‘Digital Art Gave Me Control Over My Work As A Queer Disabled Artist’
Digital illustrator Ritika Gupta talks about the significance of the digital medium for neurodivergent artists and why community networks for disabled artists must thrive
During the pandemic in 2020, as we all retreated to our hometowns, I immersed myself in sketching, doodling and painting. This went on for a year. Eventually, I started publicising my work on social media and tried to sell prints too. But while I enjoyed painting on canvas, I wasn’t sure how to make a sustainable career out of it. This was also a time when I was going through mental health issues, suspecting that I might be autistic, and was eventually diagnosed as such.
I am trained in media and cultural studies, but I knew as a queer, disabled person, traditional 9 to 5 journalism and media jobs were not going to work for me. This put me in a great dilemma: how to become a media practitioner or journalist as an autistic person? Even as a student of media studies, we were taught more about specific forms of journalism like documentary filmmaking, and print journalism. There was an unspoken hierarchy around what was considered to be a valid and legitimate media form. I knew I could do neither of the things they taught me in the university because of how ableist those specific careers can be for an autistic person.
This is why I turned to digital art as a medium to express myself: through digital illustrations I was breaking the binary around how media is understood.
As a digital artist, I realised that I had a lot more control over my art as opposed to painting on canvases. I could do several rounds of revision and experiment with a range of colour palettes which I couldn’t before. It used to be anxiety inducing every time I made an error. But with digital art, I felt more relaxed. I also realised how crucial user-friendly softwares and applications are for artists like me. Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, with their range of tools, confused me. I have found that softwares like ProCreate and Sketchbook are far more user-friendly, and easy to use.
Building Networks of Solidarity
My diagnosis also led me to a community of similarly late diagnosed women and queer autistic people who became my support system. Even though it was a completely online community, it has been the most crucial part of my life. Initially, all the information I had about autistic or neurodivergent people was through media portrayals of them. But what the media showed in its caricaturish and stereotypical representations, was very different from what I experienced. This is why for the longest time, I had no idea I could be autistic, because I didn’t display things that are ‘traditionally’ associated with autism. The whole idea was absurd to me.
When you don’t have enough information about autism and other forms of disability, you fall into the trap of misinformation. You Google ‘autism’ and the information that reaches you will most often be ableist, or based on a medical model of disability, and dehumanising. You start to wonder, ‘Oh god, what will happen to me’, and start to feel piteously toward yourself.
This community was essential in helping me understand what autism actually is and how our experiences are also legitimate. To find a community of people who were experiencing, navigating and dealing with the same issues that I was, was reassuring. We had advice for each other – we had passed through similar phases in life, [exchanged] suggestions on things, pages and organisations to avoid and why. They helped me understand myself better than any academic paper or blog site.
This network of like-minded, peer support groups, which has become one of the most important parts of my life, also helped me navigate my career. They sat with me to chart out my strengths and weaknesses to figure out what kind of work will suit me the best, and which organisations to approach. Because I often do freelance work, one of my other autistic friends helped me prepare a list of accommodations that I can ask from organisations depending on my needs.
We as a community ensure that we build ‘caring’ spaces for each other. We also believe in working collaboratively; that one person cannot do everything. So we often collaborate on each other’s projects. We have even thought of building an organisation, but doing that is harder.
Community, Disabled Rest and Queer Intimacy
My artwork routinely features themes of community, healing, disabled rest, queer intimacy, neurodivergence, and friendship. I started exploring these themes during the pandemic when everything was so isolating. I was in Gaya then, a small town in Bihar, and being cooped up at home for such long periods of time, often with a family that was ableist and homophobic, took a toll on me. Even though everything stopped during the pandemic: work, school, our lives, where you are just home, doing ‘nothing’, it didn’t give me a sense of rest. It was a period when my mental faculties felt most depleted. So I started imagining disabled rest.
Disabled rest is slowing down, it is listening to both your body and mind when it asks you to take a break. Rest has always been defined as per able-bodied parameters, where we replenish our bodies to do more work and where we adhere to hard and fast rules of time. But disabled rest is a challenge to the systemic conditions that govern work, hustle-culture and girl-boss culture, [it works] by privileging rest not to jump into more work, but to heal.
My artwork featured this slowing down and restfulness through depictions of community and queer intimacy. I imagined being in touch with all the people I met in the online community; I imagined laughing, hugging, cuddling, and spending time with them. I like to draw these simple acts of intimacy like hugging, reading together, holding hands etc. They might seem like small moments of life, but for me these are the grand moments. It is a queer intimacy because it is a privileging of friendship and community that is not governed by heterosexual mores of kinship and relationship styles. In my art, I imagine queer joy – where we all come together, disabled, queer, outsiders and sit, cook and eat together in community.
There are many queer and queer disabled artists whose work I deeply admire like Caitlin Blunnie, Rhea Laskar and River. I see more and more queer disabled artists featuring their work on social media nowadays. It gives me hope, and courage to put more of my work out there, to not worry about design rules – whether this colour combination is working or whether that hand or posture is okay. I am not here to do any of that. I am here to bend the rules of art, to queer art.
I let my viewers make their own meanings out of my art, so that it travels beyond me. But sometimes, I also want my viewers to find the hidden meanings tucked inside my artwork. The South Korean Boy Band, BTS helped me and my friend get through the isolation of the pandemic. While their songs are not explicitly about queerness and neurodivergence, my friend and I find their songs to be deeply coded with queerness, neurodivergence and codependency.
Their music videos have had a lot of influence on me which is why I routinely sneak in BTS references in my artwork. By doing this, I reimagine what their lyrics mean for me and my life. My disability and queerness finds myself in conversation with their songs.
[As told to Ankita Dhar Karmakar]
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