When Maria Qamar moved to Canada from Pakistan as a nine-year-old in 2000, the transition was challenging. At her elementary school, she was picked on for her skin colour, her accent, and the smelly food in her lunchbox. While most kids would resort to writing a journal to deal with their feelings, Qamar turned to art – making comic strips in her sketchbook. “I would draw out what happened that day, and give it a happy ending. In real life, I got an egg thrown on my head; in my world, I was getting revenge or having the last laugh,” she says.
Today, Qamar, 26, is known as the artist of Hatecopy — whose Lichtenstein-style posts on desi oddities have racked up over one lakh followers on Instagram and found fans in Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham. The central characters in Hatecopy are aunties — the judgmental tribe offering unsolicited advice, and the artwork hilariously depicts the struggles of south Asian immigrants in the west. In one, a wife tells her husband that their daughter didn’t pick up the phone and so, is obviously dead. In another, a shocked mother discovers that her “beti is an artist” — her husband says it’s her fault. This one is rather personal.
Despite her talent, Qamar was not allowed to pursue a career in the arts, with her mother even ripping off her drawings from her bedroom wall at one point. She took up advertising in college, and later, got a job as a copywriter. “It was a very sterile environment, with no real room for creativity. I would write jingles I thought sounded punny or quirky and, after 20 rounds of revisions, it would end up as something I didn’t even conceptualise… the work of 20 white dudes in suits,” she says.
After she was laid off from her copywriting job in early 2015, she started working on her art in between looking for other corporate jobs. She drew her first aunty, saying “I burned the rotis”, and put it on Instagram. “Little by little, it became a body of work.” Instagram offered the safe space Maria needed to reclaim her desiness.“The post about throwing a kurta over a crop top to get out of the house is so real. At school, there’d be girls coming in hijabs and taking them off to do their hair and make-up in the washroom. Many would have mini skirts underneath sweatpants. A lot of the humour is rooted in trauma… girls getting scrutinised for their choices,” says Qamar.
Hatecopy offers a hyperbolic commentary on subjects like marriage and gender roles, and it also explores ignorance and cultural appropriation. “When I was bullied, I was often called a Paki dot. As a kid, I didn’t even know what that meant until I realised they were referring to the bindi, which is actually common to Indians, Sri Lankans and even Bangladeshis. It was annoying and I know girls who stopped wearing it,” she says, “Looking back, it’s like they tried to erase a part of our culture by beating us up over something they now make money off and wear at Coachella. They now market it as exotic jewels to wear at outdoor festivals. Why don’t you market it as a Paki dot, because that’s what you coined it?” she asks, also pointing to the appropriation of Indian food: “You now have packaged curries that make it easier for white people to make ‘korma sauce’ at home. The same thing we were shamed for is now a thing in your kitchen cabinet.”
Now, the Toronto-based artist is retailing Hatecopy merchandise, has had several exhibitions and is set to come out with an illustrated book, Trust No Aunty, next month. “It’s a collection of short interactions with different kinds of aunties, like the weight-watcher aunty and the online-stalker aunty, and the different ways of dealing with them,” she says.
While Instagram made her famous, Qamar hopes to do bigger exhibits, seeking greater representation for south Asians at mainstream gallery spaces. “It’s difficult to explain to a desi family why a career in the arts is realistic because they can go into a gallery and say, ‘where are we?’. It’s the fault of the art community as well, it’s not really a domain where people of colour are featured that often, whether it’s the Museum of Modern Art in New York or Louvre in Paris. If my work’s on display, other desi girls can show it to their families and explain that it can be a lucrative business.”