It started with a quick doodle about a woman who had just burnt some rotis. Two years and several exhibitions later, Maria Qamar has racked up over 70,000 followers on her Instagram handle @hatecopy, sharing popular desi memes
A classic Lichtenstein comic book style meets the melodrama of Indian soap operas in Qamar’s hyperbolic art, which teems with overprotective parents, scandalised aunties, and defiant women.
Born in Karachi to a Bihari father and Gujarati mother, Qamar’s family moved to Canada in 2000, when she was 11. Growing up as a brown girl in Toronto came with a unique set of challenges.
"I remember being a teenager and dating this guy, Brad,” she said. “Straight out of a movie script, my dad chased him out of the house with a chappal. Brad had one job, which was to stay hidden, and he couldn’t even do that. Men are simple sometimes."
For many South Asians who follow her work, especially women living in the West, Qamar takes a slice right out of their lives: "Do you know how much that is in rupees?" an outraged mother asks her daughter, in one of Qamar's prints. In another, a bride weeps – "I wanted Ryan not Ranjeev".
There’s never a need for Qamar to make that ubiquitous social media call of desperation, "Tag your friends!" – each piece is tagged and re-tagged by fans who relate, with exclamations of recognition like "This is so us!" or "Wish my mom had Instagram so I could tag her in this".
Hatecopy’s wicked humour and plain silliness often serve as a disguise for sharp commentary, which Qamar described as "inherently political by virtue of being a woman of colour".
Some of the drawings are overtly so – a "tamacha" on a drawing of Donald Trump, an image of of two men with distinctly desi moustaches, kissing. Queer content gets significantly less love than other drawings, Qamar noted. It’s the kind of insight made possible by an audience that responds to her directly in real time, the likes and comments that add up with every image Qamar shares.
"I treat Instagram as a gallery that’s always open to me," she said. "Shows happen and gallery spaces remain the end goal, but they require schmoozing with the right people. So I just started putting my work up on a platform where people can see it, and share it."
Qamar doesn’t bother with watermarks or logos – she believes that once something is on the internet, it belongs there.
"Obviously there are bootleg copies of my work everywhere, we’re desis," she said.
It all began on Instagram, but Qamar’s work has made the transition from phone screen popularity to real-life fame. Apart from paintings in exhibitions, her characters are emblazoned across t-shirts, mugs, and iron-on-prints. Their creator is not far behind. Qamar has been featured on Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, and on the cover of Elle Canada with the wildly popular comedian Lily Singh aka IISuperwomanII.
Most recently, the American actor and writer Mindy Kaling, who has followed Hatecopy’s Instagram for a while, featured one of Qamar's pieces on her popular television show The Mindy Project.
"It was amazing to hear because I, and everyone I know watches that show religiously," Qamar said. "As someone whose work is 50% words, it’s incredibly encouraging to receive support from writers who are among the best in their field."
The work Kaling chose for her show, depicts a trio of stunning women flashing bindis, bangles and sindoor. "Trust No Aunty," it says.
Aunty is a theme that Qamar revisits often. In India, the word is often used as a sexist, disparaging term to dismiss women above a certain age, or to imply an out-of-touch dowdiness. Earlier this year, The Telegraph’s headline "Here Comes Aunty National" referring to then Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani was widely criticised for its sexist stereotyping.
"I don’t draw these aunties as purely negative characters," Qamar explained. “It definitely is a criticism of society and what we instil in girls, telling them that they are too loud, that they need to cover up, that they need a man to be complete. That’s straight-up patriarchy. My aunties are more than that."
Qamar’s aunties are not dowdy or irrelevant. They are exaggerated caricatures from soap operas that speak in incisive and hilarious dialogue. She describes her work as a parody of TV dramas where the women "have triple stacked eyelashes and go to bed fully bejewelled in silk".
"A lot of these characters are also versions of women from my life – my mother who will actually scream ‘main barbaad ho gayi’ (I am ruined) for the smallest thing,” she said.
“Keeping aside the criticism of aunties when they act like cops, my drawings are playful, not poking fun, because I know I’m also that person, and I put bits of myself into the aunties. At some point it transcends age and becomes about the personality."
In one of her drawings, Qamar tackles the question of cultural appropriation thus: three unimpressed aunties look straight ahead, as one of them asks, "Is that gori wearing a bindi again?"
"Mmmhmm," another responds, not impressed.
Another looks more inward – a tube of Fair & Lovely is branded with a screaming woman trapped in a DNA strand – jabbing at the skin-lightening industry and the South Asian obsession with fair skin.
Ironically, Qamar’s insistence on a television soap aesthetic means that all the women who feature on Hatecopy are light-skinned, heavily made-up and conventionally attractive. In appearance, they retain a post-Bollywood imagination of the Indian woman, even if their contrary dialogues make them subversive.
An upcoming show with frequent collaborator, Babbu the painter, may change this.
"It explores the anger, punk aesthetic and goth phase that a lot of desis go through,” Qamar said. “I passed through it too – leather jackets, mohawks, bullet belts." What’s it called? Bad beti, of course.
Despite Qamar's obvious insider references to Bollywood, Indian fashion and food, Hatecopy gets a fair share of attention outside the world of South Asian pop culture.
"Obviously the art is for us – I use very particular words in Hindi, for example,” she said. “If you don’t get it, you’re just going to have to ask your brown friends. But it helps move beyond the curry jokes, gives some more insight into something you probably know very little about."