Farah Billah didn’t fit into the South Asian-American model minority stereotypes growing up because of her passion of art and literature, she said. But it’s her love of the Bengali culture that she grew up in that inspired one of her latest art projects, “Coriander Cats: Bengali Girls In The Wild,” a photo essay that depicts young South Asian women in their contrasting personal and professional lives.
“People who are going through the internal conflict of identity crisis and defying expectations will be able to relate to my work,” Billah told NBC News. “That’s been my life over the last two years, and ‘Coriander Cats’ is me trying to harness my sense of self.”
"Sometimes I thought it was just me and my friends, but I got letters from girls saying, this is my life too, I deal with this every day."
Through “Coriander Cats,” Billah combines that experience with other layers of her identity: female, Muslim, Bengali, but she said that the work is an ode to the women she grew up with in the tight-knit Bangladeshi-American community in Sacramento, California, many of whom are featured in the works.
“I don’t get to see my friends very often because we all live in different cities,” she said. “Everyone was in town one weekend, and I wanted to make something that highlighted why they were so important to me and why I looked up to them. They’re incredible women with amazing achievements.”
Billah rallied her friends together to pose as subjects for the photo series, which features Bangladeshi women in her community who are defying the expectations pinned down on them while pursuing their passions.
“We’d have these conversations about being strong, independent women in America making strides in medicine, engineering, psychology yet so much of our power is taken away by the trivial things that are expected of us,” Billah said.
The project focuses especially on “negativity and oppression of the feminine identity within Desi cultures,” Billah said.
“We’re expected to get married at a young age, be a certain skin tone, pursue certain careers and maintain a certain type of reputation in society. These are all expectations that really bring down a young person’s sense of self,” Billah said.
Since “Coriander Cats” gained traction, Billah said many South Asian women have been reaching out to her to share their own stories.
“Sometimes I thought it was just me and my friends, but I got letters from girls saying, this is my life too, I deal with this every day,” Billah said. “It’s been very emotional getting letters from young girls and hearing about the connection to some of the things I make. They came from a very honest part of me.”
Though Billah criticizes and questions social norms within South Asian culture through her art, she is also equally candid about her love for Bengali culture.
“I grew up going to festivals and celebrating Bangladesh’s Victory Day, and I’m so proud to be who I am,” Billah said. “But there’s this very conflicting set of expectations where we’re expected to be both American and Bengali that don’t really have ties to religion or culture but more so a socialized way of how they want us to be in America.”
Billah is also an author, having self-published a collection of prose and poetry earlier this year called ”Wrong Turns Lead Here,” which examines choices in life. She independently published her first collection of prose and poetry, “Wrong Turns Lead Here” earlier this year touching in life plans and decisions. Moving forward, she plans create work focused on gender.
“I’m working on some paintings. I’m also heavily focused in the poetry game right now and I want to continue making art that are less abstract and general to young people,” Billah said. “But it’s really time for me to hone in on the female energy and my relationship with people in my family and create something that speaks to the female identity in a way that I haven’t been able to do before.”