Intersecting Identity and Satirical Zines: Tracing Life with Artist Amrit Brar
Amrit Brar brings dark humor and the supernatural to life in her illustrations. As we prepare for the interview, Amrit slides on her leather jacket decorated with enamel pins and the words "Oh God, Is It Finally Over?" screen-printed on the back. She hails from Brampton, which is near the city of Toronto in Ontario. We met up with her at L.A. Zine Fest to learn about Canadian DIY culture and even our horoscopes.
By Riki Robinson
Photos by George Ko
GR: Can you just tell us who you are and what you do?
Amrit Brar: I'm a zinester based out of Toronto-Ontario up in Canada. I'm an illustrator. I studied Illustration at the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD University) for about five years. The program was alright, as illustration is. So that's what I do full-time now: I draw for a living.
GR: Did you do art full-time straight out of university?
AB: No, I didn't. I worked retail a lot of my time in university and then I continued to work retail by the time I left university. I think I was a year and a half into having left school and I decided to quit and just pursue art completely, like full-time. That was just before the Kickstarter campaign. For the Kickstarter campaign, I knew it would take me twice as long to put out content if I was working another job and I didn’t know if people were gonna wait that long. So I just quit my job and did it. It worked out, it was wild.
GR: What's the DIY zine scene like up in Canada?
AB: The zine scene in Canada is growing every year. One of the premier events is the Toronto Queer Zine Fair, which started off as a pretty small event and is now massive. You also got stuff like Zine Dream and Toronto Comics and Arts Festival (TCAF). TCAF has a shitload of zines every year.
GR: How did you hear about LA Zine Fest?
AB: I actually ended up hearing about LA Zine Fest because I did Short Run over in Seattle and I had such a great time with it that I decided to check out stuff what was on the other end of the coast. As far as zine fairs in Canada are concerned, you've either got what's going on in Ontario, some stuff in Halifax, and a lot of stuff going on in Montreal. But I really did want to branch out of Canada just for a bit.
GR: What motivates you and what inspires you?
AB: I don't know, actually. I've had this really ridiculous, gross hunger inside of me. Ever since I was a kid I drew really compulsively and I never really quite stopped until I got to university. It's what makes me happiest. It's what helps me process a lot of stuff. When you're an eight to ten year old kid and depressed, you don't necessarily have access to alcohol and drugs. So you start using drawing as a coping mechanism, or you act out as a coping mechanism, or you strictly hangout with your friends and you don't associate with anyone else. I think it's what was healthiest for me in terms of remaining relatively sober and having an okay mindset and working through a lot of my issues internally so I don't lash out at other people. So it's a survival mechanism, ultimately, and that's what motivates me. This shit literally keeps me alive.
GR: Can you talk about your work?
AB: A lot of my stuff tends to center around the supernatural, occult things. I got my start in zines illustrating South Asian horror stories. Stuff that my mom had told me growing up was way scarier than anything that you'd ever see on Western television. And it was a really great time and super scary. So I wanted to put pen to paper that way. Nowadays, a lot of my work isn’t necessarily about identity but just feelings. So there's a lot about revenge and feeling petty and feeling crass. Not necessarily the best possible feelings but just working my way through it. Luckily, having folks who want to work with me too, so that's pretty sweet.
GR: So how's it been using art to share cultural stories?
AB: I think it's cool because it's a medium that doesn't require a publisher. It doesn't necessarily require a higher-up approving anything. And with the internet being the way it is, my zines got their start online. “Shitty Horoscopes” was just a monthly zine that I was putting out on my tumblr, which blew up. And by the time that I finished all twelve volumes over the course of a year and a half, I put it together in a book through a Kickstarter campaign. And then I was shipping out books for an entire summer. I think it's really neat. I think zines are a great medium to share cultural stories because they're super concise and you can format them however you want. You're not just limited to drawing and photography. There's poetry and prose and using typography and using your own language.
GR: What's the story behind specific zines?
AB: I put together “Guide to Baby's First Existential Crisis” because a whole bunch of my friends and family members were having children. So I'll actually take this to baby showers and sort of slide it toward them and be like, "You'll need this." And also I'm nuts about kids. I love love, love children and I think a part of that comes from being the eldest. So I like making stuff that centers around that. Other stuff like perzines, family is in almost everything I do. “For Sister” is this entire zine that was pretty much just about my feelings about my younger sister, the one who is literally the most supportive person on earth. As the eldest you sort of develop this complex where— it's so morbid to say but— you want to be the first to die because there's this whole structure built up in your head where I can't watch them go. With your parents, you're sort of prepared for it because they're older than me. And somewhere down the line that's a reality. “Raised By The Internet” was about getting a desktop computer and internet in my house when I was 12 years old. And finally finding words for all that gay shit and understanding why I felt the way I felt, where really there weren't elders in my community who were ready to have those conversations with me, at all, ever.
GR: Can you talk about that a little more?
AB: I'm queer and Sikh and Punjabi. I'm out to all my siblings. So as a kid, and especially as a kid in a South Asian family, very specifically a rural Punjabi family who came from a farming area, queerness just wasn't talked about. But the other thing were that I never heard of queerness being reviled either. I grew up Sikh, and as far as our doctrine is concerned, religiously there's no mention of homophobia or transphobia or really anything in terms of a strict dictation of what gender and sexuality mean because our god doesn't have a gender. When you become a baptized Sikh, you're supposed to be an individual who sort of exults oneself past all gender, and past all these variables that keep us tethered to the earth. As a result, there was this real sense of queerness to my upbringing. As a kid, I was a super tomboy and at the same time I thought I needed to be a boy in order to like girls and I thought I needed to be a girl in order to like boys. And I was kind of on the fence because both are pretty great. So I didn't really quite understand it. And then the amount of queer zines I read when I was in university had a huge impact on shaping how I think of gender and sexuality. Partnering that with religious texts of my upbringing, it sort of created this really weird matrix of this wholesome understanding I have of myself where I'm just a happier person for it.
GR: How do your identities influence your work?
AB: I don't think there's any point where it can't influence my work. When I was younger, I was trying to make a lot of work that wasn't necessarily informed by my identity because I wanted to be the catch all and I don't want it to define me. But I couldn’t do that. The gay shit kept coming in, the brown shit kept coming in. There's no leaving it because I realize that if it's the same space that I occupy in my day-to-day life then of course it's going to translate into my work. Nowadays, I embrace it. A lot of the stuff about loyalty and family and care and intentions is still present and i don't think it will ever quite leave.
GR: I saw that you got your start at the Toronto Queer Zine Fair. How was that experience?
AB: I was 21. it was my first time tabling at anything by myself. I might have been 20. I just had one zine that I made and printed on gold paper. I was super fortunate to have a professor in OCAD University named Fiona Smith. She's pretty huge in Toronto and internationally. So she comes into class one day with a milk crate full of zines. Prior to that, I was actually considering dropping out of Illustration altogether as my major because I was super disenchanted by the landscape. It was really editorial and it didn't really feel like there was room for you to really do anything else. I wanted to make comics and I wanted to do graphic novels and there's all this other stuff that I want to explore that's now becoming really prevalent. But as far as school was concerned, it was editorial and that's it. So she comes in with these zines. I realized I can use this medium to tell the stories I want to tell. And make the stuff that I want to make.
GR: Can you talk about “Shitty Horoscopes”? Your Kickstarter goal was $7,100 Canadian Dollars (CAD) and you raised over $50,000 CAD. What was your experience crowd fundraising?
AB: When the first volume went online, there were a lot of people who asked me if I was going to do more. Then, when I started to put it out monthly, people asked if there was going to be a book. So there had actually been conversation around an anthology for a really long time. For the most part, people were just buying the individual zines or they were just reading it online. One part of its success could be that queers just really love the stars, and on the other hand, horoscopes were just really big on tumblr at the time.
Planning the Kickstarter campaign took me about a month, plotting out exactly how much money we needed. At first, $7,000 CAD seemed like so much. It still seems like a lot because it's more money than I've ever had in any capacity in my life. Then, the first five hours passed and we broke the $7,000 CAD mark. I could feel the tension in my jaw because of how hard I was clenching my teeth. And then watching those numbers change was kind of the lightbulb moment where I thought I can turn this into my entire life. I can continue making work that I like, not necessarily contracted by an editor or a company. But making work that I really love making for a crowd that really enjoys it and actually live off of it. It's still one of the greatest experiences I've ever had as a zine creator and a content creator.
GR: I also saw that you posted on tumblr that you want to share knowledge about social capital with other zinesters. Is there any advice that you'd like to share?
AB: Yes, totally! I'm putting a pay-what-you-can paper-print zine together. It'll be around 50 cents, it's just gonna be black and white. It might take me a while to make just because I realized I've amassed so much information in such a short period of time.
As far as independent content creators are concerned, keep making content and post pretty much every iteration of it. You don't just need to post the final project. You can post your process work and people are into that. When you have a large volume of content, not all of it needs to be great. And a lot of it is just you experimenting. On my Instagram I was posting LEDs that I was messing around with, as far as the typography was concerned. It had nothing to do with illustration. But it was still work that I was doing. The great format with tumblr is that you can actually put yourself as a person out there too. People really connect with that and they resonate with it and it's what makes them want to support you.
The overnight success thing just doesn't really happen in my experience. And anything that I've had that's done well has only done well because it's got a year and a half to two years of stuff behind it. It's a lot of material. Share your information widely. If you have hacks on how to get cheaper product, or if you've got hacks on where a great printer is at, or if you know what will save money on post.
GR: Can you talk about using different mediums for your art?
AB: The reason I never got really into galleries is that I love the tangibility of someone having something that they could take away and always have with them. The reason I started doing patches and all the other sort of wearable artwork was because I liked the customization aspect of patches. It's something that you add onto something else that you already own. Someone picks it because it resonates with them, either because it emulates something about their identity or something that they want to be. I think that's something artists explore all the time. So I like when people use extensions of other people's work for themselves as well. I think that's really neat.
GR: I saw that you bring a lot of your siblings into your social media. How has your family responded to your artistic endeavors?
AB: Well, I think my parents kind of thought I was a lost cause by the time I was a baby. They were like, "You were just drawing incessantly and it was all you wanted to do." Because I was drawing so much and so often, it got to a point where when I was older and I wanted to go to art school, my folks were like, "Okay doctor, lawyer, accountant isn't going to happen for you." Both of my folks worked factory jobs. They were immigrants so it's a lot pressure on their end because their whole idea of bringing me up was, "We want you to be secure enough, should you want to do post secondary and have an easier job than what we've gotten and an easier life than we had, then you can." But when I got to Art school, my mom was like, "Alright, well whatever you do, just be the best at it." So when I started doing zine shows, she was super into it. She always wanted me to be a writer. Because she was like, "Oh no, you're a great writer. Why are you doing all this art stuff? You could be off so much easier." And I was like,"Nah, I'm gonna marry the two." So she's super into it because I'm still writing. My siblings— I've got five and they're all younger than I am. Two of them are my biological siblings and three of them are actually my first cousins. They're super about it. They love it and they love coming to shows with me. This is the first time I'm actually tabling by myself. Usually my sister travels with me so she can help out while I talk to people. They're super supportive. It's great.
GR: Who supports you and what grounds you in this work?
AB: My sister, definitely. My siblings for the most part. Anytime that I've ever had doubts about myself or my work or anything else that I'm doing, they're completely and totally and entirely trusting in me. They're there to help out if they want to. But they say I’ll get it together and I’m gonna be okay. My best friends, some of whom are online. I've just had a lot of people who definitely had my back, even from when I was just starting out and not necessarily making money or concerned about the future. So it's cool to have a support network because that's really what you need to fall back on at some point. That doesn't necessarily need to be something as tangible as cash, either, especially if all your friends are just as broke as you are.
GR: Is there anything else that you'd like to share?
AB: I know it's super corny to say, “Be yourself.” But in all honesty, there's a lot of instances where you won't necessarily get to because of the trappings of your family, your job, capitalism, the space that you're in, the folks that you're surrounded by, and what that safety means for you. But find small ways to be intentional and be yourself and hopefully help other people be the exact same way, because the second you start crafting those spaces even just among your friends, it's wild the kind of stuff that will come out of it.