Divya Nayar Speaks on Identity, Advocacy, & Self Exploration as a South Asian Woman in Design


Divya Prabha Nayar -she/her pronouns- is a multidisciplinary artist and designer currently studying graphic design at MICA. Her work acts as a platform to communicate her experience as a South Asian woman navigating two disparate cultures. Surrounded by and existing within white spaces, she uses design as an outlet to explore my own feelings of nostalgia and homesickness. Most of her work attempts to create culturally relatable design for herself and those who relate to her experience. Recently, her interest has been in print media and motion for they offer an intimate space for her to elaborate intricate narratives. These narratives delve into different questions she has about the workings of her own identity as well as the intersection of the cultures she experiences.


“We as a community unfortunately perpetuate anti-blackness and benefit from a lot of social and financial systems in place.”

AB: So Divya, your work explores a variety of themes at the intersection of South Asian and American culture and identity. I've seen small doses of conversations about this, but I don't often see this conversation being has OUTSIDE of this community. Why do you think the voices of brown artists in particular, has been left out of so many conversations about racial and cultural equity? What inspires you to continue elevating this important discussion?

DN: I have thought about this a lot and honestly I am still seeking answers. From what I can recognize within the South Asian community, it feels like there is finally momentum in us activating and utilizing our voices. I have noticed more conversations about the intersection of our identities being facilitated on and offline. We create print media, digital media, memes, anything to understand and relate our experience as 1st and 2nd generation immigrants. We have more people straying away from the “norm” in terms of job security and utilizing their autonomy as creatives. We are still a relatively new minority within the United States, where most discussions about racial and cultural equity have been very Black and White. Before we insert ourselves in any conversation I feel it is important for us to recognize and break down the limiting structures within our own community. I believe this starts with the ability to check our own privilege with-out minimizing our own experiences as a minority. It is a practice I definitely developed since coming to MICA where I began to interact with people from more than just South Asian and White identities. I was able to step outside of myself and understand hierarchies - racial, gender, socio-economic etc. We as a community unfortunately perpetuate anti-blackness and benefit from a lot of social and financial systems in place. I believe the conversation has to begin with that understanding before we can really connect with and understand each other and work towards real solutions.

AB: As a South Asian woman in the field of design, how do you deal with the overwhelming lack of diversity within the field? And, how are you encountering this in your current education. What are the ways that you're navigating around this? You deal with this in your project, "Decolonize Design," can you speak about this a bit more?

DN: Overwhelming is an apt word, the lack of diversity within the design field is overwhelmingly disappointing. I’ve moved on from my anger and frustration with the issue and have been working towards problem solving. It didn't take me long to realize that I had to seek these few diverse figures on my own, no one was going to introduce them to me. I found most of the curriculum in my education to be limited in its lens, though more recently there have been small attempts to fix it. When I began working on my “Decolonize Design” project, I didn't even know there was such a movement to begin with. I stumbled upon the Decolonizing Design website and resonated with the words I read. From there it was one lead to that next, and I slowly began to educate myself. This independent research is really what I have been doing to navigate the issue. I have POC design friends who excitedly let me know who they’ve recently found in the field that I should look up, and Instagram has been helpful in connecting me to design communities.

AB: Where are you from? (Not in terms of your ethnic origins, but locationally, where did you grow up?) How has that differed from living in Baltimore and creating work about your identity? You explore this in your series "Displacement." Can you talk about what led you to create this work?

DN: I grew up in Bridgewater, New Jersey and I feel so disconnected to the person who used to live there. My parents are immigrants and growing up the only conversations that were had in the household were focused on education and how to ensure I had a successful future. They didn’t understand what it meant to grow up Brown in the United States so they didn’t know there were other things that they needed to prepare me for. My whole life I worked towards assimilating and I didn't even realize it until college. When I look back and analyze the things I used to do, like straighten my hair everyday from 7th grade to 12th grade, I realize how much time I spent trying to fit into a White narrative that I never would be accepted in. Coming to school in Baltimore was when I was finally given the space to become more authentic to myself. I began to self-reflect and understand the things I used to do and what they stemmed from. I started to explore the emotions I had tied to my identity through my work. In Displacement I wanted to create a visual language that expressed exactly what I felt growing up. Having a culture, being South Asian, meant standing out. I wanted to show that through the vibrancy of South Asian clothing against a more dull and Western background, I wanted to invoke that feeling of isolation that I’ve felt.

AB: I think it's very interesting the ways that you use print media and text to communicate your narratives. The ways in which you present them mirror many of the feminist poster propaganda of the 60s and 70s. What inspires your designs for these pieces?

DN: Definitely the media I consumed in my childhood and continue to consume today. In my piece Log Kya Kahenge I began to reuse imagery from the Indian royal portraitures that I grew up seeing. I liked the idea of taking such traditional imagery and clothing and adjusting it to what I stand for. I wanted to create something bold and unbothered by societal norms. The poses of the figures were inspired by an Indian fashion designer I followed at the time, Ayush Kejriwal. He empowered darker skinned South Asian models and created powerful campaigns for his clothing that depict South Asian women poised powerfully, empowering themselves and their sisters.

AB: Your use of books as the final presentation format for you work is really compelling. Can you speak a bit about why you choose the book format to dispel this information/work?

DN: I have found a great appreciation for the book format because of the amount of space I have to convey a story. Many times in design I feel stuck working with one flat space, but with a book I have multiple pages that allow me a type of intimacy I enjoy and room for expanding ideas. I love taking the viewer through layers of information and giving them clues to understand what I am conveying. I also enjoy the physicality of a book, to be able to hold and touch it.

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To view the entire video, please visit the following page.

AB: Your collaborative project "ABCD" opens up an exciting world of possibilities, not just for those who are considered to be "ABCDs" but for those who have no understanding of what this encompasses. Can you talk about what led you all to create this project and what you view is the significance of this collaboration?

ABCD is a passion project of mine, it began when I was assigned to create a sizzle reel for a hypothetical brand. I knew immediately I wanted to create a podcast that I wish existed for me and those who shared my experience. If something like ABCD had existed when I was going through middle school and high school I would have saved myself from so much heartache and confusion! The brand I envisioned coincided perfectly with my friend Sukalp Bhatija’s senior thesis collection. She had created a beautiful garment line called Kalakari that embodied the intersection of South Asian and Western silhouettes. I reached out to her to use her garments in my video footage. I reached out to another friend who is a film major, Eleni Marinos, because of the skills she had with video. The women featured in the video footage are MICA students who have roots in South Asia. I valued the collaboration aspect of the project because it allowed me to achieve a vision I couldn't have done on my own. I got to engage with people who I related to, who were artists, who were excited by the sense of community. The whole video shooting process was so organic, we began to have real conversations about our identities and the intersections we experience. The project became more meaningful and almost made the hypothetical podcast I imagined feel real.

To keep up with Divya and her work, you can find her on Instagram at @divya_nayar or at her website https://divyanayar.com/