A quick exercise: Close your eyes and try to think of the last feminist comic book you read. Can’t? Okay, what about the last graphic novel you read where a woman was the protagonist? Anything?

When California-based animator Aindri Chakraborty reached out to a few women to explore the germ of an idea early this year, she already knew that the answers to these questions wouldn’t come easily. By March, the Kadak Collective had been formed, a group of women visual storytellers with feminism at its heart, democracy in its head and collaboration in its veins. It bagged a table at this year’s East London Comics & Arts Festival (Elcaf), a curated event of sequential illustration—from graphic novels to comics and more—that has been held in London since 2012. The festival provides space and eyeballs for emerging independent artists to display and sell their works.

Their table, filled with zines, including a sheet of paper folded like a sari that delved into the history of the garment, was “full and vibrant and very different from the rest", says Chakraborty, 34. By the end of the three-day festival, they were almost sold out, she adds.

The Kadak Collective is made up of eight women of South Asian origin scattered across continents and disciplines—all have independent practices and/or day jobs and have met as a group only digitally, over WhatsApp and Google Hangouts. They all either know each other—some went to college together—or of each other. Mumbai-based Mira Malhotra, 32, runs a graphic design studio called Studio Kohl; Bengaluru-based Aarthi Parthasarathy, 32, is the co-founder of Falana Dimka Films, which also comes out with a weekly Web comic series called Royal Existentials; Kaveri Gopalakrishnan, 28, is a comics maker and frequently collaborates with Parthasarathy; London-based Akhila Krishnan, 32, has a background in film-making and is an illustrator and comics artist; Janine Shroff, 33, also London-based, is an illustrator and designer; Mumbai-based Garima Gupta, 31, is a comics artist who is currently working on a graphic novel on local conservationists in Papua New Guinea; and Pavithra Dikshit, 27, is a typographer and designer for a Mumbai firm.

(Left to right) Kaveri Gopalakrishnan, Akhila Krishnan and Aindri Chakraborty at Elcaf. Courtesy: Kadak Collective
(Left to right) Kaveri Gopalakrishnan, Akhila Krishnan and Aindri Chakraborty at Elcaf. Courtesy: Kadak Collective

Owing to their different time zones and work timings, technology plays a big role in helping Kadak negotiate its communication. The interviews for this article, for instance, were conducted in large part over Google Documents, where all members of the group answered my questions independently.

Till now, the Kadak Collective has worked on two projects. In September, it participated in the Gender Bender 2016 programme—a collaboration between Bengaluru’s Goethe-Institut, The Ladies Finger, a website on feminist concerns, and performance arts group Sandbox Collective—which looks at gender from a critical lens.

Kadak created a Reading Room that contained the publications of its members; iPads were made available for works that were digital, such as In-Out: Gender Through The Brexit Lens, a story of an intersex person, drawing a parallel between the Brexit vote and the gender binary, written by Shroff’s friend Valentino Vecchietti and illustrated by Chakraborty, and a collaborative work by Malhotra and Parthasarthy Personal (Cyber) Space, about online noise, trolling and misogyny. All works are uploaded on Medium.com.

For film-maker Paromita Vohra, who was part of the jury that selected Kadak for Gender Bender 2016, what makes the collective exciting is the way it uses the Internet.

“One facet of feminist endeavours is to communicate directly with more people what feminism means. Equally, it can be and is about how we do this, devising new languages or by reimagining how our chosen work is done—art, architecture, medicine, sports, whatever. The Internet, like art, allows you to talk about feminism and make it a more sensory and aesthetic experience. The way (Kadak Collective) makes things itself is feminist, in terms of using forms that aren’t modular, as most things on the Internet are becoming. By imagining new structures, they’re showing how we can do different things online than what people say you can do," says Vohra.

Kadak’s attempt at presenting another view of the world can also be seen in its structure as a collective, adds Vohra. “A collective counters the idea of the brand. Instead of unifying everything, it retains a sense of artistic individuality while underlining a sense of commonality of a world view."

The works for both projects speak out against abuse and injustice. Some are about taboos such as menstrual blood and pubic hair, some offer droll insights on patriarchal thinking, others talk about being queer, doing drag, being trolled online and having short hair. Even the one work that isn’t explicitly about women—Krishnan’s 100 Days Of Travellers In Red, a series on commuters wearing the colour red in London’s dreary winter—is a feminist revision of the gaze, typically a male prerogative. Some works delve into childhood. Chakraborty’s work Thank You is a hand-printed zine about a girl taught to be thankful till she encounters a molester in a crowded Kolkata bazaar. The last panel shows the girl at large—literally, an enlarged figure over a toy-like city—looking about fearlessly.

It’s not easy to find an apt descriptor for the group. Journalists seeking to write about Kadak ask them why there aren’t any men in the group, ignoring the context of a near-absence of representation of a world seen from women’s eyes. True to form, the feminist artists also problematized the question.

“Why are we saying woman? If we collaborate with persons who don’t identify as women, does that mean we’re still an all-woman collective?" they wondered. One wrote a poem explicating the irony: “As women, we like to woman/ you know/ Because that’s what women do." I too wondered whether to call the collective “queer" because of its self-reflexive approach to its work, its non-mainstream subjects, its choosing to go the way of a collective and seeking more egalitarian means of generating value. But labels are best applied when they are self-identified.

“We’re non-conformist for sure," replied Krishnan, when I asked them about how they would describe themselves. Parthasarathy, who wrote that poem, calls Kadak a South Asian, feminist, diverse, queer-friendly and inclusive platform that is “evolving collectively and constantly".

“I personally don’t want to call Kadak anything beyond what it is at the moment—women visual storytellers from South Asia. I feel putting us in that label becomes a shorthand for journalists looking for 140-character stories, when in reality each of us looks at feminism from unique perspectives, and, hopefully, we are given that voice to articulate it in our own way. Just like patriarchy, feminism comes in different shapes," says Chakraborty.

Different shapes, and with Kadak at work, different stories too.

Three other artistic feminist collectives

Installation

The Dinner Party (1974-79)

The installation by Judy Chicago is housed permanently at the Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum and participates in the feminist agenda to reclaim history from male-centric narratives. It is a triangular banquet table with place setting for 39 women from history and mythology. The names of 999 women are painted on the floor tiles under the table. Chicago also incorporated textile, tile and porcelain in the installation to challenge the idea of high art.

Collective

Guerrilla Girls (1985)

A group of anonymous, feminist artists who aim to “expose sexism, racism and corruption in politics, art, film and pop culture", the Guerrilla Girls was formed by seven women artists in New York in response to a Museum of Modern Art exhibition that displayed the works of 169 artists, of which only 13 were women. They wear gorilla masks (pictured below) at interviews and hold exhibitions—they even have an Instagram account. In an interview to The New York Times, one of them said, “You’ll be surprised what comes out of your mouth when you wear a mask."

Graphic art

Dykes To Watch Out For (1983)

Alison Bechdel started it as a cartoon strip—a single panelled piece in a feminist newspaper. Over time, it grew into a serialized storyline that followed a group of lesbians living through times that invisibilized their rights and voices. She has also published graphic novels that have won critical acclaim.

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