Representing the creative future

Misha Japanwala – Embodying Realities

The Pakistani designer amplifies the voices of women who else wouldn’t be heard by creating body casts that tell stories of oppression, violence, and empowerment.

“There’s nothing more honest than a physical representation of who a woman really is,” says New York-based Pakistani designer Misha Japanwala. Originally from Karachi in Pakistan, Misha graduated from Parsons School of Design in May 2018 with her senior thesis collection titled “Azaadi” which explores the realities of being a Pakistani woman in the form of body casts. 

Accompanied by a written thesis to contextualise her designs, Misha Japanwala’s work consists of casts molded after her own torso as well as other Pakistani women’s body parts such as hands. Attaching straps or hardware, the literal embodiments turn into tops or jewellery in a grey, stone-like hue. Each piece tells a uniquely personal story, amplifying the voices of women who are not given the chance to speak up about their experiences living in Pakistan’s society.

“Being Pakistani is the biggest part of my identity because it’s all I’ve ever known,” she says. Japanwala removed herself from her home country and moved to New York City where she began her Bachelor in Fine Arts. Quickly, she became aware of the stark contrasts between the two cultures and, subsequently, it made her question her identity. During her initial years at Parsons, she recalls struggling to find her aesthetic. “No matter what I’d do, something about Pakistan would inevitably come into it.”

Pakistani designer Misha Japanwalas

Little did she know that a seemingly mundane project in the first week of her studies would eventually become the core of her designs. Asked to go through newspapers and pick out headlines that stuck out to them, Misha Japanwala chose Pakistani papers and remembers, “It was alarming and jarring that all the articles I was drawn to were about violence against women.” Four years later, everything came full-circle when “Azaadi”, ‘freedom’ in Urdu, was showcased and opened up conversations about the female body and the stories it carries.

 

Inspired by a dream about female sculptures, Misha taught herself how to body-cast by watching YouTube tutorials. First, skin-friendly silicone is layered onto the desired body part before plaster bandages are applied to create the outer shell which will later become the mold. Once dried, the mold is carefully peeled off the body to then be cast into liquid plastic. The result is an exact replica of a body part, so accurate one can spot every pore.

Pakistani designer Misha Japanwalas
Azaadi
Pakistani designer Misha Japanwalas
Pakistani designer Misha Japanwalas
The Pakistani designer Misha Japanwala
The Pakistani designer Misha Japanwala
The Pakistani designer Misha Japanwala
The Pakistani designer Misha Japanwala

“The entire brand should be set up on the basis of creating social change not just through visual dialogue, but also through a more tangible financial way”

After graduation, Misha Japanwala went on to work at Elle as an accessory assistant followed by a position in the atelier of Proenza Schouler where she was unfortunately laid off due to COVID-19. Her dream is to have her own brand, selling sculptural as well as commercial pieces via an online store. “The entire brand should be set up on the basis of creating social change not just through visual dialogue, but also through a more tangible financial way,” she says. For every product sold, a percentage of the revenue shall go to a charity supporting women’s shelters in Pakistan and, down the line, other organisations supporting women worldwide.

The opportunity to not only reflect on living in a conservative society embedded with rigid rules and roles, but also publicly share her experiences and highlight issues is something Misha is very grateful for. “I had an extremely privileged upbringing in Pakistan. I come from a liberal background. My parents invested deeply in mine and my sister’s education,” she says. Unlike many other Pakistani women, she is in a position to safely address societal taboos without having to face severe repercussions. 

Nevertheless, her work is not only praised. Frequently, social media users criticise her work, labelling her body casts and calligraphies of women’s silhouettes as “disgusting”, “shameful” or “vile”. Surprisingly enough, it’s Pakistani women more than men who feel offended by Misha’s work. As hurtful and sometimes discouraging these comments may be, she views them as a representation of how deeply such opinions are rooted in society. On a constant journey of learning and pushing herself forward, Misha sees the responses as helpful in her growth and development as a designer. 

What is so utterly striking about her work is its vulnerability and intimacy. To have a body part perfectly replicated and then presented to the world takes courage. “They are the most vivid photographs of that time in my life,” Misha says about her own casts. Viewing your own body as another did lead to some self-critique, however, it brought her onto a journey of self-acceptance and self-love. 

The oppression and violence experienced by Pakistani women may seem otherworldly to many of us living in Western societies, but it is Misha’s goal to expose those realities in a tangible, embodied form. 

By now, Misha Japanwala’s designs have become palimpsests of meaning. What started as an inspection of her own identity as a Pakistani woman evolved into a vehicle of women empowerment by sharing real, unfiltered bodies. There are many problematic narratives surrounding the female body, first and foremost the prevailing notion of a woman’s body as a sexual object. The oppression and violence experienced by Pakistani women may seem otherworldly to many of us living in Western societies, but it is Misha’s goal to expose those realities in a tangible, embodied form. 

Her work may be focused on the women of Pakistan, but the issues Misha is addressing with her creative work are omnipresent, especially for people of colour. It is a fact, the colour of a woman’s skin alters her experience. Misha’s designs are ground for universal conversations about bodies and experiences all women can engage in. To learn and grow together, sharing stories and raising awareness.

In the future, Misha Japanwala is planning to work on a second collection further building on her method of creation by sticking to the same visual anchors and materials. She is interested in creating bowls or vases, combining the body with ideas of functionality. 

Still, nothing can compare to her body casts and the stories materialised through them. “Women talking to me about their experiences really is the greatest gift to me,” she says. 

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