Instagram has been good to artists Maria Qamar and Babneet Lakhesar. It’s where the two first interacted, supporting one another before meeting in real life ahead of a 2015 art showcase featuring both of their work.
Whiskey has also been an important factor.
“We met, bonded over whiskey … and then did a show together,” Lakhesar told NBC News. “Then we did it all over again.”
Better known by their monikers HateCopy and Babbuthepainter respectively, the two have used social media to gain the majority of their following — including actress and writer Mindy Kaling, who featured three of Qamar’s and Lakhesar’s pieces in the apartment of her character in “The Mindy Project,” according to the pair.
“Me and Maria were on the floor crying. We couldn’t breathe,” Lakhesar said of discovering Kaling was a fan.
Though the two have distinct aesthetics — Qamar is known for her pop art, Lichtenstein-esque pieces while Lakhesar’s paintings are softer, more texture-based — the two have collaborated several times, with a fourth collaboration currently in the works. One thing the pair have in common is reflected in their work: the cultural struggles of being a South Asian woman who chose to pursue art.
“There is a complete absence of ego with us,” Qamar said about her and Lakhesar's collaboration process. “We are so open with each other, what we hate and what we like. I trust her judgment and she trusts mine.”
One of their first pieces together, “Our Beti [Hindi for daughter] Is An Artist, It’s All Your Fault,” involved a graphic by Qamar and textures and paint by Lakhesar, along with a theme seen often in both of their work. “We’ve always used a little humor,” Qamar said. “Humor rooted in trauma is how I coped.”
The piece is a page out of Qamar’s life. Her parents wanted their child to go down a more stable career path and thought Qamar’s interest in art may have been temporary.
“My parents didn’t come to my first show,” she said. “They thought it was just a phase, but what I failed to realize is that with their generation, being an artist wasn’t a viable thing. They are growing with me.”
Qamar began drawing at a young age. After immigrating to Canada from Pakistan in grade school, she encountered bullying for the first time, she said. She used her art to express her emotions.
“My version of a diary was a sketch book,” Qamar said. “It was natural to draw what I was feeling and what I was seeing.”
Qamar’s sketchbook evolved into a collection of work that touched on topics within the South Asian community: arranged marriages, dating, LGBTQ relationships, and the ever-present “nose-y Indian aunty.”
Similar to the themes in Qamar’s work, Lakhesar’s art also reflects her culture. When her work was rejected from galleries, she turned to Instagram, which became a home for her pieces.
“My parents were amazing and always supported me, but I was the only Indian in my art program in college,” Lakhesar said. “No one got my stuff. I was so frustrated with people telling me no one was going to buy my art.”
Since the two began sharing their work and building a following, they hope their exhibits can be a safe space to conquer stereotypes and challenge stigmas associated with being brown women. Both women are now regularly showcasing and selling their artwork, they said, and they have pop-ups once a month.
Qamar is also an author, and published her book “Trust No Aunty” — a tongue-in-cheek work inspired by her pop art series of the same name — in April.
The two have also begun moving into clothing design that reflects their brand (Kaling was once spotted in one of their shirts.)
“People look at me and think, ‘What a cute little Indian girl’, and as soon as you speak out, you’re labeled ‘bad,’” Lakhesar said. “This is us just doing whatever the f**k we wanted to do and saying it’s OK to be you.”