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The Feministing Five: Artist Shriya Samavai

Shriya Samavai is a South Asian American NYC-based multidisciplinary artist whose work has appeared in Vice, i-D Magazine, Teen Vogue, Elle, Vice, and more.

She’s also photographed for brands like Carhartt, Opening Ceremony, and Warby Parker, and runs a column at Rookie Magazine called Be Your Own Boss. Shriya has performed at Bowery Poetry Club and Nuyorican Poets Cafe and recently released a chapbook, Somewhere Between Silver & Gold, which is now available for purchase at McNally Jackson in Soho.

Shriya, who identifies as non-binary, is constantly working on different projects from photography to activism to fashion. I had the pleasure of catching up with her for this week’s Feminising Five to talk honing creativity, photographing the genderqueer community, her Desi identity, and more. Catch Shriya on Instagram @shriyasamavai.

Senti Sojwal: You’re a writer and a poet and a photographer constantly involved in various projects. How do you see the relationships between your different creative endeavors — as always entwined in some way or as totally different entities? Does this ever change?

Shriya Samavai: All my projects are usually connected in some form. Similar sentiments are expressed across the different mediums I work in, the main motive being that I strive to empower minorities. Through art I work to tell our stories, to increase our representation, and to remind all of us that we are worthy. What I do in one project definitely affects other ones — by day I work in the fashion industry, which, in the West, is notoriously white, sizeist, and ableist, among other things. So what I can’t do at my job I try to do in my own projects — I focus on photographing people of color and gender-nonconforming people who currently do not have wide representation in media. I want to dismantle the current standards because no one should be told that they are not enough as they are. I’m also really interested in business so I’ve been profiling women and non-binary business owners for a column I run at Rookie Magazine called Be Your Own Boss. Under 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, let alone gender-nonconforming, so again representation and telling the stories of women and GNC folks is necessary to show people of all ages that you can be anyone and achieve what you want to. My poetry is a bit more ambiguous. I’ve been writing prose and poems for a long time just as a way to work out my own thoughts, and it was only in the past couple of years that I decided to start sharing my work. When I began reading my work at events, I discovered that some of the ideas really resonated with other people, especially South Asians or gender-nonconforming people. And then there are also poems I write and photos I take that have nothing to do with identity, like a quiet image of the woods or a poem about citrus fruit, because I am so much more than just a body or my heritage. We all are! And while it’s so important for me to tell stories related to identity, it’s often nice to take a break from it and let myself make art that has nothing to do with me.

Sojwal: Who are you favorite types of people to photograph and why? How do you find people?

Samavai: Photographing people who are marginalized is really important to me. I find a lot of joy in photographing someone who is not typically photographed — I like being able to give them the experience of having their photo taken and then the final images of themselves. Being photographed can be a really special and empowering experience, especially when you are not used to seeing people who look like you reflected in the media, television, and magazines. Having a photo that really represents you can help you feel worthy or enough; it can help carry you through any self-doubt. That’s what I hope to give to people I photograph. I have a new series called See Me As I Am for which I’ve been photographing people who identify as genderqueer, transgender, or gender-nonconforming in some way, with a focus on people of color. I think society at large still has a hard time understanding what gender-nonconformity means and what it can look like. Through photographing a diverse group of people who identify as gender-nonconforming, I hope viewers can learn that gender-fluidity can look like anything and everything. It can change and evolve, and there’s no reason to treat people outside the binary as any different as those who identify as cis-male or cis-female. The sooner we release ourselves from unnecessary confines like binary genders, the better for everyone in society. I could go on about it forever! In terms of finding people, I mostly photograph my friends and people in my community. A lot of my friends know I’m always looking for subjects so they’ll put me in touch with someone they know. I also contact people through Instagram pretty regularly, and every one in a while I’ll approach someone I see on the street or the train. I also enjoy photography that is not portraiture; that is, an evening shadow on someone’s arm, a basketball hoop in the morning, the ivory mane of a horse. These moments can feel just as valuable.

Sojwal: Did you have an Indian community growing up? How has your relationship to your Desi identity evolved as you’ve gotten older and gotten to know yourself better?

Samavai: I’m lucky that I had an Indian community growing up. I’m from a university town in the Midwest that has a large Asian population, so I grew up around a lot of Indians. Being a part of the community helped me in more ways than I probably realized at the time — I think even just having around a lot of people who looked like me reminded me that there was nothing strange about who I was or where my family came from. My ethnicity wasn’t something exotic to my peers because there were so many Asians in our town, both from South and East Asia. That being said, I don’t think I was super in touch with my Desi identity. I was proud of it and enjoyed the culture, but I didn’t engage with it much. I didn’t make art about it the way I do now. After graduating from college I discovered a really wonderful community of creative South Asians who live in New York. In spending time with them, I’ve learned a lot about the similarities and differences in the way we were all raised. I’m learning to understand my own privileges and how I can work to support disadvantaged people in the community. The poetry I’ve written in the past couple of years has explored my Desi identity and how I navigate both American and Indian culture. About half of the work in my chapbook Somewhere Between Silver & Gold was written while I was visiting India and is about how I fit in the culture and landscape as a non-binary Indian-American. I’ve also been photographing a lot of South Asian people in New York and Philadelphia and have had conversations surrounding identity and class that I didn’t get to have growing up. Living in a place as diverse as New York, I feel proud to be a minority and to be a part of the Desi community.

Sojwal: Who is one feminist that’s inspiring you today and why?

Samavai: I am forever inspired by Janet Mock. Educating myself and others on transgender rights and rights of non-binary people is extremely important to me. I think Janet is an amazing example of how you can harness your own life and make yourself who you want to be, all the while supporting other people in your community and raising them up too. Janet fights for the rights of everyone regardless of race, age, gender, size, and ability. She’s built herself up in a way that gives me a lot of hope for the future of feminism and society.

Sojwal: What’s on the horizon for you in 2018? What are you most excited about?

Samavai: I’m excited to perform my poetry at more readings. I got a really nice taste of it last year, reading in POC, queer, and Desi spaces. I’m working on my next chapbook and hope to put something out either at the end of this year or in early 2019. I’ve also been DJing a lot of events, playing music by people of color, women, queer people, and gender-nonconforming folks. I’m looking forward to exposing more people to underrepresented musicians. Outside of that, I want to take a step back and take care of myself and my mental health. Living in a place like New York, it’s easy to get caught up in everything that’s going on. There are a lot of great events and projects to be a part of! But it’s good to stay home and take it easy sometimes too.


Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She is currently pursuing her MPH at NYU's College of Global Public Health and works as Communications Coordinator at Planned Parenthood of New York City. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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