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Magic words

Sparks fly when an artist decides to talk back to her Pakistani ‘uncles and aunties’

By Sanam Maher on April 18, 2016

For many people of South Asian descent, there is a group in possession of the magic words that will instantly transport you to your most painful and rebellious teenage years — the uncles and aunties. Often unrelated to you, they are the cluster of your parent’s friends that have a word of advice (or disapproval) for everything from your weight and grades to your marriage prospects.

Maria Qamar, a Toronto-based artist and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, who goes by the name Hatecopy, decided to talk back to the uncles and aunties. And very quickly, she had more than 46,000 followers on Instagram alone, listening in to the conversation and chiming in with their stories, both hilarious and heartbreaking.

When Qamar was a child, her parents refused to support her decision to pursue art — even ripping her drawings off the walls of her bedroom in one instance. Today, thousands pay to hang that art on the walls of their homes. Qamar spoke with Women in the World about this gratifying journey and why getting let go of her day job was the best thing that happened to her.

Artist Maria Qamar. (Instagram/Hatecopy - Courtesy Maria Qamar)
Artist Maria Qamar. (Instagram/Hatecopy)

How did Hatecopy come to be?

A year ago, I was working at an advertising agency — a job I got because I was trying to prove to my parents that I could be a regular citizen of society — and I didn’t know what I was doing there. I didn’t know what the world of business was about. My whole thing was that I wanted to be an artist. My parents refused to support that; in their minds, an artist was someone who died before he or she was recognized. “What do you mean you want to be an artist?” they would ask.

So all throughout high school I tried to convince them that this was a career I could have. Eventually, I got tired of arguing, of this back and forth drama of what I want to do with my life, and so I went into advertising because it was a mix of creativity and business. It was something I could tell my parents I was doing and they’d be like, “Oh nice! It sounds like you’re working in a marketing firm,” but really I was going to work and coming up with taglines for beer or something.

After a while the job became too mundane for me. Every day was the same and I felt like I was slowly dying inside. I didn’t know what to do. What did I want? I wanted to sit in a dark room and draw and get paid for it. And then I wanted to go home and draw some more.

When I was let go of from that job, I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t want them to freak out. They have held their jobs for 35 years so for them unemployment is terrifying. My parents have this saying: “Bas lag jao” (Just stick with it). What does that even mean? For two weeks after I was let go of, I’d wake up, get on LinkedIn, and sit there for eight hours just looking for jobs. I think I went crazy. I was just hoping there was something out there for me. But after the second week of hitting a wall, I thought, “I can’t do this anymore. There’s nothing here for me.” I woke up one morning and thought, “I just want to draw today.” I was done worrying about jobs. I drew my first auntie that day. She was saying, “I burned the rotis.”

I thought it was hilarious and I posted it on Instagram and a few of my friends liked it. And then more people started liking the photo. I was like, “Cool, 20 likes, that’s awesome.” And then with 30 likes, I was like, “Wow this is popular.” So I made some more drawings. And then instead of going on LinkedIn every morning and looking for jobs, I started drawing and getting better at it and sharing my work with other people. People would say, “Oh my god, you’re so relatable!” and I was taken aback. Relatable? I’m just drawing things that I see or things I went through and I didn’t think anyone else went through all this.

Your family moved to Canada in 2000, when you were 9 years old. So when your parents tried to dissuade you from becoming an artist, did they ever say what they hoped you would do instead?

My parents are both chemists and they’ve been doing that for more than three decades. In their minds, the medical field is good, and their jobs are stable. They wanted their kids to do what they did, only better. But when my brother and I came to Canada, we discovered anime and comic books and our imaginations went crazy. We used to draw together, and come up with crazy stories and create our own comics. We would bother our parents to let us become artists.

But they dealt with it like most desi [a person of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin] parents — with a mixture of scare tactics and guilt. “Think about your future!” they’d say. In our parent’s eyes, we’re spoiled and privileged and we need to think about their future, and the future of the family. They tried to explain that the arts thing was a phase. And there was no way to fight back because that kind of career just wasn’t something that existed for them. I’m hoping that through what I’m doing now — through exhibiting the work and being a part of a group of artists that invites young girls to come talk to us and see how we got started on our careers — if there is a generation of kids growing up in desi homes here in the West that want to be artists and their parents say its not an option, they can point to one of us and say, “But it is.” When I was growing up, there was nobody I could point to. There was nobody who looked like me who had this kind of career. So my parents used a lot of scare tactics to persuade us that being an artist was impossible: “You’ll end up drawing caricatures of people on the street.”

At some point in high school, my brother realized that my parents would not agree and he took the route they’d always wanted for us. I’m the trouble child, so I never let go of the artist dream. My parents even got me a job at a pharmacy one summer when I was 15 and I just embarrassed our entire family so badly. I got fired from that job.

Do you think kids today — especially immigrants — still have to deal with these scare tactics? Is there still as great a need to show them — with desis on television, and making films, music and art and attending the Oscars — that they don’t have to be scared to follow a different path than the one their parents chose?

Absolutely. And there will be a need until there is a show with three brown people that’s not considered ‘an Indian show’ or our food isn’t considered a delicacy but instead just another part of the culture; until we’re fully integrated with the countries we live in, there can never be enough of us out there, showing that we can pursue whatever career we want. We help to shape the culture and make it more colorful and its important to have us out there. I don’t think there can ever be enough. We just have to get more opportunities here.

Your work is part of a larger conversation about the immigrant and diaspora experience that people seem to really want to hear and contribute to. Do you ever feel uncomfortable that Hatecopy gets attention — online and in the media — partly because its ‘cool’ or ‘on trend’? 

This is more of an internal thing for me. I moved here the year before 9/11 and I went through a lot of bullying for the way that I looked and who I was and my culture. I was bullied not just for being brown, for being Pakistani, but for being desi — bullies just confuse all of us together. They would see a turban or a bindi and they would just generalize. In fact, bindis, I remember, used to be called ‘Paki dots.’ I was bullied for years as a child just for existing and I came to the realization that I had to change some things about myself so I didn’t stand out. I started assimilating really quickly, but as a result I didn’t have a lot of desi friends. I was looking to defend myself, but in the worst possible way.

When I make this art now its my way of making these inside jokes about society that I couldn’t really make with anyone then or make with anyone now because I still don’t have a lot of desi friends. I have more desi friends online than I do in real life. The only way I could reach out to other desis or people like me was on Instagram. It became my safe space, and a space where I could reclaim my desi-ness and have a conversation about who I am, and what it means to be a desi. I wasn’t having that conversation out here in the real world. I was always put down for that.

That’s one of the reasons I don’t really think about what I’m doing or whether it will sell or if its trendy. It comes naturally and I draw these things because I look through this lens. I’m a desi female and I’m always looking through that lens. Of course, because I went to such crazy lengths to switch myself from art mode to advertising mode, I immediately am able to look at this passion as a form of business. If someone looks at my work and keeps asking me for posters or prints, then I’m going to make some. When it comes to creating merchandise or looking at what people want or what is trending, then I definitely use this ability to tap into or give people what they want.

So as a kid, how were you trying to get rid of the ‘desi’ label? And were you successful?

In Pakistan, where I was born and lived until I was 9, my parents sent me to an English-medium school. If we spoke Urdu in that school, we’d get a slap on the wrist. So by the time I moved to Canada, my English was pretty good and I wasn’t put into ESL [English as a second language] classes. I was so mad. All the other brown kids went to ESL. And in the regular classes that I was in, nobody wanted to talk to me. It was a situation where I was too white for the brown kids and too brown for the white kids. I was stuck in the middle.

On the playground, the kids would say, “You Paki, you smell weird.” When I was first called a ‘Paki’, I had to ask someone what it meant. They said, “A person from Pakistan.” So I was like, “That’s not an insult!” I didn’t take offense to it for the longest time.

The worst was school lunch. Mom packs you a nice, solid kebab roll, throws an egg in there, wraps it all up in a paratha. I loved it but when I went to school and opened my lunch box in front of these white kids, it smelled like Indian food. I was surrounded by kids with their mayonnaise sandwiches who said my food smelled gross. It became embarrassing to bring my food to school. So I went home and asked my mom for Pizza Pops. And she had no clue what that is. You have to understand — when we first came here, we were totally lost. I remember the day my dad went to the grocery store and brought back an avocado. He comes home and says, “Guys, gather around the table, I bought a kiwi!” We’re all gathered around and my dad cuts into this avocado and then decides to take the first bite. Obviously it did not taste like a kiwi. So we all tried it and we’re like, “This is gross.” So my dad says, “What if we put some sugar on it?” There we were, putting sugar on avocado slices because we didn’t understand what it was. That was how lost we were. So when I go home and ask my mom for a Pizza Pop, she has no clue what I want.

Little by little when you change your habits in school — these are the little things we did to strip our culture from ourselves because we wanted to defend ourselves and wanted to protect ourselves. Our parents weren’t there at school to protect us. And if you showed too much of yourself, you were scrutinized for it. I was bullied so heavily for being me and for my culture and now I can go to a music festival and the girls are decked out in bindis and henna tattoos. That angers me — you work so hard to strip us of our culture and then you try to make it your own. Everything I draw has a desi element to it because I want to get back to my identity that way. That’s how I’m learning to love myself. For so long, I was put down for who I was and now I’m trying to educate people through my art.

Was there anyone you could talk to about what was happening? Or did your parents ever talk about what they were going through in this new country?

Nobody wanted to bother the other party. You know how desis say, “Tension dena’”(To worry someone)? Well we didn’t want to give our parents tension. They didn’t talk to us about what was happening at work. It was a conversation that didn’t happen because it was also embarrassing. I didn’t want my parents going to school and yelling at my principle. I didn’t want the attention. I thought, if I just make these subtle changes to myself, I can be normal. There was this idea of ‘normal’ I was chasing. As a kid, ‘normal’ meant a nice family with money, not being dark, not being picked on. Looking back now, ‘normal’ for me was being white. I just wanted to be white. Then maybe people would stop picking on me or excluding me or telling me I’m not good enough or that I’m different.

So how do your parents respond to your work now? Say you’re at a dinner party. How do they introduce you?

“Maria does marketing. Maria is in advertising.” That’s why I got the advertising degree! But its ok, they can hold onto it. They know what I’m doing and they’ll come to it at their own pace. I’m not 15 anymore, and I have nothing to prove. If I spend too much time trying to convince others, I’m wasting my time. I’ll still be introduced as the girl who works in advertising.

I do have family members who will come up to me at these gatherings and say that their saw my work featured somewhere and I thank them, but there’s always this question in my mind: Five or six years ago, would you still have said this, or been as supportive? What if I didn’t have all these Instagram followers and all this publicity? Would you still support the art? Its not about all the followers or the likes, its about whether we can support this new wave of art into our homes as desis and accept that this is a by-product of the struggle we went through when we left our homes.

When you’re followed and liked by someone like Mindy Kaling, do you feel like you’ve ‘made it’?

That was a huge moment for me! But I think I’ll feel like I’ve made it when my dad says, “Hey, you’re doing great!” Even with all the attention the work has received, it still feels like I’m walking on eggshells sometimes. I made one piece that featured a girl screaming, ‘You’re a kutta!’ (You’re a dog!), through a megaphone. My mom saw it and she said, “These girls you draw are so pretty. You should make them say nice things. Or they don’t need to say anything at all, they look so nice!”

For me the question remains: can I convince my parents to finally be okay with this choice of mine? Of course its very rewarding when people look at the work and say they had the same experience. It is so powerful to share an experience and have someone say, “Me too.”

Have you received any negative comments on some of the work — the drawing of two men kissing, for instance?

There’s always this tension when you make something that will make family or friends uncomfortable. But its 2016. Get over it. My brother showed my dad the photo of the two uncles kissing and my parents were a bit taken aback. The way I look at it, everybody that has interacted with me or who I have grown up around has directly shaped the person that I am in public. Everything that has happened to me in a private part of my life ends up being public because I am who I am because of it. I don’t think there’s any real topic that I’ll shy away from. The ‘uncle pride’ drawing was one of those topics. It’s a way of life and I think everybody needs to get comfortable with it. I didn’t think it would offend anybody and I wouldn’t do it for that.

"Uncle Pride." (Instagram/Hatecopy)
“Uncle Pride.” (Instagram/Hatecopy – Courtesy Maria Qamar)

My work takes very serious things that happen in our lives and acknowledges, “F**, that happened. That was really awkward.” The drawing about two girls throwing a sweatshirt on top of a crop top to go out — every desi girl has done that. We’ve all thrown kurtas on top of a really skimpy top to get past our parents and we’ve gone to school and taken off the kurta. That’s a reality and my work creates a space where everybody can come together and laugh at the fact that we had to do that. What do we do if we can’t laugh about it? The work comments on diaspora culture — this one group of people that came here from Pakistan or India or Bangladesh and we all don’t know what the f*** is going on. We thought an avocado was a kiwi. Should I wear a sari or a lehnga to my prom? That’s a question I really did ask myself. Its funny. And now you laugh about how you coped with it all.

When I started up Hatecopy, I didn’t realise that everyone else was going through these things. I thought it was just me. Now it feels like we’re making inside jokes and Hatecopy is that one space where we can make fun of cultural appropriation — of the gori (the white girl) wearing the bindi or doing yoga or whatever.

Its been a year since you posted your first Hatecopy drawing. How do you see the work going forward?

I want to work on my skills and explore different ways of executing the work and different mediums. I didn’t go to art school so I never got to play with mediums. This is an opportunity to take on projects I’ve never done before and learn fast. I want the people who support my work to be proud and they should grow with me. I want to get our faces and work into galleries, to support more desi artists. You don’t see many of us in galleries and you don’t see our work hanging in national galleries – in the Art Gallery of Ontario, I think, less than 2 percent of the work is by women of color. That’s ridiculous. There should be way more and that’s one of my goals.

Sanam Maher in on Twitter @SanamMKhi