Maria Qamar's work isn't just cheeky pop art, but a cross-generational challenge to the women who helped raise her – and a lesson on being desi in the West
In high school, if Maria Qamar wanted to meet a guy from school for a forbidden date, she'd usually propose they go to Applebee's. The closest thing on the menu to pakoras were mozzarella sticks, so it was a safe bet no aunty would spot her there and report the sighting back to Qamar's socially conservative parents.
The aunties Qamar feared weren't just the ones she was related to, but that flock of older South Asian women around her who always had unwanted advice to offer. Their presence was so pervasive in her life that Qamar, who had loved filling sketchbooks since she was a kid, began drawing them. When she published one on her Instagram account (where she posts as @hatecopy), she found she had struck a chord with her South Asian followers and began illustrating full time. Her striking pop art depictions, which look like they came from Roy Lichtenstein's lost years in Calcutta, have earned her a huge following on social media and now have been compiled into a new book, Trust No Aunty, which was published Aug. 1.
Less than three years into her new career, Qamar has sold her work at shows in Toronto, Los Angeles, New York and London, had her paintings decorate the set of The Mindy Project and created custom holiday cards for Mindy Kaling.
Daily Show correspondent and comedian Hasan Minhaj, actor Kal Penn and Girls creator Lena Dunham have all shown interest in Qamar's art.
But she is in the tricky position of popularizing her culture to outsiders, while also casting a critical eye on it. This was never her intention – she was originally just speaking to others like her. "It's all for brown people. I don't care to speak to anybody else because this is a conversation between us," she says. "Lord knows if I see a person who isn't desi trying to say, 'Oh, aunties, aren't they crazy?' I'll be like, 'Shut the hell up.'"
Before becoming an artist full-time, Qamar worked as a copywriter at a Toronto ad agency and still wears the uniform: slick bob, black leather jacket, streetwear sneakers and nails painted highlighter yellow.
The women she draws and paints, though, look as if they were plucked from mid-century India with their heavy gold nose rings, ornate jhumkas (chandelier earrings) and scarlet bindis.
While her book is packaged as a cheeky tribute to aunties one might buy as a stocking stuffer from Urban Outfitters, Qamar, 26, squarely calls out her subjects for their body shaming, shadism, classism and the patriarchy they uphold.
"They are at family parties or friendly get-togethers with your mother, finding ways to make your life difficult, trying to get you married to their sons, and telling you to lose weight while simultaneously trying to feed you a second time," she writes.
The most satisfying reactions to her work have come from the very women she depicts, she says.
"It's almost like a mirror. Like, 'Oh God, I can't believe I'm that person!' There's this self-reflection that happens and they feel guilty or bad," Qamar tells me over a plate of biryani at a trendy Indian fusion joint in Mississauga (there's butter-chicken mac 'n' cheese on the menu and TLC's No Scrubs on the sound system, so this is also an aunty-free zone).
Much of Trust No Aunty reads like a Wildlife Fact File-style taxonomy. There's Anonymous Aunty, that one meddlesome woman who always seems to chime in (rarely in your favour) on conversations that don't involve her. Then there's Overfeeder Aunty, who will admonish you if you leave the table without eating the third serving of palak paneer she just scooped onto your plate. And of course there's Matchmaker Aunty, who is always asking about your relationship status and trying to sic her second cousin's son, or butcher's nephew or this nice boy she met at temple on you.
Qamar grew up in Pakistan and moved to Mississauga with her family in 2000. After growing up with few depictions of South Asians in media, besides Apu from The Simpsons, she has no qualms with making her art for an exclusive audience.
Her work is peppered with Hindi, a language she grew up with and keeps up with through Bollywood films. In one illustration, a woman whispers to another, "Your daughter's getting a little moti in the arms, no?" Moti is a slang word for fat, though Qamar doesn't bother translating it.
Terms such as bakwaas (nonsense) and gori (white girl) are so commonly used among the the thousands of Hindi speakers in Canada that non-desis should be familiar with them or at least make the effort to catch up, she says. In 2017, they should know better than to spout off such redundancies as "chai tea" or "naan bread."
Qamar hopes that the non-South Asians who buy her work will be respectful and educate themselves on the cultural context of her pieces. At one of her art shows in London, a white woman came in wearing a bindi and Qamar pulled her aside and asked her to take it off or leave.
She's protective of them to outsiders, but Qamar is unsparing in her criticism of aunties and the pressures they put on young women. So often, when aunties admonish others, they ask lo kya kahenge? – what will people think?
Qamar says she never graciously took the advice aunties gave her, often talking back and ultimately doing what she wanted. By the end of high school, she felt so suffocated by the restrictions her parents placed on her social life that she began squirrelling away money. At 19, she moved out of her family home in Mississauga to an apartment in Toronto.
Though she advises women to push back, Qamar says she realizes some are in situations where that isn't so easy. She also understands now that much of the damaging, problematic advice she received from the women around her was the product of men's ideas of how a woman should be.
"Literally, it's like an uncle whispering in their ear," she said. "They've been raised with this weird, patriarchal standard."
Through her art, she's calling out both aunties and uncles for some of the outdated, conservative views they hold. In 2015, after a Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States, Qamar posted an illustration on Instagram of two mustachioed men's faces pressed closely together, on the cusp of a passionate kiss. She captioned it #MARRIAGEEQUALITY #UNCLEPRIDE #INOWPRONOUNCEYOUUNCLEANDUNCLE. Soon after, she received a call from her brother: "Dad saw your Uncle Pride one and he's not very happy about it."
In other drawings, she's raised an eyebrow at aunties who never fail to comment when they notice you've gained a bit of weight, or who think a good girl should never drink alcohol.
Since her work has taken off, some aunties have spoken directly to Qamar about some of her edgier works, offering – as usual – unsolicited advice: Why not draw pictures of pretty women that aren't saying anything?
The speech bubbles are the whole point, she tells them.
Those conversations are reminders to her that while each of her Instagram posts of her drawings may fetch 10,000 likes, the real work of changing opinions happens when the people who enjoy her art have the hard conversations with the aunties and uncles in their lives.
"Online we all agree. It's more important to take it offline," she says.
"The world isn't going to change because you don't like a thing. We have to work to eliminate these little barriers within our own families so we can communicate better." Now, as an adult, she hasn't come to see wisdom in what her mother and aunties in her life told her when she was younger, but rather, she feels a sort of belated pity: that someone should have fought for them when they were growing up. But it's never too late for an aunty to be liberated, she says.
"If you wanted to wear a tight top as a 60-year-old aunty, go right ahead. You wear saris, don't you?"
But why aunties?
In this excerpt from her new book, Maria Qamar (aka Hatecopy) talks to her mother about what it means to be an aunty and gains some insight into the minds of women who dish out unsolicited advice as if it's Halloween candy.
Me: Mom, why do you think aunties give out so much advice for no reason?
Mom: Firstly, Maria, don't write anything stupid about me in your book, because I will deny everything.
Me: Okay. Answer the question, please.
Mom: Aunties say these things because they like to feel like they are watching over you, as if you were their own daughter or son.
Me: Even when you're not related to them.
Mom: It is up to you to take the advice. If you think it will benefit you, then good. If not, then you can ignore it.
Me: So we should ignore the aunties?
Mom: If you don't think the advice applies. We want to guide our children to be better people and to teach you our values.
Me: But most of the "children" receiving this advice are adults. Some are young adults. A lot of the advice has to do with marriage.
Mom: You must always respect your elders.
Me: Yes, but—
Mom: See, I should have taught you more values. You must listen to your parents. AND NOT YELL AT THEM!
Me: This is going off topic—
Mom: Listen, when we brought you here, we had no idea you guys would be so adaptive and learn so much from other cultures. We didn't know what we were dealing with. All we can do is remind you to respect your elders and know who you really are.
Me: Should elders be expected to respect us back?
Mom: Your elders will respect you when you listen to them.
Me: Good loophole.
Our conversation went in a few circles before landing on the conclusion that aunties will be aunties and uncles will be uncles. Our culture is so deeply rooted in family values that nothing will change that. Our dramas will continue to be livelier, our food will be spicier, our advice will be uncalled for and our homes will be powered by the constant playful sass between young people and their elders.
This is a dynamic as old as our culture itself, and it will be funny to see what happens when we attempt to pass our own advice down to the generations to come. Maybe there will be a sequel written by an even louder kutti (or kutta) than me. And who knows what kind of things we will get called out for? Nagging them to stop playing with their weird AI robot best friends and make some real ones? Insisting that they eat actual food instead of taking supplement pills?
"Travel to our dimension for dinner sometime, you ungrateful child!! YOUR FATHER AND I FORGOT WHAT YOUR PHYSICAL FORM LOOKS LIKE! AND CLEAN UP YOUR HARD DRIVE. IT'S A GODDAMN MESS!"
It's only a matter of time.
From Trust No Aunty by Maria Qamar. Copyright © 2017 by Maria Q. Hassan. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.