It’s a known fact. Art works as an invisible bullet to the mind that does not understand meaning in words. Art can make you fight, make you cry, scream out of rage, happiness and grief. Art can be activism. Art can make you act. Make the unthinkable commonplace, give things of imagination a face, a shape or a colour. And fortunate we are that artists exist to show us reality where we do not see it.
Anirban Ghosh works as a user experience designer by day and as an artist/illustrator the rest of time. He is intrigued by the possibilities of creating design solutions that come alive at the intersections of technology and storytelling. A large body of his work revolves around LGBTQ+ and women rights and perusing through his work, one might pick up on his strong belief in the power of tales that celebrate sexuality, gender, human rights as well as mundane tales of growing up and the world around. Some of the wonderful work he has created has made its rounds around the world and how could Gaysi not interview someone who’s done so much AWESOME work?
Q. What are you currently working on?
I have come on board as an illustrator for a project of a lawyer and researcher friend of mine. It documents quirky tales in the lives of sex workers and how they use laughter and humour to negotiate with clients, to bring down the level of violence, spread awareness and form lasting friendships. We presented a few work-in-progress sketches at the AWID conference in Brazil and got some great response.
I am also trying to convert a few stories that I have written to graphic narratives. One of them is a ghost story that my grandmother had told me when I was really young and it had made a lasting impression on me.
Thankfully, at work too, I get to champion the cause of LGBTQIA+ and celebrate inclusion and diversity. My illustrated timeline Rainbow Chronicles has been widely shared and recently translated to Brazilian Portuguese. It traces the evolution of the queer rights movement, the luminaries and landmark events.
Q. How does art feature as a form of activism for you?
If I had to critique my work, I can classify it into two segments – the militant and the mundane. While the mundane works are characterized by regularities, uneventful and slow paced life, the militant works are primarily triggered by anger and a grave sense of injustice. This is where my works are mostly confrontational in nature and revolve around gender, sexuality, class, law and human rights. Swamped is one such example, which is now a part of the Longform Anthology Vol 1.
Back in 2008-2009 when I was a student at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, I began shooting a feature length documentary film called Diaries of Transformation that captured the tales of love, violence and social acceptance of seven individuals with trans identities in and around the city. One of the stories captured in the film was that of Rai, who back then worked at an electronic showroom on Park Street. Rai had long hair and because of her non-confirming gender behavior, she was always at the receiving end of discrimination and bullying at her work place. Her colleagues cracked sexual jokes at her and ridiculed her publicly for sporting long hair. The discrimination reached another level when they asked her to chop off her hair or face consequences. And mind you – the perpetrators were well-educated Bengali bhadraloks! Rai fought back saying that her hair never came in the way of her work and the company had no such rule. Her resistance was not tolerated – they illegally stopped her from entering the office and refused to pay her salary.
Over the next couple of months, while I was filming her story, her real-life narrative went in one direction. What stayed with me was the symbolism of her hair and the politics of gender, class and sexuality around it. I adapted her story from the film to a 4-page narrative. And then years later, when the Longform editors reached out to me, I revisited the story and converted it into a 12-page narrative with doses of surrealism and graphic (poetic) justice that was otherwise missing in the real-life battle that Rai was fighting.
Q. Did you always want your art to reflect your need to correct the wrongs in this world? How did this journey start?
I don’t think good art should try to or can correct the wrongs in the world. I personally feel art and effective storytelling transcends the barriers of language, social orders and connects on a deeper and more abstract level. And in the process of telling a good story, if the receiver connects to certain ingredients within the narrative that triggers some questions, then that’s even better.
I never set out to create art that is reactive or a literal representation of the way the world works. That becomes propaganda! Having said that, it is imperative that my biases, preferences and political thinking seeps into my work. I am an openly gay creative person, have been bullied and attacked numerous times while I was growing up, sometimes by the teachers at my school and often by my peers. For the longest time, I thought I was to be blamed for these experiences and tried to ‘butch up’ to avoid unwanted attention.
It took me several years to be comfortable with who I really am and the journey of self-acceptance continues. But yes, there is no going to back into the closet or being shamed by others anymore. And due to my own personal journey of being at the receiving end of toxic masculinity and hetero-patriarchy, I can instantly relate to the struggles of another person facing similar issues. It could be racism, body-shaming, anti-feminism, Islamophobia or caste politics – I feel we all have a common pool of shared experiences and can lend strength to each other.
And while we are trying to fight for our rights and protest, access to certain skills such as art, language and music makes us more powerful. The oppressors unfortunately lack subtlety and refined aesthetics – almost always… hahaha. The only exception to this is perhaps Leni Riefenstahl.
While I was studying Mass Communication and filmmaking at St. Xavier’s, my friends and I learnt the techniques of visual storytelling and I used that to make my first films. When I joined NID, I was exposed to the world of graphic narratives that can convey very complex subjects in a simplistic and effective manner. I use the strengths of the medium to tell my stories – it could be a short animation, an article, a graphic narrative or a short fiction film. And the disobedience comes quite naturally.
Q. What are the influences on your style?
I guess the influences work at a sub-conscious level. It could range from a discussion with a friend, a book that I read, a film that I watched. Among visual arts, I think my style is greatly influenced by the Bengal and Kalighat patachitra and its frontal, flat representations. I am head over heels in love with the works of a lot of great artists – Shaun Tan, Art Spiegelman, Hayao Miyazaki, Thomas Ott and Egon Schiele. I am not sure whether I get influenced by their styles but I keep going back to their works and get awestruck each time.
Want to inspire someone today? Find Anirban’s work here.