Artist Spotlight: Zest

Reimagining the gatekeeper-ery classics of the art world

Art has always been an important medium for Riya to communicate with others. Using it as a tool to challenge the Western-centric perspectives in the media, the artist has reimagined famous works, such as ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and ‘The Kiss’, through the context of different cultures. Riya describes why this was about “the idea of allowing that painting to exist on its own but also showing that it can be recreated and still have the same effect, if not more effect in its representation.”

Riya shares how she developed her artistic practice and why art can be a powerful tool to start conversations.


How did you first get into illustration?


My mum was primarily an art teacher so we’ve had art in our family for years. My grandfather was a brilliant artist too, always drawing with perfect detail and precision.

I also always liked it as a kid. I was really determined and even though my art was bad I would keep going. It’s always been something that I’ve really enjoyed and I’ve found it separate from different aspects of my life so it’s a nice escape for me.

“I feel like with art, especially the classics, everyone knows them and loves them. But there's something gatekeeper-ery about them: ‘this is art and this is what art is meant to be.’”

As a multimedia artist, how do you use different tools and techniques?


I’ve always painted but only because people like paintings as commissions. I don’t really like painting very much. Traditionally I’ll use charcoal and things like that but I’ve also been doing a lot of digital work. I find it quite liberating as you have all the different mediums there on the screen so it gives you a bit more flexibility. You have access to all these different textures and tools and I find it a lot of fun to switch between them.

I can also draw something, then upload it to my iPad and fix it there. The mediums I use the most right now are charcoal, watercolour and digital. A lot of the stuff I’ve been inspired by recently are fabrics; they are really fun to do digitally as they have a lot of texture that you can use.


You have reimagined famous artworks by Picasso, Klimt and Vermeer? Why did you choose to recreate those works?


I feel like with art, especially the classics, everyone knows them and loves them. But there's something gatekeeper-ery about them: “this is art and this is what art is meant to be.” I find it interesting because it's always been the same narrative of a European or Western view of the world and subject.

When I saw those paintings – they are gorgeous and I love them – but at the same time, I have been questioning that so much of the stuff I consume all of the time is so Eurocentric or Western-centric. I’ve also grown up here so I’ve seen that narrative instead of my own my whole life and I could see different things in them. I could look at it and go “all those colours remind me of this traditional piece of clothing” or “the way she is sitting in this reminds me of this picture that I saw.”

For me, it was a bit of a statement saying “this could also be us.” It could also be me in that painting and it would still be just as beautiful and still be just as ‘art’ as it was before. People have said to me: “why touch a classic, just make your own work.” Yes, I like to create my own work as well, but it was more the idea of allowing that painting to exist on its own but also showing that it can be recreated and still have the same effect, if not more effect in its representation.

“It was a bit of a statement saying ‘this could also be us.’ It could also be me in that painting and it would still be just as beautiful and still be just as ‘art’ as it was before.”

Why do you think art is a powerful tool to start conversations?


Media is everywhere. Aside from doing art, I’m training in acting and even with that I’m so aware of the fact that everything we put out people are consistently consuming and internalising. With art, we see it all the time. It’s meant to be this cultural thing that we go to look at to get something from it. I was very aware that, even on a subconscious level, we are very affected by the things we are seeing and internalising the messages of it whether or not we are realising it.

With these [famous] paintings, they are everywhere. Even if I recreated it people are like: “oh it’s obviously that painting.” I already knew there was an impact. Also because it's a visual medium it's very transferable. I could put it online and a lot of people are seeing it or can share it easily. Whereas if it was a bit of theatre it’s not like I could get everyone to come and watch it and transfer the message that way.

It’s something that I found was an easier way to get across to people. It’s also one of those things that I’m like “make of it what you will with what I have to say.” The art speaks for itself in that sense. It’s also helped me connect with people easier. Even if we have a difference, I’m like “here’s art” and they’re like “I understand.”


What does it mean to be an artist?


I always express myself through creative mediums. I’m one of those people who feel the need to always say how I feel and I feel in volumes. I’m the biggest empath in the world. For me, being an artist gave me this medium where I could literally do anything, make it make sense in my head, make it make sense on paper and then someone can see it and go “I understand.”

I’m really aware of the impact of things that you’re putting out, especially with social media culture. I think it's important to me because I feel a bit of optimism when I’m seeing people respond positively. It’s connecting me to people I would never have spoken to without it. It gives me a bit of hope and it’s a lot of fun as well.

“Being an artist gave me this medium where I could literally do anything, make it make sense in my head, make it make sense on paper and then someone can see it and go ‘I understand.’”

If you could star in any movie or show, what would it be?


That’s hard for me as I’m actually trying to do that with my life. I’d love to be in Bridgerton. I’m living for the fact that the next season has South Asian women in it because never have I ever seen brown women in a classical setting in those clothes. I’d love to be in something like that.

See more of Riya’s work at app.brushwrk.co.uk/user/zest