Sneha Kumar ’24 on Honoring Family and Culture through Art

There is a special beauty that comes from speaking to your friends about their creative pursuits, as it allows you to see a more emotional side to them. When I sat down with Sneha Kumar ’24, a friend I treasure dearly, I was excited to see the world through her eyes, to have even a glimpse into her creative mind.

“[In] Pre-K, I remember one of my teachers telling me, ‘Oh you’re so good at drawing!’ It was literally stick figures,” she shared. 

All great artists start somewhere, and in Sneha’s case, this introduction was through stick figures and Pokémon. Incredibly humble in her descriptions of praise, she went on to say that she has liked drawing since she was a baby. In her eyes, if she has a pen in her hand, there is a high probability she is also drawing. When I first met Sneha, I immediately understood her connection to art. Her walls were decorated with posters of various anime and video games, and the sketchbook on her desk looked loved. Her aura bled creativity, and it seemed almost natural to hear about her passion for art. 

Although beginning as a child using crayons and any art supplies she could get her hands on (which culminated in the creation of an illustrated book depicting her journey into space for a first-grade project), I predominantly know Sneha as a digital artist. Because of her talent, I expected her to have taken a variety of art classes at Swarthmore. However, I was surprised to find out she only took an introductory painting class during the Fall 2022 semester, which was also her first (and only) experience using oil paints. As her final project, she painted a portrait of her dog, Bindhi.

“Painting is a hard medium to get into and [the class] did a very good job providing an introduction. Oil paint is very inaccessible and it feels so much different than acrylic and gouache. I want more experience in painting.”

Although she has a desire to have more experience in painting, the practicality of digital drawing makes it the go-to medium for Sneha. She described how for her eleventh birthday, she was given a tablet and pen that she could connect to her computer, which she used to learn digital drawings. Since then, she has learned and improved, and after getting an iPad in 2018, she has been predominantly doing digital painting on Procreate. (“Shoutout to Procreate on the iPad Pro!”) Although she occasionally uses physical supplies to create non-digital artworks, the convenience provided by being able to draw wherever, whenever, as long as you have a tablet, appealed to Sneha.

Most of her artworks correlate to her interests; as a child, she drew Pokémon characters because she played Pokémon. This is a good moment to say that while I was drawing the monochromatic green gumball from “Wreck it Ralph,” Sneha was drawing Reshiram. Her talent never fails to amaze me. As she grew, she continued to draw things that related to her interests, whether that be a certain piece of media she was interested in, or aspects of her Tamil culture. 

For Kitao’s Spring 2022 APIDA Showcase, Sneha submitted three landscape pieces of Tamil Nadu, her home state in India. These three pieces, which depict the beach near their grandfather’s house, the hilltown their dad is from, and a portrait of elderly cattle herders, were important to her, as they illustrated scenes from her own culture and traditions that she commonly does not see. She created these pieces as depictions of her family and their history, immortalizing them in artworks the Swarthmore community could see. She celebrates her family, whether it be subtly through landscapes of their communities, or more directly by specifically using elderly cattle herders to create a visual reminder of where her family came from. These artworks highlight the love and appreciation Sneha has for her culture, something that she embodies in both her artistic and everyday lives.

“There is something unique in cultural art — there is not as much South Asian art as other places. Diasporic art is not lacking, it’s just less, especially from Tamil Nadu. When I drew those pieces, I sent them to my mom, who sent them to other members of my family. Seeing their reactions, it was very clear that they haven’t seen themselves represented in art like that. It’s nice to show people parts of their culture they haven’t seen in artistic form.”

Jokingly, Sneha said to “not get her started on religion,” rightfully so, because, as she explained, South Asian art galleries typically emphasize religious art. Because many South Asian galleries in museums use religious (mainly Hindu and Buddhist) imagery, secular art is commonly disregarded and not displayed. Through her work, Sneha creates art that depicts cultural traditions and memories that are overlooked, which, as she described, is important to show to her family and others who have not seen their cultures as artistic subjects before.

When I asked about any portraits she has done, Sneha explained that all her portraits are of her family; most notable are the charcoal portraits of her dog, Bindhi, and her grandfather, Velu Annamalai. Sneha is an honors history major and a global studies course major and honors minor, a scholarship that shines through her art and the research she does prior to doing historical cultural artworks, much like that at the APIDA showcase. “Most of my art is showcasing things people don’t talk about too much.”

During the Spring 2023 semester, Sneha studied abroad at the University of Tokyo. There, she began doing commissions, which, when I asked more about, she thought was a bit strange to think about, as people are actively buying her artworks and hanging them up in their offices or rooms. We laughed at this: however, I would be honored to have a Sneha Kumar Original hanging up in my room. When I asked her about any future art plans, she said that she is currently getting through a pile of commissions, but then she wants to do another big cultural piece. Unfortunately, her time is limited, as she is focused on writing her honors thesis on South Asian diasporic anticolonialist movements of the 1920s.

“Kitao, the [Intercultural Center (IC)], and [Swarthmore Pan Asian Association] have been really great in general at showcasing student work and fostering talent within the community. People are sometimes scared to showcase their art, but Kitao and the IC provide safe spaces to showcase. I remember when I put my art up, people would text me ‘Good job!’ which was nice. My friends and partner are very supportive, and I’ve made sure to remain in spaces that foster a supportive community.”

It was a pleasure to speak to Sneha about her artistic endeavors. To see Sneha’s art is to see her heart, and that alone is an honor unto itself. Through her work, Sneha embodies her love for life and family, proudly showcasing it so that love can be shared with others. She inspires me to hope that someday, my art can do the same. I cannot wait to see where the world takes her, and (hopefully) hang a Sneha Kumar original in my office one day.

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