What happens when you ask 16 women from different cultures and countries to come together and draw their lives? The answer, of course, is a painting of the world that we live in, with what we overlook made visible; the biggest elephants in all our rooms brought out and placed in the spotlight. The Elephant In The Room encompasses the many questions, obstacles, challenges and experiences that women go through, told in the form of graphic stories, each one unique and bold. The graphic novel is the result of a collaboration between Spring, a feminist collective of women artists based in Hamburg, Germany, and Zubaan, an independent feminist publishing house in New Delhi, India.

Prabha Mallya
Prabha Mallya

All the female artists that are a part of this book use their individual styles to tell individual stories, unashamedly and fearlessly addressing the biggest and loudest secrets. The cover of the book, splattered with words that are as jarring as they are ubiquitous in daily life, – butts, pyaar, sex, bras, hypocrisy – says it all. These are just a few of the many elephants in the room that become protagonists (and antagonists) in the stories within the book’s pages.

The form of the graphic novel may not be a new one, but it gives the artist the freedom to make it her own, turning The Elephant In The Room into a portal for the reader to live the experiences of the illustrators, and find themselves in the various characters they draw. Beginning with Katherine Stangl’s minimalistic illustrations in “Some Questions,” the book opens with questions that women have on a day-to-day basis. The seemingly simple act of even questioning can be subversive, especially when done by women, who have been told for centuries to never speak up, never challenge.

Other stories are woven through different social and political spaces, from the urban life of working women’s desires and “otherly urges” – as Archana Sreenivasan, a Bengaluru-based illustrator, calls it – conflicting with the pressure to “settle down”, to Stephanie Wunderlich’s struggle to break free from patriarchal thinking as a woman and mother. Nina Pagalles, a Berlin-based illustrator draws temples as vaginas, tackling head-on the negative connotation attached to vaginas and periods in places of worship. The stories become ones of empowerment, while acknowledging that it means different things to different people. “Bum Power” by Larissa Bertonaco is about dealing with body issues while Reshu Singh, in her story, shows that female empowerment can sometimes mean loving and accepting even those women who perpetuate patriarchy.

'Whose Bra is it Anyway?' by Priya Kuriyan
'Whose Bra is it Anyway?' by Priya Kuriyan

Other artists use absurdist techniques to depict their lives. In Ludmilla Bartscht’s story, a pineapple, Juicy Lucy, becomes the uncanny subject – one that is unfamiliar by virtue of being a fruit, yet familiar because she represents everything that the unconventional woman is. Hairy, non-conforming to society’s notions of femininity, and facing issues with her body, bras, periods and shaving, Juicy Lucy is the woman who doesn’t find herself in the Instagram pages of models and actresses.

Several of the artists illustrate the mundane activities of daily life. The small things like looking for the “right man”, dressing up, going to the swimming pool, are part of the same world where women are also called “bitch”, raped, become victims of racism, and struggle to keep their family happy.

'Juicy Lucy' by Ludmilla Bartscht
'Juicy Lucy' by Ludmilla Bartscht

The Elephant In The Room concludes with Priya Kuriyan’s brilliant story about her grandmother. The power of a matriarchal legacy is amplified through her story as it illustrates how every generation of woman had to face differing challenges in order to create a better world for her descendant. This matrilineal tool of simply passing down a story, of oral tradition perpetuating itself through the female narrative, is what solidifies Kuriyan’s illustrations, concretising her grandmother’s story, which was narrated to her. More power is given to women by writing down their lives, by acknowledging that their existence is the manifestation of a series of ancestors before them, each one of whom fought various social battles. These 16 female artists take back the narrative that was snatched from them and each one of them tells it in her own unique way.

The title of the book reads: “Women Draw Their World”. However, The Elephant in the Room is far more than women simply drawing female experiences and the female world. It is the story of all of our worlds, all of our experiences, all of our questions. The reader finds herself in every story, regardless of her age, sex, nationality, race, or even class. Artists from two different continents, countries and cultures had one thing in common – the imperative to share the female narrative. Sure, these women drew their world, but it is not their world alone. By having their voice narrate our world, we are able to live our reality through theirs.

The Elephant In The Room: Women Draw Their World, Zubaan.