Artist Marina Khan Puts Her Underrepresented South Asian and Muslim Culture On Full Display

By: Alisa Walsh
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Long Island resident and former Commack high school student, Marina Khan is one of the many underrepresented talents existing in our community today. With plenty of awards and past museum exhibits to prove it, Khan’s passion for art and painting has proven to be exceedingly impressive. As a Pakistani-American, Muslim and eldest daughter of two immigrant parents, Khan utilizes her gift to find connection between herself and her culture. Khan and I sat down to discuss her experience as one of the only brown girls growing up in a colorless town, and how the struggles of accepting her own identity influences her artwork.

How long have you been painting for, what is your style and how would you describe your own work?

Gilded Sky Photography Marina Khan

Technically, I’ve only been painting for the past couple of years, but I’ve been involved with art for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure, I have a distinct style, but I do have the tendency to lean towards realistic portraits. People are always more interesting to capture. I would describe my work as an extension of myself— I use art as a form of expression and relief, so all of my art is about my struggles and experiences as a first generation Muslim girl living in America.

What are some art-related accomplishments that you are proud of?

One of my accomplishments that I’m particularly proud of would be me receiving the Art Department Award in both middle school as well as high school. This basically means all of the art teachers came together and were like, “This is the kid who showed the most passion/dedication out of all of the students.” I was awarded the Most Dedicated by the National Art Honor Society. I’ve placed third at the Suffolk Art Show and have placed within the top three for a few other contests. The most shocking though would have been my art being displayed in a museum. The piece in question was something very much out of my comfort zone and represented my South Asian culture so seeing it in a museum on Long Island was startling— in a good way, of course.

How does your homelife, culture and religion influence your work?

All those things have a huge impact on my artwork. As the eldest daughter of immigrants, there is a lot of pressure on me to be able to navigate their culture and my the one I’m living in every day. 

What kind of story are you telling through your work?

Artist Marina Khan Puts Her Underrepresented Southeast Asian and Muslim Culture On Full Display
Nazar Self Portrait with Watercolor by Marina Khan

My artwork tells the story of me. I don’t really want to speak on anyone else’s experiences because more often than not, minorities get pigeon-holed in stereotypes and one’s experience becomes the entire community’s. But we are not a homogenous entity. There are so many voices to be heard in the South Asian community. I’m just trying to share mine. 

Who or what are some of your inspirations?

I would say my inspiration for creating artwork that represents my experiences would be this Instagram artist I found named Saher a couple of years ago. I think seeing her artwork on my feed was the first time I had ever seen someone depict a South Asian voice through art— or a South Asian voice period. We are often lost when conversations about race and equality come up. Most don’t even know that we are considered Asian too. It was really mind blowing to me seeing someone who looked like me, who also experienced the same things I did.

What was it like growing up on Long Island, and growing within the Commack community given the demographic?

Growing up in Commack was… interesting. I was the only South Asian and Muslim in elementary school. There were often comments about the food I brought in, comments about how I looked, how I dressed and so on. As the schools got bigger, I met more people like me, but there were few and far between. There was never really a collective South Asian voice in the Commack school district as a whole. I noticed as I grew up, I started to stray further from my culture. I stopped speaking Urdu at home and stopped eating what my mom had cooked. I think my only solace was at Mosque where I met girls my age all over Long Island facing the same push and pull from one culture to the other.

What were some tribulations you faced growing up in Commack?

No one at school was ever outright racist to me, but like I said I assimilated and I don’t wear a hijab so take this with a grain of salt. It was more of microaggressions such as saying my food smelled or commenting on how much body hair I had. Every time there was a terrorist attack, though I braced myself before I went to school. Kids would scream Allah Akbar, which isn’t even the correct pronunciation, in the hallways or whenever there was a loud noise. That was the worst it got for me. But the thing that bothered me most was that we never got off for the only holiday we celebrate, which is Eid. Most people know what Ramadan is, but that’s not even a holiday, Eid is. From kindergarten to senior year, I had to skip school in order to celebrate Eid— and every year I had teachers, who didn’t know what Eid was, scold me for being absent or tell me I needed to bring in a note. It was damaging honestly, as a child I really looked up to my teachers so for them to not even care enough to like, Google it, it really confused me.

What kind of activism or awareness are you seeking to exploit in your own artwork?

Artist Marina Khan Puts Her Underrepresented Southeast Asian and Muslim Culture On Full Display
Biwi Linoleum Carving by Marina Khan

I want to give little brown girls something I never really had growing up, representation. I know it seems like a simple little thing but seeing yourself in the environment around you really does build confidence. The struggle of wanting to know your culture while also navigating through a whole new one is something I explore within my art. It’s not really activism so to say, but I want people to see themselves in me.

What is your response to the BLM protests in your home town in the summer?

To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of people that protested and supported the BLM movement. It made me happy knowing that despite having a small demographic of BIPOC, the people cared enough to do their own research on it. As an Asian, I’m aware that I am considered the  “Model Minority” and put on a pedestal, but in reality it only perpetuates anti-Blackness and division between minority groups. It’s very important that we all stick together because in the end, the system only works in the favor of the white man. 

What is your goal for the future in art?

I’m not really sure. If you had asked me this a couple of months ago, I would’ve said I left it behind in high school, it’s just a hobby. However, I realized very recently that it is not just a hobby for me— it’s ingrained in me and without it, I am miserable. It’s what I love to do, and it’s a large piece of who I am. I’ve been discouraged by my parents despite all of my accomplishments to pursue art, but I really can’t live without it. As of right now, I am minoring in painting and I hope to integrate it into my life in the future. Maybe be some other brown girl’s inspiration. Who knows.

Alisa Walsh

Alisa Walsh

Stony Brook, NY Creative Writer/Poet Intern at Shades of Long Island

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