This Manipuri Artist Brings Feminism and Home to the Canvas
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
He’s using mixed media to show an often misrepresented region.
Sony Thokchom always felt like an outsider in Delhi. The native of Manipur, a state in India’s northeastern region, felt out of place in the bustling nation’s capital where his ethnicity was often ridiculed and people seemed unwilling to open up to him. But he did something with those experiences, transforming them in the best way he knows how: on canvas.
If you look closely at Thokchom’s watercolors, you’ll see wild grass in the background, growing tall and stately and speckled with flowers. “Many times I felt invisible living in the city, just like that grass is invisible to many people who usually walk by it, even stepping on it,” he says. “But, when you stop and observe it closely, you get to understand nature’s beauty,” he says.
Fairly new to India’s art scene, the 31-year-old is turning heads with visual narratives of his home and its cultural identity, highlighting a region often ignored in popular Indian media. “Northeastern people and cultures are underrepresented or misrepresented,” Thokchom says, with focus only given to certain communities. In his work he is trying to change these perceptions with relatable imagery, often mixing in patterns and cultures from other northeastern communities and tribes — like the artists he counts as inspiration: Meena Laishram and Dilip Oinam. The end result: layered pieces that combine to tell a larger story.
Thokchom portrays women as strong, independent and living a life beyond societal expectations.
Often that’s one of feminism. With a style best described as fashion illustration and using strong brushstrokes, dreamy pastel tones and subtle inspiration from manga, Thokchom portrays women as strong, independent and living a life beyond societal expectations. In Shoot Love No Bullets a woman shoots flowers out of a machine gun and Little Indian Ballerinas features three girls prancing in tutus, one of whom is kicking a soccer ball. A popular piece about breast cancer, I’m Still Beautiful and Strong features a woman adorned with a gajra (a garland) and wearing a Manipuri shawl (and framed against wild grass).
“What stands out in his work is that he connects every piece with his roots,” says Neha Kasana, an assistant arts professor who curated one of Thokchom’s shows. “It’s not just the face that matters in his art but the things around it, from the traditional phanek worn by women from a certain tribe, the tattoos, even the dragon beetle he grew up observing as a child.” There is “universal appeal — you can connect with all his characters and identify with their stories,” she adds.
However, some of his feminist pieces have created controversy for showing strong women, and others have been criticized for not being true enough to Thokchom’s home region. The artist chalks this up to his use of mixed media — digital painting, watercolors, drawing — that show a combination of northeastern culture and India as a nation. A particular and popular piece, Wedding of My BFF, which shows a bride taking a selfie with her girlfriends while making funny faces, was criticized because the friends weren’t northeastern and because the bride wasn’t depicted demure enough. But despite the naysayers, Thokchom believes women gain confidence and energy from his freely-expressive female characters.
Women have been strong influences in Thokchom’s life — from his weaver mother to his cousin who inspired him to create storyboards and comics as a child. This sparked a desire to study art and fine arts at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, which was followed by a diploma in animation and visual effects from A.J.K. Mass Communication Research Centre — where Thokchom eventually joined as faculty (as “the professor with green hair”) in 2015.
Thokchom’s first solo exhibition, Self Intimacy (about self-love and women empowerment), showed in his hometown in Imphal in January 2016. And earlier this year he was part of a group show in Delhi — Khongool (meaning footprint) spoke about the journey from Manipur to Delhi. Outside of India, his work was part of The Echoing Remains, a group exhibition of Indian artists at One New Street Gallery in the U.K. Harkening back to his childhood medium, Thokchom has also contributed to two comic series, including one on gender sensitization and racial discrimination (Guardians of Justice). “I want my artwork to have a voice and give a vision to our society to change for better,” he says.
Future plans include a semiautobiographical series about experiencing life in a large city as a person from the northeast. With that series, Thokchom’s journey will have come full circle.
You can see Thokchom’s work on Instagram @sony_thokchom.