"Even when I was drawing myself as a child, I was still drawing white women,'" says Birmingham-born Manjit Thapp, whose South Asian heritage was, she says, mysteriously missing from her early art. "I wasn't even thinking, but subconsciously, I was not representing myself."
Thankfully, and just as innately, this has changed for the 23-year old illustrator, who has just received NOW Gallery's prestigious 2021 Young Artist Commission. The public gallery space on the Greenwich peninsula, is now home to Thapp's 3D work My Head is a Jungle - a riot of colour and immersive jungle murals interlaced with a fragmented narrative of the female experience and stunning reflections of South Asian women.
Thapp says much of the work draws on her own personal emotions and mental health, themes she explored in her recent graphic novel Feelings: A Story in Seasons. Yet, while much of what is on display is a reflection of her own thoughts, particularly during lockdown, she is conscious of making the space as accessible as possible.
"I really wanted to put a lot of myself into the work, especially in terms of the way that I feel, but I also want to make it open enough for the viewer to kind of see themselves in the work and interpret it in their own way," she says.
Despite her undeniable success as an illustrator, securing global collaborations with Google, TIME, Stylist, Penguin and Moleskine, receiving the NOW Gallery commission marks her first solo show since graduating from Camberwell School of Arts.
"Moving from 2D to 3D was certainly out of my comfort zone, but it's a dream come true to have my own show," she says. "I kept thinking about how, when I was younger, I would go to galleries and never really see myself reflected back by the artists that were exhibiting. I always felt that there wasn't really a space for me in the art world, and so it took me a really long time to actually have the guts to go forward with pursuing it. Now it is so nice to think that South Asian girls and women will get to see themselves reflected in my show."
Embedding her Indian heritage into her work has been a long process, she admits, and she openly wonders why it was that she shied away from it for so long. "I think as I've gotten older, I've become more confident in learning more about my culture, and that has changed the way I was working," she explains, "Now, when I'm drawing, I'm not really thinking about my culture and it just becomes a natural part of what I'm doing."
Now Thapp actively takes inspiration from Indian art and culture and brings elements of this into her work, from Mughal miniature paintings to intricately-rendered borders and details. She deprecates when asked if she feels she is adding to an evolution of these artistic traditions, but feels she is part of a growing South Asian art community, much of which she sees and interacts with online.
"Instagram has honestly been a really great platform for me to be able to find other South Asian artists," she says. "You can talk and support each other. If I'd had that when I was younger, it would have been so helpful."
Next up for Thapp is a commission to illustrate a new children's book, the details of which are tightly under wraps. Yet until then, she is excited that her NOW Gallery show will run until the end of October, meaning it will be on display throughout ESEA Heritage Month.
"I think it's really nice to have a month like this and a shared moment, where we can focus on our culture and heritage," she discloses, knowing her show will provide the sort of representation she sorely lacked in galleries as a child. "But, of course, much like Black History Month, it's important we don't just relegate these conversations to 30 or 31 days. After all, we don't just exist for one month of the year!"
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