Maria Qamar and Babneet Lakhesar awoke to dozens of Instagram notifications — a familiar sight for the two Toronto-area artists who have over 90,000 followers between them.
But they were stunned to find that writer and actress-comedian Mindy Kaling took notice of their artwork and liked it, literally and figuratively.
“When it comes to celebrities, you always think, ‘They’re so far away, they don’t know you exist.’ So for me, it was a shocker,” said Lakhesar, 22.
“She found us and she loved our stuff and we’re just two girls from Toronto ‘burbs.”
Instagram is a gallery of sorts for Qamar and Lakhesar, who go by Hatecopy and Babbu the Painter online. And they were ecstatic to learn Kaling, who they both admire, enjoyed their work so much that she wanted it to deck the set of The Mindy Project.
“She’s a great representation of what we, as women, want to see,” said Lakhesar.
“Her being South Asian and a part of the Hollywood scene, we were like, ‘That’s who I want to be, that’s who I want to meet, that’s who I want to be friends with.'”
Respect a career in the arts
Kaling is an empowering woman, whose “confidence is contagious,” Qamar said. And that type of figure did not exist in the realm of television when she grew up.
“If you see people that look like you on screen or in media doing stuff you can relate to, it gives you the confidence, ‘I can do this thing, too,'” the 25-year-old said.
Pursuing a career in the arts was considered unconventional in her Pakistani-Canadian household.
“It’s not a very typical South Asian thing to do. I can’t speak for everyone. For my family, it was like that.”
Qamar, who alongside Lakhesar organized exhibits of their artwork in Toronto and abroad, said it is important to her to see not just young people but their families attend these events as a way to introduce the arts as a viable career.
“We want to make art one of those things that your parents would be proud to say, ‘My daughter is an artist,'” Qamar said.
“Put that art profession on the same scale as a doctor or an engineer because it is adding to culture.”
“Just do you. Do what makes you feel comfortable,” said Lakhesar. “If you like being an accountant, there’s no shame in that. If you want to be a doctor, be a doctor. But if you want to be an artist, let other people breathe and let them be an artist.”
Lakhesar said she is fortunate her parents were supportive of her work but acknowledged her acrylic paintings tackle themes like gender politics within the South Asian diaspora, which can be difficult to talk about.
She is inspired by art of the Mughal empire and the intricate details of Indian textiles and often paints women in the nude.
“My mom is so funny,” she said. “She knows that’s what my work is. And she’ll have it around the house, it’s fine. But as soon as someone’s coming over, she’ll turn them around.”
“She’ll be kind of shy to talk about what sometimes I paint about,” Lakhesar said. “Our art became about talking about the things that they didn’t want to talk about.”
‘Big inside joke’
Those day-to-day interactions provide fodder for the work Qamar creates, which melds so-called Indian soap opera aunties with Roy Lichtenstein-style pop art.
She likens her digital art to a “big inside joke,” which is why it resonates. Her art touches on work, marriage and beauty with a wry sense of humour.
“We’re just documenting our lives through art and people are following along and going, ‘I’m doing the same thing,'” Qamar said.
In the early days of her Instagram account, her sketches would make her friends laugh. Now tens of thousands of her followers see themselves and their lives in her work.
Part of creating that camaraderie is making art accessible and Instagram is paramount to that.
“It’s easier to relate to art when you can talk to the person who made it,” Qamar said. “Seeing diaspora culture, seeing you, seeing your people represented in an art scene, makes it easier and accessible.”