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Representation Through Art

Aug/13/2023 / by Melanie Fourie

Illustrator Manjit Thapp’s work highlights South Asian women

South Asian woman with spectacles on a background with illustrations
Photo courtesy: Manjit Thapp

The accomplishments of Manjit Thapp, a 29-year-old illustrator from Birmingham, are commendable. In 2021, she was honored with NOW Gallery’s Young Artist Commission. Her 3D work, My Head is a Jungle, was subsequently displayed at the public gallery on the Greenwich peninsula. The series is a colorful torrent of murals depicting jungle scenes interwoven with exquisite representations of South Asian women.

Thapp, a graduate of Camberwell College of Arts, finds inspiration in nature, colors, and her feelings. Feelings: A Story in Seasons, her debut graphic novel, was released in 2021. From the euphoric early summer to the melancholy late winter, its narrative is an illustrated voyage around a young woman’s year of emotions.

Her commission catalogue includes Emporia Armani, TIME Magazine, Tate Collective, the Mayor of London, Google Pixel, and Apple, amongst others. More recently, Thapp has worked on the first line of apparel for renowned London restaurant Dishoom, branded “The Trailblazers.” The influential Homai Vyarawalla, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, and Rani Lakshmi Bai served as inspiration for the T-shirt designs.

In an interview with SEEMA, Thapp discusses her upbringing and biggest influences.

What was growing up in Birmingham like, and how did it influence your art?

Growing up in a diverse city like Birmingham was great, and I never felt like the odd one out because of that. When I was younger, living in an area with a large South Asian community also helped me feel connected to my culture. I grew up in a world filled with a variety of colors, textures, and patterns on everything from the clothes to the dishes. That definitely influenced my artwork.

One of my earliest art memories as a child is of my mom drawing elephants with mats on their backs for me to color, and I would spend hours decorating them with patterns and carefully choosing the best colors.

I also remember feeling that there wasn’t a space for me to pursue a career in art because I didn’t know of any South Asian illustrators. Nor had I seen any South Asian artists in the galleries when we’d go on school trips. However, my mum was a big supporter and gave me the courage and confidence to pursue my art.

How did you hone your artistic skills?

I’ve always loved doing anything creative. When I started secondary school, I began taking drawing more seriously and would draw constantly to try and improve. Through lots of making, my art has gradually evolved over the years, from the style, my process, and my influences.

In a nutshell, what does your art represent?

My art is representative of me. Even though my pieces are not self-portraits, I put a lot of myself into them in terms of creative choices, for example, concept and color.

Who are your greatest artistic influences?

I love Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, Pierre Boncompain’s use of color, and Yoshitomo Nara’s characters.

Do you have a creative process you adhere to when illustrating?

It varies, but for the most part, I draw everything traditionally with pencils and then add color digitally. I like to mix the textures of pencils with flat digital color. I also create my own textures to create a collage-like feel to my work.

Do you follow any artistic trends?

I don’t. When I’m creating, I concentrate on my intuition and cultivate my own ideas by taking into account how I might be feeling and combine that with what inspires me at the time.

You’ve collaborated with a vast range of clients. Which have been your most memorable collaborations so far?

I’ve had the opportunity to work on some great projects, and picking favorites is so difficult. One memorable one was in 2018, when Tate Collective and the Mayor of London commissioned me for their LDN WMN campaign. It highlighted unsung female heroes from London’s history. The artworks were displayed in public spaces across the city for the month of October. My piece celebrated WWII heroine Noor Inayat Khan and was displayed at Kings Cross Station. It was so exciting to see my art printed on a large scale in such a busy location.

Your debut graphic novel, Feelings: A Story in Seasons, was released in 2021. It was well received, as it delves into a common thread we all share: emotions. Tell us a bit about that journey.

A brief 12-page comic I created for one of our self-initiated projects in university served as inspiration for the book. The comic I made was called ‘SAD’ and was about seasonal affective disorder. It’s one project that I’m still very proud of, and so when the opportunity for a book came about, I loved the idea of revisiting that concept.

If any, how do you overcome creative blocks?

It can be stressful, and so I’ll usually give myself some time away, which can really help. I also like listening to music and doodling.

If you could convey one message to other female artists, what would it be?

Follow your own creative path and make art that makes you happy.

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