Fuel Yourself, 2017, Panteha Abareshi.

Panteha Abareshi is 17 years old and draws girls “that would murder you in your sleep.” Metaphorically, of course. Abareshi’s characters are complex and portrayed with the kind of wisdom and stoicism that comes only from previous suffering and hardship. We recently corresponded about mental verses physical illness, women of color as protagonists, and the absence of happy endings.

MINNA GILLIGAN: Hi, Panteha! Where are you currently based, and is there anything specific you like or dislike about your locale? 

PANTEHA ABARESHI: I live in Tucson, Arizona. It’s odd, I suppose, because even though I’ve lived here for a long time, I wouldn’t ever say I’m “from Tucson,” or that it’s my hometown. My home is here, but the city itself is just an incongruous spattering of buildings over a huge stretch of desert. The weather is good. Even though I complain about the heat, I prefer it to the cold. Arizona is a Republican state, though, so I drive behind a lot of cars with Tr*mp stickers (sometimes more than one), and there are definitely plenty of un-ironic Ben Carson and Jeb Bush bumper stickers as well. There are a lot of negatives that I could list off about the city, but honestly, it’s inexpensive, it’s quiet, and there are enough art museums to keep me happy. I don’t go out much at all, and when I do, I like to go to the bookstore or thrift shops, but mostly to coffee shops to work. So Tucson is good, and it has everything I need. Now, especially that I’m going through the financial planning and preparation for college, I have a heightened appreciation for the life here. That being said, I’m excited to leave for sure. I can’t wait to live in a big city that has an actual, thriving arts culture, where the average age of the residents is way below the age of 65, and where there’s more to do than sit and throw cactus at pedestrians :-)

I read in your interview with Dazed that you began your art practice after a hospital stay. What attracted you to drawing? Did you find it therapeutic, a distraction, or an outlet to help combat mental and physical challenges?
Yes, I started drawing because my pain from my sickle cell thalassemia was so bad that I literally could not move anything but my hands. My dad brought me a sketchbook and some markers just to take my mind off of it. I’d never taken any drawing classes, or really every done much art, so for a very long time my pieces looked nothing like what I was trying to do. I didn’t know how to draw on paper what I had in my mind. I pushed myself to draw every day, because I genuinely love it and how it feels. My drawing started as a coping mechanism for my physical chronic pain, but now it is 100 percent a coping mechanism for my pain from chronic mental illness. I’ve lived with sickle cell thalassemia my whole life, and it’s not something I need to cope with. Physical pain is something I have had 17 long years to learn how to tolerate extremely well. Depression on the other hand—I struggle with it every day. It’s excruciating, it hurts, and my art is what I use to understand and organize my own thoughts, my own sadnesses. It’s what I use to cope. I’m very lucky that the thing I find most comforting in the world is also the thing that I’ll be able to pursue as my career.

Your drawings shine light on a long list of historically underrepresented ideologies, including the vital depiction of women of color in art and pop culture, the destigmatization of mental illness, and the gritty, not-so-romantic realities of romance. Let’s start with representation of women of color in your work: By presenting women of color as the majority of your characters without specific comment, you’re highlighting the fact that their presence should not be seen as a radical inclusion, but rather something that should have been enforced and normalized by now, and not in a tokenistic way. Could you comment on this?

Yeah, I mean…my father was born in Iran, my mother in Jamaica. I was born in Canada. I’m an immigrant, through and through. It’s painful and angering how that word is being given such horrible connotations now, but I’m proud of it. My dad raised me, and from a really young age, I was reading all sorts of works of fiction, watching all sorts of films. I loved encyclopedias, and I would spend hours flipping through encyclopedias of classic art. The distinct lack of women of color protagonists, actors, characters, and subjects in paintings wasn’t something I registered as a young girl, but is definitely something that, looking back now, I am upsettingly aware of. It’s an aggression, and an exclusion that is felt poignantly. There is a long-accumulated lack of women of color that has warped the standards of beauty, and counteracted decades of a movement to find empowerment. When people of color were in the shows and films I watched, they were essentially slightly different iterations of the same, tired archetype. Characters of color rarely have depth beyond their skin tone. In artwork, it’s the same thing. What I saw were people of color being placed distinctly, intentionally. Like props, almost. To aim to normalize women of color as the subjects of art, especially in contemporary illustration and other visual work like photography and film, is taking away the discrimination that comes with casting WOC into the extremes of either being hyper-present and grossly stereotyped or not present at all. The problem is the objectification of people of color, not to mention the fetishization, that leads to a dehumanization in the eyes of society that is so normalized that generation after generation it doesn’t even register how their perceptions are warped. I began drawing only WOC from very early on because I wanted to create what I was missing.

With how under-represented WOC and POC are, WOC and POC with mental illness weren’t even a group that could be quantified because the representation was non-existent. The same can be said for WOC and POC who identify with aromanticism and asexuality, or a lack of interest or need for intimacy because of mental illness. I make art for myself first and foremost, and I express myself and my personal struggles through my work, but it’s amazing that so many people of color relate to it, and can find solace in it. 

I was immediately drawn to the all-knowing, all-seeing eyes of the figures you draw. They seem wise beyond their maybe-teen years, to be thinking deeply in the midst of everyday activities—some completely un-reactionary to daggers or thorny roses piercing their necks. What are you depicting in these portraits? 

The girls I draw aren’t supposed to be teenagers. I’m not trying to draw a specific age, but just women. I am trying to capture wisdom, or specifically the kind of wisdom that accompanies a great deal of suffering. It’s all about reactions to pain. I mentioned that even though I have severe chronic pain, that depression hurts more. This is, unfortunately, extremely hard for people to understand, and I face constant trivialization of my mental illness. In my experience, this is because those who have never experienced depression or anxiety just can’t fathom how an illness of the mind could possibly be more painful than an illness of the body. I can turn to someone, and I can say, “The pain in my legs feels like a million pieces of glass being pulled through my flesh,” or, “The pain in my ribs feels like each one is breaking slowly, over and over again.” But trying to articulate what mental pain from immense sadness feels like? When you do, it starts sounding like those horrific ads for anti-depressants where a badly animated cloud is following around some poor woman in an ugly cardigan and khakis. It’s something that poses a constant and frustrating obstacle for me, but I’ve found that through my art I can very accurately express the nuances of the anguish that comes with my mental illness.

The things that I draw, like knives and roses through the neck, bloody noses…these are tangible, obviously painful things that are impossible to miss. These are, to me, physical embodiments of what depression feels like. The un-reactionary expressions that you mention—I suppose it’s me saying that physical pain is un-phasing when experiencing such inexplicable pain from mental illness. But it’s also a portrayal of the sort of numbness and emptiness that accompanies mental illness—a feeling that I live with perpetually. 

Your comic narratives, dissimilar to your portraits, often explore relationships and romantic interactions. You portray unapologetic representations of heartbreak coupled with phrases like “Love is simply…confusion confusion confusion” Which, it is! I find in pop culture, however, that in addition to that portrayal, you also get invariably hit with a happy ending. You don’t give us a happy ending, which I kinda like. Could you comment on that? 

I don’t give happy endings because there aren’t really any? My art is personal to me, and I’m not happy. I don’t believe in love. I don’t think romance is beautiful, so my art will never portray that. I draw a lot of roses in my art. While they’re my favorite flower, I hate that they’re almost intrinsically tied to “love,” and so-sweet-it-makes-you-gag romance. They’re beautiful, strong flowers with thorns that can cut like little knives. I love using roses in my work because they have that inherent symbolism, but tying them to gore and pain and separating them from that symbolism and de-romanticizing them is empowering.

I don’t believe at all in the modern notions of romance, and as someone who identifies with asexuality and aromanticism, I believe that they’re heavily stigmatized and misunderstood. Whether my lack of desire for intimacy and romance is because of my depression or not, it’s a feeling that is not talked about or taught about. Aside from that, I also really do believe that the way young people, especially girls, are taught to value, prioritize, and derive happiness from “love” is damaging and just wrong. As a young girl there was such emphasis on finding the perfect man, having your dream weddings, settling down, and popping out a couple dozen babies. There’s nothing wrong with choosing that, but to have it be taught as what is normal, and that anything else is abnormal and makes you less ideal, is something that upsets me so, so deeply. Young girls already have to push so hard to be ambitious and to reach those ambitions, and with that kind of pressure from society and from the older generations it makes it that much harder. When I tell people that I don’t want children, and they say to me that it’s just a phase or immaturity, it takes so much value away from the things that I do prioritize. Like myself, my career, and the ability to travel and swim naked in the French Riviera whenever I please.

But in all seriousness, what I portray in my work is an honest representation of my own frustration and struggles with intimacy and romance. I get a lot of questions about this, and people saying that I shouldn’t be so “bleak,” or that I just “haven’t met the right person yet,” and I hope that eventually the immediate thought won’t be that I need to change or grow up. The thing is, I really don’t understand why it’s so hard for some to comprehend a complete disinterest in all things intimate and romantic. Just like I believe monogamy should be a choice, and not the norm. But I’m not changing anytime soon, and I love the idea of continuing to make people uncomfortable.