Artist Maria Qamar Blends South Asian Sensibilities With Pop Art - Pacific Standard

Artist Maria Qamar Blends South Asian Sensibilities With Pop Art

We spoke to Maria Qamar about what she recommends reading, watching, and listening to.
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Artist and illustrator Maria Qamar.

Artist and illustrator Maria Qamar.

Decades after American consumer culture inspired the pop-art movement of the 1950s and '60s, Maria Qamar is bringing a South-Asian perspective to the quintessentially ironic genre on Instagram. In posts to her over 110,000 followers, Qamar shares Roy Lichtenstein-inspired drawings of life as a desi, a person of South Asian descent living abroad. Her breakout drawing depicts a woman who is upset over having burnt her roti; other works tackle colorism, patriarchal South Asian social norms, and cultural appropriation (in one, a desi sheds a tear as a blond man tells her that he wears a kurta to look "cultured"). Since Qamar began posting in 2015, she's posed for a cover of Elle Canada, seen her work appear on The Mindy Project, exhibited in galleries, and published a book on "aunties," or older women in South Asian culture. Only three years into her art career, Qamar's success is proving that social media provides new opportunities for artists underrepresented in galleries in North America—women and people of color—to gain substantial followings and catch the attention of curators, who are still majority-white.

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Movies

Barfi!
Like its California-based counterpart, Bollywood doesn't often tell stories about characters with disabilities. Barfi!—one of Bollywood's top 10 highest-grossing films of 2012—is a notable exception. A romantic comedy starring a mute and deaf man, the film follows Murphy "Barfi" Johnson as he tries to kidnap a rich, autistic friend in order to use the ransom money to pay off his father's hospital bills. Over the course of the film, Barfi juggles feelings for two women while bungling his attempt at crime in a hilariously slapstick, near-silent performance that recalls Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

Why
"Barfi! was the first Bollywood flick I felt was refreshing. It's Disney with a dash of Wes Anderson: quirky, funny, romantic, and tragic. It also starred Ranbir Kapoor and pre-Quantico Priyanka [Chopra]. It was, in my opinion, one of Priyanka's best performances and something that will always have a special place in my heart."

Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela
Most readers know how Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet ends. But Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 2013 Bollywood adaptation Ram-Leela departs from its Elizabethan source material after its midpoint—leaving many of its viewers, and original critics, in suspense. Moving the play's action from Verona, Italy, to Gujarat, India, Ram-Leela depicts Ram (Romeo) as a member of a crime family with a longtime rivalry against Leela's (Juliet's). After Ram and Leela strike up a relationship, they concoct a plan to elope—which they execute, naturally, between musical numbers.

Why
"I was laughing, crying, and wishing for a romance as fiery and relentless as Ram and Leela's. It's the perfect love story."

Musicians

Musician Sunni Colón.

Sunni Colón
Sunni Colón, a Paris-based singer-songwriter, is still a relative unknown, but he's become a favorite of music publications The Fader and Vibe thanks to his airy songs, which meld jazz, funk, and soul. Colón has also started to work with some major players in the music industry in the last few years. Colón's songs often combine natural imagery—a rosebud, the galaxy, thunder—with lyrics about longing, early stages of a relationship, and romantic rejection.

Why
"Every time Sunni comes up on my party playlist, at least five drunk girlfriends will bug me to send them a screenshot of the song. He's got the voice of an angel, and a sexy one at that. It's a mix of weird synth-pop and R&B that my brain craves when I'm partying or working late into the night."

Masego
At just 24 years old, the Virginia-raised musician and producer Masego is already known for pioneering a unique musical genre: TrapHouseJazz, a mix of scatting and saxophone with dark, heavy beats and disco-inspired style. The self-taught musician sings and plays cello, trumpet, drums, guitar, piano, and alto and tenor saxophone to realize what he calls "the wave of future jazz." Describing the sound to Billboard in 2015, he said, "It's ignorance meets elegance."

Why
"Nothing makes me happier than Masego's sax. I discovered him when he was opening for another favorite, Ta-Ku, during his North American tour. I fell in love, and so did the thousands of others on the dance floor."

Graphic Novel

Watchmen
Watchmen, considered by many critics to be one of the best graphic-novel series ever written, is also a dark parody of the comic industry's bread and butter: superheroes. Largely set in the 1980s, Watchmen imagines a world where state-sponsored superheroes helped America win the Vietnam War, prevented the Watergate scandal from ever happening, and promptly fell out of favor with the public. Alan Moore's 1986–87 series picks up when one of these superheroes—now retired, like most of them—is murdered in his apartment, prompting his former tights-wearing peers to band together once more and investigate.

Why
"In my opinion, it is the perfect comic."

Video Games

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The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Few GameCube releases divided fan opinion as much as 2002's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Following on the heels of 1998's bestseller The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker swapped its predecessor's realistic look for cartoon-like graphics. While it became some players' favorite Zelda game of all time, others protested the game's new aesthetic: Angry fans wrote to Nintendo with complaints, and over 11,000 reportedly signed a petition that called for returning Zelda to its former look. Nevertheless, years later, several video game publications, including IGN and Nintendo Power, recognized it as a notable achievement for the video-game industry.

Why
"I was never allowed to hold the controller [as a kid], so I watched my brother finish each level. When he left for college, I finally got a change to be Player 1. The Wind Waker was the first game I played on my own. The graphic style and storyline had no holes. Out of all the Zelda chronicles, this one is my favorite."

Super Mario Sunshine
Hardworking video-game protagonist/franchise linchpin Mario tries to take a vacation in 2002's Super Mario Sunshine—only to learn that he's been framed for a crime he didn't commit, and must hunt down the criminal to clear his name. An early Mario game for the GameCube console, Sunshine is best known for introducing Bowser Jr. as a villain, and Shine Sprites—collectible, sun-shaped objects that produce power for the game's island setting—into the Super Mario canon. But Sunshine is also notable for keeping the game simple at a time when graphics were getting more realistic and plots more complex in video games—it favored simple object collection over world-building plot development.

Why
"I loved my GameCube [when I was younger]. It was an underrated console; it was perfect for me. When Super Mario Sunshine came out, it was like I was on vacation all summer. Running around on a Yoshi through Isle Delfino was one of my fondest memories as a kid. I might just buy a new GameCube from Amazon just to play this again."

Television

Julia
Before NBC's half-hour situational comedy Julia premiered in 1968, no black woman had ever starred in a major TV series as anything other than a domestic servant. In sharp contrast, showrunner Hal Kanter's series cast Diahann Carroll as a middle-class nurse who lived in a well-appointed Los Angeles apartment with a large-screen TV. Though Julia was criticized for rarely tackling racism in its storylines, and for offering no black male role models (Julia was a widow with a son), Kanter argued that the series didn't aim to document the reality of African-American life in America. Rather, the point of it, he once said, was "that a Negro family is featured, and they're not choppin' cotton and they're not on relief, but they're part of what some people consider the mainstream of American life."

Why
"I was hooked on TV shows from the mid- to late-'60s featuring young women—Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, That Girl ... but it wasn't until Julia came on that I recognized the power of inclusive representation. Julia, like my mother, was a black working mom. The fact that someone thought her life was worthy of her own TV show convinced me that my mom's life mattered. That my life mattered. My passion to support authentic voices must have been seeded then."

Music

Adagietto, Mahler's Fifth Symphony
Wedged between two hard-edged movements heavy with Bach-like counterpoint, the fourth movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony offers a welcome respite from the darker tone of the overall work. Composed only of strings and a harp, the movement begins simply and mysteriously—with moody strings that ensure that, even in the eye of the symphony's storm, the tension never fully dissipates—and concludes in a grand, melancholy, romantic melody.

Why
"[I] could listen to this endlessly. The quiet strings that swell with ecstasy embody human emotion. I performed as a dancer to this piece in college and whenever I hear it I am transported back to that theater, to that piece, and to my brief but passionate commitment to dance."

Album

Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul.

Hot Buttered Soul
What do Tupac Shakur's "Me Against the World" and Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" have in common? Besides being hip-hop songs from the late 20th century, both of their beats take a sample from Hot Buttered Soul, a revolutionary 1969 soul album by Isaac Hayes that has influenced the hip-hop and soul genres equally. Produced after his debut album, Presenting Isaac Hayes, bombed commercially, Hayes demanded complete creative control on Hot Buttered Soul. The request paid off: The album hit No. 1 on the R&B and Billboard's Top Jazz Albums charts. Today, his rendition of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" is credited with starting the "love man" genre later popularized by Barry White and Marvin Gaye.

Why
"There are only four tracks on the entire album, including a 12-minute 'Walk on By' and an 18-minute 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix.' To this day, no better lovemaking album. Period. This album cover made bald sexy."

A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

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