Art that criticises, humanises powers that be

Smish, a 33-year-old illustrator, believes that the importance of political or protest art is growing in India as people desperately seek a counter-narrative to the dominant, malicious propaganda

Art that criticises, humanises powers that be

Garima Sadhwani

What started out as a way to channel her anger against the draconian laws (like the Citizenship Amendment Act and NRC) brought by the current regime, and the authoritarian narrative propagated by them following their victory in the 2019 general elections, soon turned into an outlet for protest art- illustrations, memes, poetry and more about issues that “Smish Designs”, as she is known, strongly feels about.

Based out of Mumbai, Smish is a 33-year-old freelance designer and illustrator. She says that her work questions the “social constructs of gender and power”. She believes that the importance of political or protest art is increasing more and more every day as people are “desperately seeking” a counter-narrative to whatever is going on in the country, and require a tool to sometimes inform, and sometimes educate themselves.

Smish feels grateful for her online journey, and for the people who’ve supported her work. She says that it is a big deal to know that as a woman artist, she is free to express her opinions. And while she feels that social media has received protest art with open arms, and given people like her a medium to opine, there is immense backlash too. Having been a victim of this harassment herself, she has been forced to delete her artworks in the past, for the sake of her mental health- an unfair bargain, she feels. “It is not pretty and can be a harrowing experience for some,” says she, adding that she has now been conditioned to all the “organised trolling from the BJP IT cell goons”.

She sighs, “I’m not holding a gun, I’m just creating art, that’s what I keep reminding myself.” There’s one other thing that keeps her going too- knowing that her art alone cannot change things, but it is an important part, even if it’s just 1/138 crore of the truth.

Art that criticises, humanises powers that be

What makes her art resonate with people though? Smish feels that anything that has a human touch to it can evoke empathy, angst, or anger in people. That is what probably works in her case as well. She says, “I realise the life of my work is not more than 15 seconds, so I try and incorporate elements within my work so that people can instantly connect with the art and become aware about the issue addressed.” Sometimes this element can be a pop-culture reference or sometimes something very simple, like an object from day-to-day life. Her one mantra though? Be minimalistic.

And if you’re wondering what she thinks of her own page, for her, it is a space to vent, to be wholly herself, speak her mind, and hopefully change a few minds while she’s at it. The way to do that is sometimes humanising those in power, and sometimes criticising them.

Sharing the story behind one of her best works (see GIF), Smish says that she created this during the 2020 northeast Delhi pogrom. And though it’s been over a year now, she feels that the artwork is still relevant. “The Delhi Police acted like criminals themselves and enabled the pogrom to take course,” says Smish.

She sighs, “The Delhi Police acted as a catalyst to this incident and did absolutely nothing to protect the ones who were getting attacked, instead they conspired with the goons in this heinous crime.” It still is a haunting image to her that so many people lost their lives and so many others were injured.

Smish doesn’t know if she has any plans for the future. She feels that since most of her work is based on topical burning issues, each day is new. There’s another reason as well, “I try and not get too attached because there’s always a threat that it may get deactivated at any point due to ugly trolling.” But whatever happens, there’s no stopping her now.

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