Sixteen-year-old artist Panteha Abareshi has won the internet over with her bold illustrations of women of color living unapologetically female.
For the Phoenix, Arizona resident, illustration became an outlet as she battled Sickle Cell Beta Zero Thalassemia, a genetic disease that causes her chronic pain and physical limitations. In the fall of 2014, the condition had took a drastic turn and led to her being frequently hospitalized for long periods of time. She began to channel her energy into illustration and creating representations of teenage girls of color and mental illnesses. She spoke with Hooligan via email about growing up as a woman of color in Arizona, and finding her footing as an artist.
How have your personal experiences shaped or influenced your artwork?
My art is very much a visual representation of my struggles with mental illness, as well as a way of conveying my thoughts and emotions surrounding love, romance and sexuality. All of my work is very personal and the reason a lot of it is so graphic is because I put all of the emotion I’m unable to express verbally into it.
From a very young age I’ve been very opposed to the notion that women should measure their worth on their ability to be in a committed romantic relationship, and their ability to be a housewife and mother—being told repeatedly that marriage is the peak of success in a woman’s life and that not wanting to have children is “just how I feel now” before I “meet Mr. right”. So much emphasis and importance is placed on romantic relationships, starting in middle school and maybe even earlier. I remember all the crushes I had and the intense pressure I felt to look and act a certain way to get their attention and conform to what they found attractive. I have no desire to be in a romantic relationship. I was never seeking a boyfriend. I personally struggle with intimacy and certainly don’t value it to the extent that the media demands young females do.
I convey this through my work. There is a reoccurring theme of intimacy being shut down and of romance being warped and darkened by juxtaposing it with murder and blood. It is exaggeration, but it communicates a strong and clear message about my personal feelings and experiences.
You mention media representations of young women and intimacy, specifically how young women are supposed to be crave and value it. What are some sentiments other young women have shared about your art, especially that component?
I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from other young women who tell me that they relate very strongly to the notions of the warped nature of romance and intimacy that I convey in my art. One message that stood out specifically was a girl my age telling me that she felt alone and very isolated because of her lack of desire to be intimate and romantic with anyone. The fact that people feel alienated and wrong just because the notion of intimacy and romance holds no interest completely disgusts me. The entire aromantic and asexual spectrum is essentially nonexistent in the media, but individuals who do not identify as asexual/aromantic, but are uninterested for personal or mental health issues need to be shown that they are valid and not figments of imagination as the media would make it seem. I’ve had numerous cases of people, both male and female identifying, tell me that my art provided comfort and validation and it is an unbelievably validating thing.
What representations of women of color and mental illness do you see in current conversations about art, culture, and entertainment?
That’s the thing! I don’t see the representation and the representation that I do see is so
flawed, stereotyped, and inaccurate to the point of insult. There is no accurate portrayal of what living with mental illness is truly like in the media. The fact that the word “depressed” is used so trivially and the fact that bipolarity is used as an insult illustrates just how warped and painfully inaccurate the understanding and portrayal of mental illness in the media truly is.
Thankfully, there is currently an amazing movement that is picking up rapidly, aiming to create a space in the art world for POC and WOC specifically. There are zines for only queer women of color and there are galleries only showing POC artists. The art world is slowly realizing that there is this whole community of artists that have such talent and so much value that they have to share. I am so lucky to be able to join this movement and contribute and work with other POC. It is an amazing feeling of solidarity.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that there are any current conversations on mental illness that are significant enough to make an actual impact. I really hope to start conversations, and to really bring more people to understand the complexity and truth of what mental illness is. It’s a difficult topic, because it’s virtually impossible to understand the struggles of mental illness to their full extent without experiencing it first hand. But I find that it’s easier for neuro-typical individuals to understand the emotional struggles when they’re expressed through art.
A lot of people find your work through Tumblr, which is awesome. Has Tumblr or other platforms influenced how you create your art?
I wouldn’t say that the social-media platforms I use influence the actual creation of my art, but it certainly pushes me to hold myself to a higher standard because I want to maintain consistency in the work I put out into the world. Posting my work on Tumblr and Instagram has given me a bit more confidence in my work and some assurance that choosing to be an artist won’t a regrettable choice. Of course, it’s nice to get positive feedback from people who relate to my art. My blog and instagram make that possible. Aside from that, what I truly love about Tumblr is that I can find and follow so many amazing artists, many of which attend the universities that I’ll be applying to! It’s great to be able to keep up with the work of people that I admire so much and have the ability to reach out and connect with them. While it doesn't provide artistic inspiration in terms of actually affecting my technique, seeing the diverse and inspiring array of art from all the artists I follow pushes me to work harder and to improve.
How do you see your artwork growing in the future?
I’m completely self-taught. Considering how much my art has changed and improved in only a year’s time I cannot imagine what I’ll learn and how much I’ll grow once I’m receiving a full-time, formal art education. I’ll hopefully be accepted into a BFA of illustration program, and the possibilities that will open up for me excite me so much. All the growth that I want to make requires small things first—taking an anatomy class to fine-tune my understanding of proportions and the way the body moves. Doing a color study to better grasp shades, and to give my pieces better coloration. I can’t point exactly to where I see my art going, or what I see it becoming because I don’t know. All I can say is that I am always eager to refine myself and practice new techniques, and I can’t wait to learn and grow in my work but also as an artist.
I really would love to create bigger pieces, just to have more visual impact, and I’d love to do more visual storytelling—maybe a short comic strip or zine. Ultimately, I want to do larger-scale collaborations and have the opportunity to show my work and speak about all the things I’m passionate about.