghare3

In Bridging the Gap, Aliya comments on South Korea's increasing disenchantment with the idea of re-unifying with its nuclear counterpart as musician Hyung Joon Won tries to reconcile the disparate nations through a common love of classical music

Mumbai-born, Toronto-based artist Aliya Ghare's journey in art began with experiencing the visceral vividness of Vincent Van Gogh's paintings and Disney films’ imaginative universe during her childhood, the latter being a strong influence on her art ever since.

Delving into her portfolio, one finds a bold moth obscuring a woman wearing a hijab in Moth Holes while the Song of The Peacocks conjures up a magical, serene garden that throws light on the homophobic laws in the country. Yet one is left to wonder what messages lie woven inside this artist’s fabric of aesthetics. Describing her work as that of ‘activist illustration’ and recognising that it is often political due to her being an Indian Muslim woman, Aliya's works are multi-layered visual puzzles that tell a story.

Having recently graduated from OCAD University, Toronto, Aliya is hoping to write and illustrate children's books and graphic novels in the coming days along with planning a solo exhibition of her paintings. She talks to us about the past, present and future of her art.

  • Moth Holes

Moth Holes reflects on regulations that seek to "help" Muslim women circumscribe their voices and regulate their bodies

You were born in Mumbai and moved to Toronto, what brought you to the world of art?

I knew I wanted to be an artist when I was in kindergarten itself; the desire was triggered by seeing a movie about Vincent Van Gogh. I remember falling in love with his fluid brushstrokes and beautiful palette along with feeling an overwhelming sadness about his missing ear and poor mental health. Despite that, I wanted to be him.

Disney’s animated films also had a huge influence on me, particularly Sleeping Beauty, which is a marvel to behold and still my favourite Disney movie for the art alone. I was always drawing as a kid and my love and learning of art has endured since.

You merge art and activism seamlessly in your work. What are some of the recurring themes that you navigate through your art?

My work is grounded in figuration, storytelling and activism. Art is often political, especially when produced by an Indian Muslim woman. However, I believe that art is also as much to do with aesthetics and the pleasure that comes from creating and viewing something beautiful or interesting, which is often the case with my paintings. On the other hand, subtle witticism, use of metaphor and the occasional dark humour characterise my illustrations, all of which I hope will elicit thought and emotion in the viewer.

  • Collage

(Left) Theater of Pipelines shows the increasing use of theatre by indigenous communities to create awareness about the environmental impact of Canada's Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline; (Right): Highway of Tears, inspired by the lack of injustice faced by over a 1000 Aboriginal women who have been missing or murdered along Highway 16 in British Columbia.

Where do your ideas come from?

Much of my inspiration and artistic growth has come from the guidance and feedback of my professors who have taught me how to use illustration as a means of communication, along with instilling a love for illustrative activism. My university friends and fellow illustrators have also influenced me through their talent, relentless passion, and advice. I wouldn’t be a half an good illustrator if it wasn’t for them. The films of Wes Anderson, Wong Kar Wai and Guillermo del Toro, and books by Michael Ondaatje, Octavia Butler, Alice Munro, and specifically The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy have taught me to tell stories within a static medium like visual art. As an artist/illustrator, I’m also constantly inspired by other artists like James Jean, Yuko Shimizu, Keith Negley and Aron Wiesenfeld.

You touch upon themes like feminism in Handmaids, March on Capitol Hill and Moth Holes. Is the commentary organic, deliberate or a combination of the two?

It’s deliberate. As previously mentioned, activism is very important to me and creating work that discusses politics, feminism, and structural oppression is how I’m able to channel that activism in a legitimate, meaningful way. With those particular pieces, I’m commenting on how women aren’t allowed to or are considered incapable of making decisions that affect their lives, whether it’s regarding reproductive rights or the right to one’s religious dress; their bodies are governed by patriarchal institutions and the state.

One thing to consider, however, is that an image can say a multitude of things, some of which is intended and some of which is not. People bring their own unique perspective and ideas to a piece of art and may derive personal meaning from it that is unintended by the artist. In this way, some of the commentary is organic. When this happens, I believe that a piece of art no longer belongs just to the artist but to everyone that looks upon the work.

  • March On Capitol Hill

March On Capitol Hill shows protestors donning attire from The Handmaid’s Tale to speak out against the American Senate’s proposed healthcare bill that would restrict or defund Planned Parenthood

Peacocks gambol in the minutely painted Supreme Court of India, conjuring up a magical garden of a Persian and Mughal miniature albeit in a contemporary context. Could you tell us more about your work Song of The Peacocks?

The piece was inspired by my recent trip to India, when I ventured out of Mumbai and travelled to other parts of the country for the first time. I saw the Supreme Court in passing while in New Delhi and was stunned by the majesty of the building. Song of the Peacocks was created as part of my university thesis project and is about the use of radio to combat anti-LGBTQ sentiments and laws in India. While researching the topic, I discovered that homophobic laws in the country are a vestige of British Raj and are still upheld by the Supreme Court. I was therefore even more interested in highlighting this injustice and the radio activism that has emerged as a result. The piece alludes to Persian and Mughal miniatures in its flatness and lack of proper perspective, which I thought was quite fitting for the subject. It’s also inspired by the work of acclaimed Disney painter Eyvind Earle, an inspiration of mine.

When it comes to your Indian heritage, how do you ascribe to that part of your identity?

I ascribe to the concept of cultural hybridity and see myself as both Indian and Canadian. On the Indian side, I feel a connection to the history of the country. I feel its post-colonial outrage as my own, I see its people as my people. Going back last summer, I felt a sense of renewal. I was able to put aside my worries and pending projects and really enjoy being in the moment. India has always felt like a place of return. 

But neither my Indian heritage nor my Canadian identity contribute directly to my art. As a teenager, I was inspired by Canadian post-impressionists like the Group of Seven but that aesthetic and its ideals can no longer be found in my work. However, being Indian and a minority in Canada has made me minutely aware of the politics of race and class. I’m beginning to realise the importance of addressing those issues in my work, as well as having diverse representation overall.

  • Song Of The Peacocks

Song of the Peacocks shows how radio is used to combat anti-LGBTQ sentiments in India and broaden the country’s concept of love.

You've recently graduated from university. What are your plans going forward?

At the moment, I’m done with school and am trying to cultivate a career as a freelance illustrator and painter. While I mainly want to pursue editorial illustration, I’m also interested in writing and illustrating children’s books and graphic novels in the near future. This past year has been incredibly busy, so I look forward to getting back to painting for myself and creating a cohesive body of work. I hope to have a solo exhibit within the year. As for my style, I think it’s an ever-evolving thing that changes through practice and experience so I wouldn’t be surprised if my work looked completely different in a year from now.

Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India.