Maliha Abidi and the Art of Storytelling
Artist, Author, and Activist Maliha Abidi discusses her difficult teenage years, her vision for a better Web3, misconceptions about Pakistan and Islam, her favorite Pakistani food, and more.
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gm friends —
Last week I announced my new membership community - The Hound House.
I was blown away by the response.
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again:
My vision is for The Monty Report to become the world’s most respected publication focused on digitally native art and artists.
We are the very early stages of this journey, and we have a loooong way to go. But now, thanks to your early support, I feel much more confident than I did one week ago that this vision is actually achievable.
I was never going to be able to do this alone. Having the strength and support of The Hound House community behind me is HUGE. And having additional financial resources means I will be able to dedicate more time, money, energy, and love toward producing great work.
At this point, in addition to joining The Hound House, the number one way you can help is by spreading the word.
At some point this week, please consider sharing one of my interviews on Twitter, with a brief note about why you subscribe to The Monty Report.
Here are some interviews to choose from:
“Chin Up, Tits Out, It’s Showtime” — an interview with Sarah Zucker
Or today’s interview: Maliha Abidi and the Art of Storytelling
When you share one of these on Twitter, be sure to tag me @montymedici.
Now, before we get onto the interview with Maliha Abidi, a few logistical notes:
Over the next couple of weeks I am going to be quieter than usual. Starting this weekend, I will be taking two weeks to do a “personal retreat” where I will be doing some visioning and strategic planning for the year ahead.
In the second half of March, I will be back with some BIG artist interview announcements, and I will get to work building out some of the initial infrastructure of The Hound House.
A lot of people have asked me whether there is going to be a Hound House Discord. The answer: probably. There seems to be enough interest. But I am thinking carefully about how to do it right so it doesn’t distract from the core vision and mission.
Finally - I will have another short email later this week for Hounders only. I will highlight some art/projects I think are undervalued, and I will have a Hounders-only comment section because I want to gather your input on a few things.
If you want to receive that email, make sure you sign up for a paid membership before Friday (or DM me if you prefer to pay in Crypto).
p.s. Take note of the Hounder giveaway below!
Maliha Abidi and the Art of Storytelling
Maliha Abidi is a Pakistani-American multidisciplinary artist and author living between London and Los Angeles.
Maliha was born in Karachi, Pakistan, where she lived until she was 14. At that point she migrated to California. It was a jolting and difficult move, and during Maliha’s early years in the US while she was struggling with feelings of homesickness and depression, her art became her respite.
As a South Asian immigrant, her experiences inform her work. Her art shines a light on diversity, women’s rights, girls’ education and mental health.
Maliha is also the founder and creator of Women Rise, an NFT art project and PFP collection focused on representing and celebrating women from a diversity of backgrounds, careers, and stories.
In addition to her artwork and Women Rise, Maliha’s broad portfolio includes client work, illustrations, animations, and illustrated books.
Maliha recently joined me on Zoom to talk about her life and career.
During our time together, we discussed:
Her high school years after immigrating to the US
Misconceptions about Pakistan and about Islam
How she gets client work and what makes a good client
The vision for Women Rise, her NFT project
Her favorite Pakistani dishes
Her personal ambitions outside of art
And much more.
As I was reflecting on our conversation and on Maliha’s work, I realized that the thread that runs through everything Maliha does is storytelling.
Maliha is all about telling people’s stories through her art. In that way, I consider her a kindred spirit, because that is one of my goals with The Monty Report.
Maliha tells the stories of specific individuals, like she did in her beautiful book Journey to America: Celebrating Inspiring Immigrants Who Became Brilliant Scientists, Game-Changing Activists & Amazing Entertainers.
But Maliha also tells broader stories. Stories about identity. Stories about womanhood. Stories about education.
As part of these broad stories, she creates characters - like those in her Women Rise collection - that make it easier for people of all different backgrounds to see a place for themselves in the NFT and web3 community. And that, my friends, is a goal that I can very much get on board with.
Please enjoy this conversation with artist and storyteller Maliha Abidi.
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A Conversation with Maliha Abidi
MDM: Tell me about your childhood in Pakistan. What was it like?
MA: I grew up between two cities. I was born in Karachi, which is a huge city. But Hyderabad was also part of my childhood because I used to live with my grandparents.
It was a very happy childhood. I was spent a lot of time with my grandparents who are the most loving grandparents. And dad has always been incredible. So, it was a just a very happy childhood.
You left your home country at the age of 14 and moved to California. Tell me about that experience. Why did you leave? And what was it like leaving home as a teenager?
At that time, it caused me a lot of anxiety because of the culture shock. California is, of course, so different than what I knew in Pakistan.
I’m Shia Muslim, which is a religious minority in Pakistan, so there were times growing up where I did feel different. But when I moved, it was just like, whoa, I’m different and everything is different.
You also separate from what you have known your entire life and then step into something new, but it's not a transition, it's just a flight.
It’s not like you can slowly adapt. No, it’s just one day you live in Pakistan and then the next day you live in California. There is no training or anything! So, it was literally a shock.
At the time, I wasn't fluent in English, either. I remember I was in a class, and the teacher asked who my favorite actor was, and I said the name “Lindsey Lohan,” but I didn't pronounce it properly and nobody understood me. I kept on saying her name like four or five times and the teacher was just like “who is that?” And then when the teacher figured it out, the entire class was laughing at me because my pronunciation was so different than how her actual name is pronounced. So, I remember moments like those.
Another one is when I was walking in the hallway and there was somebody who knew my English wasn't that great, and they were like, “Oh, can you pronounce this word?” And I did. And they just started laughing again. I was just so confused. I was like, Wait, what's happening?
When I was in high school, I also wore my headscarf sometimes. And classmates would ask “why do you wear that?” And I don't think they had malicious intentions. I think most of them were genuinely curious because they weren't used to seeing people like me. But still, being questioned for what you’re wearing is not easy when you’re a teenager.
Being a teenager is a time when you’re already questioning so much about yourself. And then on top of that going through this huge transition was not fun at all. So, art was my escape. Art became my meditation. And at that point art became very serious for me. Before that, I just used to create art for fun. But after the move, it was where I found my peace.
When your classmates laughed at you for your pronunciation, how did that make you feel?
I remember that very vividly. I was just so confused. And I felt embarrassment as well. I was like, oh I wish I how to pronounce her [Lindsey Lohan’s] name better.
But now there are lots of people who don’t pronounce my name correctly. And I don't make them feel bad about it. I try to share it with them politely.
What are common misconceptions that westerners have about Pakistan?
I think because of the media and because Pakistan is a Muslim country, I think a lot of people think that all women are really oppressed there. Or that we don't have nice cities or that it's a war zone or something – that it’s all just desert villages and stuff. I have heard all of that.
When I initially moved to the US people I would ride my bicycle a lot – and I still do. Riding a bicycle is a normal thing for teenagers to do. But people used to come up to me and be like oh look, you're not oppressed. So that was always interesting.
And yes, we have deserts, and we have villages. But we also have an amazing and beautiful mix of different cultures and people. And we have cities. And when it comes to women, just like so many other countries in the world including the US, there are issues when it comes to women's rights and girl education and everything. But people often weaponize those stereotypes against us.
People within Pakistan, and especially women in Pakistan, are raising their voice and spreading awareness about it already. So yes, there are issues in Pakistan that we need to work through and make progress on. But I think there are a whole lot of misconceptions as well.
Pakistan is part of South Asia, and it has such a rich history and such a beautiful culture. And I think because people are so focused on these few stereotypes, they miss all of that. They’re doing a disservice to themselves by not learning about this incredible country in South Asia.
Part of your answer touched on this, but I want to separate it out a little bit. So, there's Pakistan. And then there's Islam. And of course, they are separate things. What would you say are some of the most common stereotypes or misunderstandings that you think are important to dispel when it comes to Islam?
I think with Islam as well, it’s like, oh Islam oppresses women and Islam is not about peace.
But every religion in the world that I know about is about peace. Some people either take it out of context, or they are pointing to people who are self-proclaimed representatives of that culture or religion. But those people are not the religion itself.
For example, look at the Muslim countries – they are all different. Self-proclaimed leaders of Islam are the ones messing it up. They are the ones even taking Islam out of context. And then either abusing the power that they have wrongfully gained and trying to use Islam as a shield to hide behind. And it's all done for selfish reasons. And because of that Islam unfairly gets a bad name around the world
Let’s zoom in a bit, to web3 specifically. There are lots of dudes in web three, and there lots of white dudes in web3. Then there is a smaller contingent of women or people of color. I am curious – what is your experience being a brown woman in web3?
I think Web3 in general can be so amazing for everyone that enters, and it has been for me. So I don’t want to take away from all the amazing things that have happened in web3 for me, and for people like me, and for so many women and non-binary folks in this space.
But I think we do have a lot of work to do, especially as the people who are early to the space and who are building it. We are bragging about being early, which is fine, but we also have a responsibility as the early culture builders of this space.
One of my early experiences taking up space in the web3 space was at my first NFT NYC I was standing in line to collect my lanyard. And there was a guy behind me who clearly didn't expect somebody like me to be there. And he was like, “are you sure you're in the right place?”
And maybe he was just feeling eager to get ahead in the line, or maybe he was trying to just make conversation - I don’t know what his intention was, I don't know what it was in his heart. But I think he was just taken aback by the fact that I was there. Like, I'm not a white guy who’s in a hurry so that's why you are not expecting somebody like me. And I told him that yes, I knew where I was.
But overall, I think my experience has been amazing because I've been able to garner an incredible community and bring my traditional art community into this space.
And yes, from time to time I come across racist people – like some people have used the racial slur “Paki.” I think I've seen more of that in the past year and a half than my entire life. But like I said, I don’t want to take away from all the blessings and the amazing people that are in the web3 because they are the majority.
How do we make this space feel more welcoming for other artists of all identities who might not feel as immediately welcome?
I think there definitely aren't any quick fixes. I think it sometimes it's a vibe, sometimes it's a welcoming community, and sometimes it’s just like a random Twitter space that makes you feel more welcome.
One thing I do notice is a lot of the same companies and projects work with the same people. I understand because people friends and stuff, how will you reach more people if it’s always the same group of people?
I’d like to see big companies and collectors promote a more diverse set of artists. Even more Twitter threads about different artists would be helpful to help us share our stories.
I think artist residencies that are starting to pop up are a great step.
For example, with Women Rise, we're only a year old, but we launched this artists residency program, and and we centered 14 women of color artists from around the world. They're all emerging artists, and some of them had never created any NFTs before. We supported them, mentored them gave them a stipend, and helped them develop their work
Now I am a MoonPay artist in residence. Earlier this year I was a Quantum artist in residence. So I think companies having programs or residencies or ways to support different artists at different levels – like some programs that are for established artists and more some programs for emerging artists – I think that is super beneficial. You’re giving the creator a sense of security, and also showing them that you interested in their story.
As part of your recent Quantum residency, you released a 4-piece art collection titled - Khuwab ki Tabeer - ‘Interpretation of a dream.’ This collection follows a story of a South-Asian girl and all the things she dreams about.
I'm curious, what was 14 year old Maliha dreaming about? Like if I were able to go back in time and ask 14 year old Maliha, as she was making this transition from Pakistan to California, “what are your dreams”? How would she have answered that question?
14-year-old video Maliha was living in a constant state of FOMO. Facebook was somewhat new at the time. So my friends in Pakistan were posting about this school trip and that school trip and just about school and life in general. And I was unable to make friends here in the US, and I missed all of them.
So, I was just constantly living in a state of FOMO and homesickness. I remember when some friends back in Pakistan told me they were sick of me complaining about it, because to them, it was like, you're in United States and how amazing is that. But to me, it was like, I want to go back.
So that's what I was dreaming about – going back. And it was just not a good time in general for my mental health.
But then I started to find a way to escape through art, and my art allowed me to travel a bit as well. When I started earning money through my art, I put that into traveling. I've been to 27 countries and traveling has become a huge inspiration for my art as well.
And what is current day Maliha is dreaming about right now?
Today, as somebody in my mid 20s I am very happy and grateful. Looking back, I can't even believe I used to feel so much worse. But there were reasons for it. And today I grateful that I have control over my life. I don't need permission from anybody. I am just doing my own thing.
Like not too long ago, I was working in art stores, making sure that I got the employee discount so that I could afford the art supplies and my train tickets so that I could go to University. I also had a side hustle of selling chocolate covered strawberries. I used to go on my bicycle and sell them on my way to university and around town, just so that I could have enough money for a train ticket to go to and from school and to buy art supplies with my 30% employee discount at the art store.
And now today, I'm living my dream as an artist. I can create art. I can say no to different projects or opportunities or clients if they don’t resonate with me. I'm able to create self-initiated projects. I have an incredible team. I have an amazing support system. And one of the best parts is that I get to connect with amazing people from my community. I get talk to people like yourself. So, it's a good time. It's a good life.
In addition to your pure artwork, you take on client work. Past clients have included many big names including the New York Times, Charity Water, Adobe, Instagram, and The Chicago Bulls.
I’d love for you to take us behind the scenes a bit: How do you find these clients? Do you approach them? Do they approach you? Do you have an agent? How does it all work?
In terms of my client work, most of the time, they reach out to me because with big companies they wouldn't value it if I reached out to them. If I was like “Oh, hey, I want to work with you. Like, let's make this happen” they are like, “Who are you?” So my job is to make sure they are able to find my work.
But I have to say that one of my approaches honestly is manifesting the partnerships. There have been collaborations just think to myself “I'm going to work with them, it’s going to happen,” And just I put that energy out there.
And most of the projects are initiated by the companies. I have a distinct look to my portfolio, so when these companies are looking for an artist that can fit their vision, if they come across my work, I think it just clicks. For example, the New York Times collaboration, I think the Art Director on that project just resonated with my portfolio.
But sometimes collaborations also happen because I meet the right people at different events, or they hear me talk at one of my speaking engagements, or they happened to come across some of my work in Web3 or even before.
I've had across people found me in web3 and then realized they own a print of mine from a few years ago because I've been in the general art space for a while now. I think if you put yourself out there, these connections just happen. For example, the Chicago Bulls, it was somebody from Coinbase who thought that I could be a good artist to be a part of that project, and they recommended me. So, every time it's different. It's not like, one size fits all kind of a thing.
I also use social a lot – Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok – and people and companies often find my work there. I don't take social media for granted. Back when I migrated from Pakistan, social media was my way of communicating with my world back home and a way to share my art. I think of social media posts as digital postcards to my followers.
I like thinking of social media posts as digital postcards
I also collect real postcards and I write notes to my future children and to my older self when I travel.
Wow, I love that. Your future children are going to love reading those when they're older.
What makes a good client?
An ideal client is somebody who is clear about what they’re looking for, and then gives me creative freedom to achieve that.
I like to get a clear brief from the client that can help me understand what the vision is for a collaboration. Then I can work with that.
Let’s talk about Women Rise. It has been quite an ambitious undertaking. What are your goals with this collection?
Women Rise was always an art project.
When I launched it my team was really just my husband Aski and my cousin, who is a developer. And I was the artist. And we put three months in building the community. I remember when we got 9 followers on the Women Rise Instagram. I took a screenshot of it and I was thinking, “God, thank you so much - nine people is amazing.” Like imagine having dinner with night people, right?
When we launched, one of the goals was representation. We wanted to take up space in web3. We don't see a lot of people like us in tech or in business. And NFT's live at the intersection of tech and business, and of course art.
It was an extension of my previous work, and the outputs are very true to my style. Portraits, bright colors, elements of social justice. Now we have bigger team than just the three of us and we have an ever-growing community as well.
Women Rise, like all, is always changing. But at the end of the day, it's an art project. It is art as a tool for storytelling and as a tool for advocacy. We are making sure that we're taking up space and we are committed to girls’ education and women's rights. And for me, it makes sense to talk about those things through art.
With Women Rise, the ultimate ambition is to create a global education initiative. We’re working on that, and once we're able to launch that I think it's going to be really impactful. I encourage you and your readers to check out our website which we recently re-did, and which has a lot about our vision and goals.
Maliha has generously offered to giveaway one NFT from her Women Rise NFT collection.
If you are a Hounder (meaning you are a paid member) and you are interested in this giveaway, please like this post by pressing the ❤️ at the top or bottom of this article.
In 24 hours I will randomly select one Hounder who ❤️ed this post as a winner.
When you feel unfocused or overwhelmed, what do you do? Do you have any routines or practices that you use to help yourself relax or focus?
I drink coffee. It’s kind of a problem, because when I'm feeling anxious I make coffee. But then coffee causes more anxiety, so I'm stuck in a vicious cycle.
But I am making progress. I used to be drink five shots or six shots in a day. Now I am down to one shot. Just one shot in this huge cup, which I fill with ice and water. So, it's extremely diluted. But I have my coffee. I put my headphones on. I listen to some of my favorite artists. And then I draw.
Outside of art, I'd love to hear about any other personal ambitions or hopes and dreams you have for the next year or five or 10 years.
One thing that I would love to do is backpack across Asia and try different blends of coffee and different noodle dishes and other foods. I would bring a journal and document it all.
Another vision that I have is to travel to 12 countries in a year and create 12 paintings. I would live for one month in each country and I would create a painting during that month. And I’d go to the local art store, the local galleries, and I would use the local art supplies that they have, because every country would have like different supplies. And then at the end I would have this collection that was inspired by my travels.
Those are both great dreams. And they both sound doable. I think you can do them both.
Yeah, hopefully. I'll send you postcards from the different countries.
Or at least digital postcards!
Now I'd like to finish up with some more kind of quick, fun, rapid fire questions.
You mentioned you’ve been to 27 countries, what are your favorite cities or places in the world?
So favorite city I have to say Karachi because I just love the food. I love the feel of it.
Tokyo was also amazing. And I also really loved Istanbul. Oh, and Bangkok was incredible.
My heart is in Asia as you can tell from my answer.
If I visit Pakistan, what should I eat? What are the best Pakistani dishes?
So this is basic, and every Pakistani would probably say this first, but I have to say Lamb Biryani.
And Haleem. These are my favorite dishes.
Also Paye, Gol Gappay, and Dahi Balay.
If you ever go to Pakistan or South Asia in general, I'm just going to give you a long Excel sheet with all of my recommendations.
Best books you’ve read recently?
I'm currently I'm reading I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokpokki and it's so funny. It's by a South Korean author and it’s about a social media manager who is going through a depression.
Then another book that I love is Pachinko Min Jin Lee. She's one of my favorite authors. That book was life changing.
Best purchase under $100 in the past year?
My rainbow sunset lamp. It just creates a cool vibe in my art studio.
If you could have dinner with any living artist past or present, who would it be?
Kim Namjoon from BTS
What are your favorite places to bike in Los Angeles?
It’s such a basic answer, but probably Venice Beach
This was super fun, Maliha. I think people are really going to enjoy hearing from you. Thank you for taking the time.
Monty, thank you so much. And honestly, you just keep doing what you're doing. It is so inspiring to read about all my fellow artists in The Monty Report
Thank you for reading! I encourage you to follow Maliha in the following places
Tik Tok: @malihazart
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What a brilliant interview! Wonderful to learn about you Maliha! Excellent work Monty
Loved reading about Maliha and her work. Great job Monty Report