Interview with an Artist: Nimisha Bhanot

“Interview with an Artist” is a recurring Lucky Penny Mag feature that allows us behind the paintbrush, tablet pen, and camera to get to know a unique artist. For the segment’s third installment we spoke with Nimisha Bhanot, an artist from Toronto who has recently been featured in places like Buzzfeed, Quartz, and Brown Girl Magazine when her series of paintings “Badass Indian Pinups” went positively viral.

How would you describe your artistic style? How did it come together – are you comfortable in it?

My portraits are rendered so that the skin appears realistic against the loosely painted background, clothing, henna, jewelry and motif. I love this style because I’m a perfectionist and it’s helping me loosen up a little more. By the time I’m done painting the skin on my figures I don’t even want to look at the reference picture anymore so the loose, imaginative handling of the rest of the painting is a lot of fun for me because it doesn’t need to be photorealistic and is a lot more spontaneous.

How much does your identity play into your art? What do you hope to convey through your work?

My figurative paintings are all about identity and I can confidently say there is a little bit of me in all my pinups, brides and bahus. I want to depict people that are accepting and rejecting aspects of South Asian and North American culture to mimic the process of one building their bicultural identity. It’s not easy having to balance between such contrasting identities and I’m trying to show there is no one right or wrong way to do it. South Asian women specifically have been told all their lives that being sexually free and having sexual confidence is something to be ashamed of so I purposely paint them so they’re looking back at the viewer to confront these expectations.

Please tell us a little more about your series “Badass Indian Brides” – where did the idea for that come from? 

Badass Indian Brides started with my dissatisfaction with South Asian bridal magazines. Brides are always portrayed as these princess perfect individuals and I feel like that is not a fair representation of all South Asian brides. I was also disappointed with the lack of representation of inter-faith brides who are often swept under the rug. I wanted to take the composition of bridal portraiture but honor the concept of the inter-faith bride. Badass Indo-Chinese Bride took the ‘badassery’ to a whole other level, similar to Badass Indian Cop and really propelled my ideas for my pinups and bahus.

not your mom's bahu
“Not Your Mom’s Bahu” by Nimisha Bhanot, 2015. Oil on canvas. Photo credit: Banga Studios.

What is your favourite medium to work in? Is there a medium that you don’t like?

I love oil paint because it’s so pigmented that you can do anything with it. I like using acrylic paint for my abstract grid paintings because they work great with other mediums like molding paste and pumice. Watercolor is okay but I don’t like that you can’t make a mistake and just paint over it. I make mistakes all the time and oil and acrylic give me the flexibility to either wipe off, scrape off, or wait and just paint over the parts I don’t like. I really do not like working digitally because I don’t have the patience for technology, that rainbow Apple wheel is the stuff of nightmares when you’re using Illustrator or Photoshop so I avoid it as much as possible!

If you ever get a creative block, and how do you get past it? Which of your projects have taken the most out of you to complete?

I love my figurative paintings but I get sick of painting faces sometimes. A lot of my models are my friends so I feel an immense pressure to make them look as real as possible. When I get tired of faces I begin an abstract or ink painting. Before switching focus for my thesis year in university I was filming ink falling and diffusing in water, collecting stills and painting them. I have a huge bank of images and have been taking more every now and then so I always have fresh reference material. I like doing these paintings because I don’t rely heavily on the reference image and the emphasis is more on colour versus form. It’s like a deep tissue massage for my brain and honestly helps me a lot when I’m in between series.

Do you have any tips for up-and- coming painters, especially those of South-Asian descent?

Keep creating and don’t limit yourself to one medium. Share your work online, at shows within your community, with family and friends. Welcome all criticism and talk to people about why they like/dislike your work. Don’t take negative feedback personally and don’t let it discourage you from creating and sharing your art. Find a mentor and stay in touch with this person throughout your career. Look at real art in galleries within your community and look at art every time you travel, you’ll be surprised with how you feel when you’re in the presence of an original work. I cried when I saw Jackson Pollock’s 1950 One: Number 31 because I was so overwhelmed by the scale and detail. I have loved his work for as long as I can remember so seeing one in person was quite the experience for me. Seeing Kehinde Wiley’s A New Republic at the Brooklyn Museum last year was a game changer for me. I have never seen people of colour being so beautifully represented in painting and it affirmed what I was creating at the time and has inspired me to make more.

contemporary indian feminism
“Contemporary Indian Feminism is Just a Scroll Away” by Nimisha Bhanot. 2016. Digital collage.

Are you working on any projects right now?

Yes! I’m currently working on a series of oil paintings which take themes from classical portraiture (similar to my Brides and Bahus) and aims to idolize social media icons who are using art, fashion, make up and writing to express their identities. I feel like the Internet has allowed for the creation of safe spaces for diasporans all over the world who feel displaced between multiple cultures. These individuals own their bicultural identities and share work which transcends limitations set by society’s perception of gender, sexuality and race. I feel it’s brave to put yourself out there and by just being themselves, these individuals are providing inspiration and motivation for people just like me all over the world and I want to honor them the best way I can. For this series I am painting portraits of Vivek Shraya, Sanam Sindhi, Tanya Rawal and Dark Matter Poetry. Later this year I’ll begin a new series exploring complexion and body image – stay tuned!