ARTISTS TO KNOW: NABILA WIRAKUSUMAH
Indonesian multi-disciplinary artist raised in Thailand and Hong Kong who is creating powerful and bold depictions of South East Asian women unapologetically.
SHEER: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
NABILA WIRAKUSUMAH: My name is Nabila Wirakusumah. I'm Indonesian, but I was raised in Thailand and Hong Kong, and received my college education in New York and Denmark. I'm currently based in Hong Kong to sort out my work visa, before this I was based in Brooklyn working as the studio manager for a fashion set designer and a freelance artist and illustrator.
SHEER: How would you describe the influence of your cultural background and upbringing on your work?
NW: When I work for myself and do my own projects and illustrations, my cultural background is evident in almost every piece. Though I consider myself extremely lucky to have been exposed to so many cultures, it did give me a bit of an identity crisis; I look very Indonesian, but I'm definitely not a typical Indonesian woman. I've only lived there for two or three years as a young child, and I can barely speak the language. Culturally I'm a product of where I was raised (Thailand and Hong Kong) as well as of the media I consumed (mostly American and Japanese), so there's a lot of cross-pollination there that I think is pretty evident in my work. It's created this sense of tension between two parts of myself that I'm constantly trying to reconcile, which is a theme you'll find in many of my pieces.
SHEER: How do you choose the themes in your work and how do you approach representing women of color in your artwork? How did you find your niche in illustration and graphics to portray these themes?
NW: I've worked across a really wide variety of mediums - from watercolor and oil painting to printmaking, photography and even coding. What I'm always drawn to and trying to explore is this idea of reconciling to ideas that seem to contradict. This can take on a huge range of meaning in my work - I add glitches and repetition in my traditional media, and add natural textures and brushstrokes to my digital illustrations. When I was doing the branding and graphic design for an urban rooftop farm, I juxtaposed watercolored drawings with graphic geometric line drawings and a clean sans serif font.
When it comes to drawing women of color, I think I'm still in this mode of trying to find room for myself in this world - so I'm often drawing these young brown women who are immersed in the beauty and wisdom of their culture while also feeling free to express their identity in intimate moments of sexuality or anger. There's this sense of rebellion in them, they defy certain expectations or preconceived notions people have of South East Asian women.
SHEER: In what ways do you believe your work is challenging the status quo on how South East Asian women are represented in mainstream media?
NW: Growing up I really didn't feel like I saw South East Asian women represented in mainstream or popular culture at all. On local TV channels, the South East Asian women represented were often very pale with thick, straight black hair. They looked more East Asian in that way, and there was an abundance of whitening cream advertisements that made it clear to me that this was considered the ideal beauty. I often felt like I was "too much" in many spaces at home; too dark, too Western, too liberal with my body, too rebellious, too loud. When I did eventually see women that looked like myself it was in Art History classes in the paintings by European men who fetishised us. It's important to me to create imagery of South East Asian women who feel empowered and bold, and are unapologetic about it.
SHEER: Were you ever discouraged trying to complete a piece? If so, how did this affect your creativity?
NW: All the time! Most significantly, I did a self portrait of myself topless that I was in love with but I had many voices in my ear asking me why I would ever paint myself that way, or want to risk strangers seeing my exposed body, even in painted form. While that did stop me from posting the piece on social media, I really don't think I could stop the creation of a piece that I really need to see in the world. By that I mean that when I'm really focused, it's almost like I'm discovering a piece rather than creating it - and in that space I can't really listen to other people's concerns or comments. It may change how I share it, but that's probably it. Conversely, sometimes I'm in love with an idea and yet I can't get it out on paper and I'll find myself in a creative rut because of this blockage. That can definitely be frustrating but it's really a matter of pivoting onto something else and not letting anything stop you from making art in some way, shape or form.
SHEER: Are there any other forms of art you would like to experiment with outside of your current disciplines? How would you like your art to evolve over time?
NW: I've just begun experimenting with motion graphics and I would love to see my pieces come to life using animation. I don't see myself creating an animated series or anything very narrative in that way, but I love long form creative GIFS where the piece comes alive with subtle moving elements.
Over time, I also want to make sure I'm representing a wider spectrum of South East Asian women. I think right now I'm stuck on painting versions of myself or women like me over and over again, and I think that's fine for now - but ultimately I'd like to pay homage to all the other nuanced types of South East Asian women and femmes in the world.
SHEER: What do you hope women take away from interacting with your artwork?
NW: I really hope that women can recognise their own power through my work, and see themselves represented in a way that they haven't seen before. I didn't set out to draw superheroes, but it's a comment I've received over and over again that I love - that for the first time these South East Asian women are seeing versions of themselves that are strong and badass, who refuse to be put in a box.