Natasha Sumant is a digital art director and graphic designer, who creates campaigns, e-commerce sites, and apps for fashion, luxury, and lifestyle brands. She’s also increasingly known for her brand and art project, Gundi Studios.
“Gundi,” of Gundi Studios, means female thug. Part of Natasha’s aim with the art and brand is to reclaim that term, in order to celebrate and elevate outspoken South Asian women. South Asian communities aren’t typically known for celebrating women who reject the patriarchy or subvert norms — Natasha’s work engages with concepts of power, and encourages South Asian women to write their own narratives.
ISAASE director Dr. Rice chatted with Natasha for our Be Inspired project. Natasha shared how her work celebrates and empowers South Asian women, the challenges of growing up in India and having to fight for a career in the arts, the challenges of working as an artist in the U.S., what has helped her succeed, and what young South Asian Americans should know. Here’s the interview…
Tell me a little about your art.
Gundi Studios is my art project and brand. [It] allows me to use the skills I acquire at work to make meaningful media, that is free of client constraints and address issues surrounding race and feminism. I think media is really powerful, and I want to make more that empowers South Asian women.
What was growing up in India like for you?
Growing up in India was great. I was exposed to a lot of diversity, and understood what education and economic privilege could get you in life and also not get you.
So education was really important growing up. My only job as a kid was to get good grades in school. To my family (and society at large), this would ensure me a good life. I believe [this] is universally true.
However, in a developing country, success is defined as being able to have a nice house, feed your kids and pay for their education. And in the 90s the only way to get to that definition of success was through certain careers, doctors, lawyers, bankers etc… It was certainly not a career in the arts.
Tell us about the adversity you faced in pursuing a career in the arts.
Children in middle class India are often encouraged to learn an art form, but never encouraged to turn it into a career.
Though my parents we very supportive of my art, took me to art classes and made sure I had the resources to develop my art, they always saw it as a good extracurricular activity… but never as a career option.
I had to fight with my family quite a bit to integrate art seriously into my education and pursue it later in college [in the United States].
People who study art in India are labeled as lazy or as people who don’t like to study or work hard. I was often stereotyped as this. The problem is that people everywhere don’t recognize that intelligence can be exercised in many forms.
Did you continue facing any challenges once you came to the United States?
A challenge I faced in America [included] trying to not be ashamed of my culture. And finding a way to express my culture in my work without alienating White people. A lot of times students in my university did not know how to critique my work. And, as an expat, I felt like I had to whitewash myself and my work to fit in here.
I also had a really hard time finding a job and getting a visa to stay here. I completely sympathize with the parents of South Asian American kids who went through this, because it is a difficult process – and even more so when you’re working in the arts or starting your own business.
What supports helped counteract some of these challenges?
I think having a group of friends who believed in my work helped a lot. My parents, who although were skeptical, caved in when they saw I was unrelenting in pursuing a degree in graphic design.
The network that Parsons provided me and the opportunities that came with that. The internet [helped]. The iPhone and apps coming out when I was in college made graphic design a very lucrative career to be in, and people starting to realize that. People who mentored me through internships at various fashion companies.
Was there something you didn’t have access to growing up?
I wish I had more access to adults who had a career in the arts — Artists, designers, art directors. I wish I had more examples of how someone could live a truly creative life and still be comfortable.
I want South Asian American kids to forgive their parents a little because their (sometimes) closemindedness comes from a place of fear.Natasha Sumant
What do you want young South Asian American kids to know?
I want South Asian American kids to forgive their parents a little because their (sometimes) closemindedness comes from a place of fear.
I would like them to know that there is no substitute for hard work and if they are passionate about something to work at it and explore it from every angle, they will eventually find their voice.
And that success does not mean having a million Instagram followers, it means making something of value to you and only you… That doesn’t need validation from anyone else.