I slip into a boxy little apartment building beside a tattoo shop and head up the stairs. I’m checking my phone for the number when the main door clacks behind me and a lithe, bearded young man comes bounding up the stairs.
His arms are loaded with packages and rolls of paper, and I know at once that he’s an artist. He looks up from the flight below and smiles. Since I stalked him on the internet, I know his face when I see it. He’s Nick Randhawa: UC Berkeley transfer student in art and rhetoric and political activist.
He shows me pieces from the Woman Project, a series of portraits of women from all over who have changed the world. Randhawa is like his artwork: forthright, factual and fiercely feminist.
The Daily Californian: How did you choose which women to include in this series?
Nick Randhawa: It was an arduous process. I started on social media and asked my friends who had inspired them, but I had to consider each answer. Like, for me, my mom is a huge inspiration, but I don’t think that she works for everyone in the same way. They don’t have that kind of relationship with her.
So I found a bunch of women through this process, but most of them were from the U.S. or European countries. And women are still discriminated against in those places, but not as heavily as say, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, right? So I tried to make it very multicultural, so I found the index of countries that are the worst for women and started at the top.
I tried to find women that were in some way engaged with feminism, even if it just meant moving into science as a career. Everything a woman does is political if she’s stepping out of her cultural role.
DC: What inspired you to create this project?
NR: I attended a seminar on domestic violence, and it got me thinking about representation. Like how women are always presented to us first by how they look, and not always as any other kind of role models. So I started thinking about my female role models, like (British painter) Jenny Saville. I respect her work. And (German painter) Kathe Kollwitz. These people are wonderful inspirations, but there still weren’t that many. And my last name is my mother’s last name, my father took it as well. It’s really unusual and very powerful, and it changes my life and my experience.
I remember, I was working for Nader during the last elections and all of the coverage on Hillary Clinton focused on how she looked. Her pantsuits, her makeup … And there was that day when she walked off the debate stage and Obama put his hand to the small of her back as if to guide her.
That image was really suggestive to me about how men still run the show. So I wanted to create this kind of representation of women from all over the world, so that people see themselves in the images of these women.
DC: Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
NR: Oh yeah, for sure. I like to tell people that I became a feminist in utero. The first air I breathed was my mother’s breath, my first blood was her blood, so her oppression is my oppression. We all come from there, so we should all be feminists in utero.
DC: What was the most surprising thing about this list?
NR: Two of the women that I researched were assassinated by their own governments, but their male co-conspirators were not. Male figures like Braveheart are held up as heroes, but we never see female figures in that same way. Joan of Arc is the only one I can think of with that kind of nationalism and martyrdom associated with them in that way.
DC: And she did her most important work in drag.
DC: Is it hard to create art of female subjects while circumventing the issue of how attractive they are?
NR: Oh yeah, if I had created a series of feminist pinups of the world, then people would have been like, “Great! Yeah!” But trying to reconfigure the normal vision or perception of women is an important part of the campaign.
And the people who aren’t interested in this project because they don’t find these women beautiful, those are the people who need this kind of art the most. Aesthetically, these are designed to show just head and shoulders, which is typical of portraiture of men.
DC: What’s your goal for these portraits?
NR: To enter into the dominant discourse that women are capable of all of what’s in these posters. I have a little brother who’s 10 years old, and I want him to look at this and see that a woman’s horizon should not be limited — the same as his own.
Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].