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Through Art, Graduate Student Reflects on Identity, Home and Belonging

In her new home in the U.S., Academy of Art University student Nimisha Doongarwal is applying her experience in fine art school to explore her ancestral home in India. Most recently, the MFA candidate was among 18 female artists of color from across the Bay Area to be featured in the group exhibition Reflections of Home. Held at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, the show gave 18 artists an opportunity to visualize what “home” and “belonging” mean in their own immigrant lives.

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Nimisha Doongarwal, featured in the exhibition Reflections of Home

Emergent and Merged Lives

On paper, it might sound like Nimisha Doongarwal leads a double life. By day, she is a software engineer for Zendesk; by night, she paints and studies traditional techniques as a part-time graduate student at Academy of Art University’s School of Fine Art. She insists her two sides aren’t mutually exclusive.

“Having this passion of making art has also made me a good engineer,” she says. “I can’t imagine being a person without both of those worlds. It’s what makes me unique.”

Combining the artistic with the analytical, Doongarwal’s work isn’t just eye-catching—it’s also thought-provoking. In works drawn from her upcoming thesis collection, Doongarwal’s portraits depict British colonization of her ancestral India and other issues. Molded from paintings, photographs, fabrics and digital prints, she emphasizes cultural overlaps.

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Above and below: Artworks by Nimisha Doongarwal
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Doongarwal’s art expresses her belief that people are more alike than they are different

Being Different, Coming Together

“We mingle with people from different cultures, different traditions, so we’re very similar to them. But, at the same time, physical appearances are something people look at first,” says Doongarwal. She notes that stereotyping and discrimination come in all forms, like how Uber drivers react when they learn she’s a software engineer.

“They’re like, ‘Of course, obviously.’ And I don’t like that. So now, I enjoy telling them that I’m an artist rather than an engineer.”

Identity, home, and belonging are constant themes in Doongarwal’s art. Her master’s thesis addresses her own mixed belonging: Coming to the United States from India in 2007, Doongarwal struggled to feel connected to her parents’ home country. Despite establishing a successful life here, there is still the fear that everything she’s built can be taken away at a moment’s notice.

“I grew up here [in the U.S.]. I studied here, so it feels like whatever I built is mine,” Doongarwal says. “When I see my passport or my visa, it reminds me that I’m not from here. It’s that problem that pushed me into exploring this idea in my art.”

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Artwork by Nimisha Doongarwal

Opening Horizons

Art was always Doongarwal’s way of expressing “what she couldn’t say in conversation.” And she observes that the Academy opened up her horizons, in terms of creative expression. Her fine art instructors Drew Price and Jenny Balisle both praised her for being “hard-working and well-rounded,” and for using research to fully flesh out her ideas.

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Nimisha Doongarwal where she feels “most comfortable”—painting

“She didn’t want to focus on paintings,” Price says, “she put [her] focus on learning about art and other artists. And she really went for it. A lot of times when we’re comfortable, especially [as] younger artists, we tend to stay in our safety zone. And she didn’t.” 

Balisle adds, “The fact that she’s taking the time to properly vet her concepts in her art practice, that just deepens and strengthens what the artworks are. She does the writing, the research, and that is so important in the artwork. Successful artists go beyond just a pretty picture. And that’s Nimisha.”

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Artwork by Nimisha Doongarwal

Building a Career, Earning a Degree

It’s paying off. In addition to the “Reflections on Home” exhibition, Doongarwal’s art has been featured in several group shows in galleries such as San Francisco Women Artists (SFWA) and Under1000SF. Her development has been measured and steady (she expects to earn her Fine Art degree in 2021), and Doongarwal said it has been worth the patient effort. Paints and canvas have always been where she truly feels at home

“You can’t be scared of losing or failing,” she says when asked for advice for those practicing art. “It’s hard to take a risk, and I’m always worried that I’m going to screw it up. But what my instructors say is, don’t be scared. You can always start over.”

Images courtesy of Nimisha Doongarwal

Original article by Nina Tabios of Academy Art U News,

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