This post was updated Nov. 3 at 6:39 p.m.
Hollywood has never been so accessible for Muslim creators.
LA is the go-to spot for fostering creativity and making it big – and it’s also home to dozens of promising Muslim artists who’re breaking into the industry and redefining what it means to be Muslim. Follow columnist Umber Bhatti as she covers local creators and discovers how they plan to make their mark in the city.
Simrah Farrukh started out taking pictures on her dad’s camera as a preteen and now has her own solo art show.
A fourth-year art student at Loyola Marymount University, Farrukh said she initially picked up photography as a hobby, becoming intrigued with the medium as a 12-year-old when she noticed older girls at family parties taking photos with their iPhones. Farrukh enjoyed doing photo shoots with her friends, and soon, the pastime turned into a passion. Now, her art exhibition – “The Brown Gaze” – is running at the Thomas P. Kelly, Jr. Student Art Gallery until Tuesday. Farrukh said this particular gallery presents South Asian individuals through an affirming and supportive lens. This was important for the artist to tackle, as she said it is common for the media to distort and appropriate brown voices.
“(‘The Brown Gaze’) is mostly about representing brown skin and brown bodies without exploitation,” Farrukh said. “I feel if there are brown people in media and in popular Western culture, then everything is through the white gaze.”
Though Farrukh said her work doesn’t always revolve around her culture, it’s a common thread. A couple of years ago, in an effort to highlight her Pakistani roots, she started featuring Pakistani models decked out in traditional clothing on her Instagram, trying to promote the beauty of her culture. Her photos include young women and men in Pakistani- and Indian-style jewelry, makeup and outfits.
However, she soon found others posting similar images and felt this trend only romanticized the culture by creating a facade and feeding into the idea that social media is one-sided, only portraying beautiful moments. Farrukh said her personal experiences made her realize that there can be toxic masculinity and unreasonable standards placed on South Asian youth that wasn’t being discussed on social media.
Rather than just portray the positive aspects of being South Asian, Farrukh said she decided to put a spotlight on pressing issues community members are facing, like the discrimination of LGBTQ individuals and the complexities of mother-daughter relationships. She said she also noticed that many of the models in outlets like Vogue India or even South Asian social media were light skinned, so she included dark-skinned models in a series.
She’s continued to create projects based on relevant issues. After multiple loved ones had an abusive partner, Farrukh worked on “wish to fly,” a set of photos bringing awareness to toxic relationships in Indian and Pakistani culture. And when her friends were experiencing pressure to get married at an early age, she took photos – including a forlorn model wearing traditional wedding garb – that she said represented the issue metaphorically. Despite wanting to embracing her heritage, Farrukh said she realized she also needed to be honest in her work.
“Our culture is beautiful, but it’s not always about Bollywood, or this fantasy,” Farrukh said. “I started to look at the problems within our culture and issues that came up in my life.”
The artist’s deep dive into South Asian culture has garnered her over 13,000 Instagram followers. Farrukh said her social media fame has accumulated slowly over the years, as she’s reached out to influencers and models to participate in her work. As an introvert, Farrukh said it wasn’t easy for her to make new connections, but she credits living in LA for helping her to become more outgoing. Though moving to the area was never on her bucket list, Farrukh said the city’s vastness has allowed her to meet new people and open herself to new experiences, both professionally and personally.
Farrukh’s childhood friend, Liya Khan, said she’s noticed how this recent change has led to a newfound confidence in her friend. Farrukh’s art has not only been valuable for the South Asian community, as it wrangles up heavy topics community members typically eschew, Khan said, but it also allows the artist to blossom as an individual.
“I really love whenever (Farrukh) does self-portraits because she hated being photographed or being the focal point of anything when we were kids,” Khan said. “To watch her embrace her natural hair, her natural look and find all these really interesting artistic points about herself, as a friend, it’s very gratifying.”
As Farrukh’s work evolves, Aditi Mayer, a fellow photographer and friend, said Farrukh is providing a space for other artists of underrepresented backgrounds to amplify their voices, creating an archive for South Asian creatives. Mayer said the photographer’s work is innovative in its understanding and respect for Muslim and South Asian culture, but also paves the way for important conversations, as it grapples with the politics of Desi culture that tend to undermine a women’s insight.
“Photography is very much dominated by the white male perspective,” Mayer said. “We’re in a time where we’re really turning the tide on who tells the stories, how we tell the stories and why we tell them. I think (Farrukh’s) art is a perfect example of that.”
Moving forward, Farrukh hopes her art will reflect not only her Pakistani culture, but facets of Islam. The artist said it can be harder to incorporate religion into her photos, as spirituality is fluid and not easily captured. Nonetheless, she wants her work to shed a light on Muslim culture, as she said it’s still not accurately depicted in most media, which typically present Muslim girls as women who want to remove their hijab for the sake of a man – a common trope she said agitates her. Rather, the artist said she hopes her photography can capture raw and authentic moments that others with a similar background can connect with.
“There’s more to Muslim women than liking boys and wanting to be sexual,” Farrukh said. “Something in my work that I want to do is representing Muslim women going beyond feeling like they’re closed off in their own house.”