Pranavi Suthagar, also known by @Not_Sari on Instagram, has always been concise and snappy through her art.
It’s something she enjoys doing; making digital illustrations that speak to the everyday feelings of those in the South Asian diaspora.
“When I come up with these ideas, I think of the taboo or non conventional things you would think of our culture, and I want to emphasize that because there’s a sort of nostalgia and acknowledgement of the mundane in a way,” she said in an interview with 5X Press.
“The ‘Hello my name is not that hard to pronounce’ [print], people worldwide relate to that. It’s an ongoing feeling a lot of people have but they don’t know how to put it into words and I like to create with that in mind and create these experiences where a viewer will be like ‘oh my god, such a niche part of me feels seen,’” she added.
Her art is also unapologetically brown, depicting different shades of skin, and centering brown experiences.
“I feel like we should be unapologetic about those elements of ourselves and it’s not something to hide or be like ‘oh I’m normal’ or basically white. I don’t think we need to conform to the mainstream culture or whatever because I think it’s important to embrace not just your culture, your heritage but also your full experience, and that’s kind of where my work stems from,” she said.
“The way western culture is so normalized, every culture should have that opportunity,”
Her Instagram page has amassed 19.2k followers and has become a point of first connection with the 25-year-old creative.
It’s funny to think that this page started as a school project while she was at the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD). She said she decided on the name "Not Sari" as a way to convey who she is and what kind of art she would be making.
“I was trying to think of [a] concise way of conveying being unapologetic and just being real,” she said.
Even in some of her other visual projects, the rawness of her work is clear. In January of 2020, Suthagar created a video lookbook titled “Tamil” which included other Tamil creatives with a setting of none other than a Tamil grocery store; the best place Suthagar felt they could celebrate being Tamil.
“Tamil people really take pride in their identity, because our people went through a genocide so it's really important to acknowledge that we're Tamil and there's so much joy in being Tamil as well.”
This was one way of celebrating who she is and she says she also hopes to bring more of her Tamil identity into her work. She hopes to bring more attention to the lived experience of the Tamil Eelam community specifically with issues of disparities, lack of rights and racism.
“I want to do more work that enlightens more people about that, and shows that this is an issue that we should all hear about.”
And being her real authentic self has worked well for her and her career.
Suthagar has an extensive resume having worked with the NBA, the Blue Jays, Sony, and even having done cover art for a song by artist TeaMarrr featuring Wale.
She’s also worked with several creatives in the Toronto scene including Cartel Madras, By the Kollective, and has hosted pop-ups with other Canadian artists such as Anu Chouhan also known as Anumation.
Beyond her work, she’s been wanting to find ways to pay it forward.
“Since I started Not Sari, I've wanted to do something for the community,” she said.
Suthagar is a woman of many talents, including digital art, videography, video editing, modelling and the list will likely continue to grow. But she is hoping to add a mentor/teacher to the list of what makes her so multifaceted.
She says she loves to see more South Asian artists thriving and creating art that is relatable to the broader community, and she’s even hoping to help bring in the next generation of South Asian artists to the forefront with a workshop she has entitled Parvai, which means vision in Tamil.
Suthagar started volunteering as an artist mentor for youth with Project Humanity during much of COVID. She says it was a great opportunity to help others get better acquainted with their artistry and help pass on some of the tools she acquired throughout her time in school.
She also does art with children for an organization called Story Planet where she works with kids around Toronto and they create stories, make illustrations, create books and allow the kids to take the lead and tell stories derived from their own experiences.
“I feel like being an artist is a privilege in a lot of ways. So I always want to ground myself and give back to the community and support the community. But I also wanted to do my own initiative where I give back to my people that support my work. And they also aspire to be able to do this in their own lives.”
She was also inspired by a young high school student who approached her via DMs to ask for some help and guidance. The young girl also wanted to follow Suthagar’s path but was nervous about her parents' approval in pursuing work in the arts.
And she says she wants to be real with people on the struggle of pursuing work in the arts,“it's not easy, it's not a cakewalk.”
In sitting with the young student, Suthagar said that interaction really impacted her. Not too long after, while speaking to two of her friends Sonia Dheer, an entrepreneur and Mitushaa Berlinpalingam who works in finance, they discussed doing something to give back to those who want to pursue the arts, especially knowing how difficult the industry can be to navigate even when it comes to finding grants and funding.
“I was able to obviously find it, but going to art school helps knowing people that are in the creative field. And if you don't have those resources, it's hard to fully know the ins and outs of things,” she said.
More than anything, the three women were excited to help young creatives through the Parvai workshop, to have a well-rounded experience in their field, especially those who come from South Asian backgrounds who maybe haven't been allowed to pursue creative industries.
The program will run for six weeks starting in November. Suthagar says there will be artist panels and a chance for young creatives to work one on one with creatives from the GTA.
Suthagar says the Parvai team are preparing this as they know it’s their first run at a project like this but she says they are really excited to get going. The program is based in the GTA, specifically within Scarborough, a place that Suthagar says has been underserved.
The applications have closed already and they are hoping that this will be an in-person workshop, COVID permitting.
While Suthagar is excited for this new journey of teaching alongside her best friends, she’s also looking forward to doing more with her own art going forward.
She hopes to create more digital illustrations for Not Sari that are even more relatable, focusing on the story of the everyday brown girl.
“I think for a minute, I was wearing brown jewelry with Western clothes or whatever. I've kind of moved away from that because I want my art to not be like a caricature of culture but an honest representation of it,” she said.
“I want to show the everyday brown girl. Even when I did the Lofi girl, she was just a girl doing her homework and my chillin’ in her room. I really love that portrayal that's really honest. And it's like, no, we're not always wearing a bindi. I want to push more work that is of course connected to the culture, but not using tropes just to make us identifiable.”
So while she’s helping mentor the next generation of creatives, it looks like Suthagar will also continue to reflect and depict the lived experience of the culture as well.
About the author: Monika Sidhu is a freelance multimedia journalist based out of Brampton,ON. She loves covering all things arts and culture and enjoys telling untold stories coming out of her community. Monika recently graduated from Western University receiving a Master’s of Media in Journalism and Communication. In her off-time, you can find her discovering new music, spending time with her dogs or hiding the fact that she is binging reality tv shows.