a conversation with: Emmen Ahmed

Emmen Ahmed, 22, is a Detroit-based artist who majored in Anthropology at Michigan State University. She recently graduated and is working towards a Master’s degree in the public health field, all the while creating vibrant illustrations.

Her work pairs bright colors with clean lines, depicting her own cultural background as a first-generation Pakistani-American. She pokes fun at the multicultural crossroads that many experience as first-generation kids in a Western nation. “South Asian culture is the major connection between all my work,” Ahmed says, “because it’s something that took me a while to understand for myself and how it makes me who I am”. This personal journey prompted her to fuse her identity into her art.

There exists a ‘code switch’ for many first-generation and third-culture young adults, who often maneuver different societal expectations. On one hand, they are expected to surpass their parents’ own professional and academic expectations, and on the other, they’re trying to participate in milestones as an American kid. Ahmed, however, shows the beauty of celebrating the duality (and intersectionality) of cultural identity.

One illustration pinpoints the clever trickery of hiding young romance from wary immigrant parents; “Just tell your mom you’re going to the library” a text on a flip phone reads. Those of South Asian heritage understand the double life that comes with handling academic pressures and trying to date in secret. A set of two illustrations named “Inside the Mind of an Aunty” and “Inside the Mind of an Uncle”, portray a satirical explanation of family members’ antics. Parts of the brain include: “How to end your self-esteem in one sentence”, “hard work immigrant stories”, “ghee” (clarified butter), and “3 hour calls to Pakistan”.

Ahmed also puts a modern twist to traditional-style Mughal portraits- Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist-influenced paintings originating from the Mughal Empire in the 16th century. She creates a fusion of icons, like Will Smith as the Fresh Prince, stylized in traditional Pakistani dress.

Read more below:

What are some of the main messages you want people to take away when they see your illustrations?

The main thing is to just have something cool to look at, the message comes after that. Creating this work is more of a fun job, it doesn’t have an agenda. That’s my motive- just to make cool shit. It makes me so happy that people identify with what I made, and that makes it all the more fun.

What inspired you to start putting your digital illustrations on a website and selling these pieces?

I went through late high school and college seeing the first South Asian visual artists coming into the spotlight, and it nagged me that it’s something that I could do too. When I saw that they were making their livelihoods out of doing something they loved, it motivated me to put my foot in the door. I know that I may not end up putting in my all because I do have a path that I chose, to pursue public health and administration, but my friends and family saw what I was capable of and said, “why not?”. And they were right. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain by putting my work out there.

Can you talk a little about how you start making a piece- is there a time you sit down to work on something each day or does it manifest itself in one session?

My technique is kind of all over the place. When I have a commission, I set myself a time where I work on it for a couple hours a day. It gets difficult sometimes when people ask for multiple changes because it lowers my motivation when someone tells me what to do (laughs), but it’s all part of the job. I still love to do it, but to manage my motivation, I don’t spend my entire day doing commissions. When I think of something particularly clever or when I have a vision of an illustration that I HAVE to make, like I’m super into the idea and I need to manifest it right there and then, I’ll sit down and work on it until it’s done. I feel like that’s how I end up making so much and posting so much, half of it is a backlog of stuff I’ve made in the past and finally can get around to posting it, and the other half of it comes from these impromptu bursts of motivation.

When I feel like I have nothing to produce, I’ll just sit, find a simple reference photo and try making it with a physical medium like watercolors instead of on the iPad. Usually that boosts my self-esteem and my motivation because it’s using my skills differently and for no purpose other than for me to keep my hands and mind busy.

Oftentimes, we think about the stories that aren’t being told- and now in a social media age, we’ve gotten to hear more about those who aren’t represented as much in traditional media. What are some stories you want to see more of, and which are some stories you’d like to tell?

I feel like South Asians are definitely displaying a more articulate voice nowadays. It’s great to see Sikh communities bringing awareness of past, and even present, mistreatments from the South Asian governments, as well as their goals of keeping their heritage living on. I think Bengali communities deserve a larger platform than they have now, especially because they have had great injustices committed against them during the partition from India and Pakistan.

Lastly, I think there needs to be more awareness of intercultural racism. Light skin versus dark skin, Hindu versus Muslim, Pakistani versus Indian versus Bengali, North versus South, etc. It exists and it sucks to see that people pick at differences more than they want to find similarities. I can’t speak for Bengalis or Indians, but I can try and address the fact that these issues are here and hope that more people come forward and talk about it. With the help of my friends, I want to set up a project where we discuss these issues further.

How does social media help you- or hurt you?

It helps because it brought me to this community of South Asian creators that I never thought I’d be able to talk to. We support one another and I don’t feel like it’s driven by competition at all. It’s also like a modern day resume, all your best work is laid out and you can see how people react to it.

It can also become frustrating because it sometimes feels like that’s all you are. So, for example, if one illustration doesn’t get the usual number of likes, you feel like “damn, people don’t like my work”. The piece can still be amazing, and there might be an algorithm explanation, but we equate engagement with value and that can become dangerous.

How do you feel your studies brought you to where you are today? How are you dealing with post-grad life?

High school definitely prepared me well for college, seldom did I feel overwhelmed with work. It also made me more aware of all the connections across subjects, as well as into my everyday life.

Majoring in Anthropology made me so much more in tune with current events and interdisciplinary application. Being able to handle a lot of work and thorough research skills always made me feel well prepared for assignments and it made the artwork I made more well-rounded. Post grad is scary because there’s such a drop-off point between ending the comfort of the bubble I was in at MSU and the beginning of life without that secure safety net. I’m blessed to have supportive parents that have an understanding of the field I want to go into, so I never feel like I’m on my own.

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To see more of her art, check out www.emmenjaan.com, follow her on Instagram (@emmenjaan) and Twitter (@emmenm). Shop her Redbubble products and Society6 products-

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