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The rise of Maliha Abidi

Celebrating 100 extraordinary women of colour, one canvas at a time

What do you get when you cross art, social justice, neuroscience – and Beyoncé? Pakistani-American artist and author Maliha Abidi paints her role models while tackling stigmas around mental health

Maliha Abidi is answering a question from her studio in England when there’s a knock at the door. She freezes and grabs a quick intake of breath. 

Just a few minutes ago, she’d said, “I’m receiving my author copies some time today.” Could this be them? 

By the time this article is published, Maliha’s most recent book, Rise, will have been printed, stacked up on bookshop tables, and handed between loved ones in jingle-belled gift wrap. But at this precise second, Maliha hasn’t yet seen her book.

Rise, published by Saqi Books, and Maliha’s second work, celebrates 100 extraordinary women of colour who changed the world. Each trailblazer’s story is paired with an illustration, which Maliha has composed from her imagination, using photographs only as references for their features. Every page is awash with vibrant colour palettes, mixed media, soft detailing, and environments that she’s created for her bold characters.

Civil rights activist Linda Sarsour stands in front of shadowy protest banners. Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei smiles in front of, aptly, mountains. Sometimes Maliha plans out her direction, sometimes she just gets stuck in.

Maliha in her studio | Photo by Syed Askari

It’s impossible for 25-year-old Maliha to pick just one woman in Rise who inspires her the most. 

Michaela Coel

“They’re there because they’re inspiring me. All of them,” she says.

She rattles off a couple of names (British screenwriter and actress Michaela Coel and outspoken Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi), but says the answer would be different every time someone asked. We started our conversation talking about Michaela’s Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You, and how much depth there is to her story. So this particular writer, producer and actor may be fresh in her mind. The book is full of both household names, and lesser-known role models.

Who then, out of the Rise women, would Maliha pick to hang out with? She grabs the list of 100 names excitedly to check.

“I would love to hang out with Loujain Al Hathloul, the activist from Saudi Arabia, or the hilarious Michaela Coel. Oh, and she passed away so many centuries ago, but Fatima al-Fihri sounds amazing. With these three, I think we would have a blast,” Maliha says. “There are so many amazing women in this book, it’s a tough choice.”

Life influencing art, art influencing life

Maliha’s work isn’t limited to influential women – that’s just one part of it. She focuses her art and writing on social justice and women’s rights, painting portraits of all genders and celebrating people’s stories. As a muslim woman, she elevates other muslim activists. She’s worked with the United Nations, Women’s Aid, the Malala Fund, and the Peace Corporation, to name a few. She won’t call herself an activist, but she’s flattered to be described as one. She’d rather let other people decide if her work is activism.

Malala Yousafzai: Pakistani activist and the world’s youngest Nobel Prize laureate

Art comes naturally to Maliha, and it’s how she processes the world. She sees it as her language to connect with people and get them interested in complex issues. She calls it a warm invitation into the world of social justice.

“They may not be interested in what’s happening in Afghanistan, or more than 100 million girls out of school, or how one in four people suffer with some sort of mental health issue,” Maliha says. “But maybe they see my drawing floating around social media somewhere and maybe that will bring them to the artwork itself, and may make them think about what the artwork is about. That may be their gateway into their own journey of making change.”

Maliha’s artwork does a lot of things at the same time: it invites people in, tells stories, spreads awareness, and campaigns for change. But it doesn’t just shape other people’s lives. Art has shaped Maliha’s life too.

Maliha is originally from Pakistan, but reluctantly moved to the US at the age of 14, right at the time she was experiencing the transition between childhood and adulthood. Rise is her second book, following Pakistan for Women, featuring stories and illustrations of notable Pakistani women.

“It was during my move to the United States when my art became really profound for me, just because it became my way of dealing with cultural shock, isolation, homesickness,” she says. “I think that’s when I started using my art to process those emotions.”

Maliha Abidi is influenced by Frida Khalo

In the same way that she used her art to get through her own dark times, she also turned to art as she began to learn more deeply about social issues. At first she felt helpless, unsure how to make a difference in the world.

“That’s where art came in. And that’s big! That became my way of contributing to various social issues that are close to my heart,” she says.

Now, in a never-ending cycle, that art has gone back to shaping Maliha’s life too. It’s made her more aware of the world around her, made her more grateful, and pushed her to recognise her own privilege and how she can use this to make change.

“But at the same time, it has also made me aware, as a woman of colour, how underprivileged I am,” she says. “Or how I need to be leading in a certain way in order for me to pave the way for other women of colour, girls of colour, just like the women of colour before me did for the current generation.”

When art meets neuroscience

From the creative, to the scientific. Maliha is an artist, a writer and an activist (although not self-described), but she is also a neuroscience student. These different elements have collided to create The Story of Mental Health, a project that she’s been dreaming up since she was a teenager. This organisation supports marginalised communities, especially women and young people, to start conversations around mental health and to help them find resources. 

Stigma is an important part of the story for Maliha. 

“I come from Pakistan – there’s a lot of stigma around talking about mental health. I don’t think it’s limited to South Asia, it is an issue around the world, but it is definitely something that I wanted to focus on for the marginalised communities, because they don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about it and they don’t want to talk about it. And it is because of the stigma, because of what other people may think about them,” she says.

Her studies in neuroscience, she says, will help her strengthen the organisation and support more people in talking about mental health. This is not a place where people will be told that everything is fine, or be a home to “toxic positivity” as Maliha describes it. It is a safe space for marginalised communities to open up about their mental health. The bold portraits on the website’s homepage promise that art is going to play a key role.

On art and Instagram

Maliha’s work is not displayed in a grand building, or cycled through exhibitions. Her gallery is Instagram. And social media is where her viewing public gather. Where once people would gaze silently at a canvas and politely read the information contained in a little white label, now they hold the gallery in the palm of their hands.

“Social media is art. Art is everywhere,” Maliha says. “Art doesn’t need to be meaningful, because in itself it has such a cultural significance. But I think I enjoy it way more, because it has a meaning behind it.”

She wants to reach young changemakers, other women, people in Pakistan, the US, and across the world. She wants to mobilise people. Social media, she says, is powerful.

“I think what social media has really done is give the power to the artists themselves,” Maliha says. She explains how Instagram can act as her portfolio. She no longer lives in a world where artists need agents or big exhibitions to market themselves. But it also gives power to the public.

“Everybody has a voice on social media,” she says. “But of course, there are some dark, dark, dark things going on on social media as well. But again, it’s the people that can change that, the people that can control it. I don’t think people realise how much power they have, because of social media.”

Thanks to the power of technology, Maliha’s been able to interact and keep in touch with some of the women that she profiled in Rise. She’s talked to activists Malala Yousafzai,  Esra’a Al Shafei and Clemantine Wamariya, telling them that they’re featured in her book, and furthering connections within the women’s rights space.

Women and girls worldwide will find inspiration and strength in the pages of this beautiful book. 

Malala Yousafzai

She’s also launched an art project in a virtual space — Women Rise, a collection of randomly generated NFT (non-fungible token) portraits created by Maliha. It’s a project all about representing and uplifting women in the tech space.

And back in the physical world, Maliha’s advance copies of Rise did arrive. As she peeled away the packaging and looked down on the cover art, she said it was the best feeling ever. Maliha Abidi is an artist in demand. It seems likely that she’ll get to experience the feeling of a project coming to life many more times over.

Meet 5 of the 100 women in Rise

“Who run the world?” – Beyoncé Knowles-Carter

What’s so good about this?

Maliha Abidi’s art has not only shaped her life, but it’s shaping the world around her. She’s finding a way to fuse her passion and the things she cares about, leaving a positive and beautiful mark on the world. But Maliha isn’t just papering over cracks. She’s trying to make meaningful change, lift up underrepresented voices, and wipe out stigmas. And in Maliha’s words, “None of it will matter if we don’t take care of climate change.”

Katie Dancey-Downs writer profile

Meet the writer

When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She is also assistant editor at Index on Censorship, an award-winning quarterly magazine. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. @Katie_Dancey.

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