Hamama tul Bushra
Nov 10 | Interviewed by Kinza Kasher
The Rungg Collective is about conversations with artists from Pakistan.
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So I would love to begin with getting to know you both a bit, one by one. Tell me a little bit about yourself and a little bit about your background, who you are, what makes you, you?
Bushra: When you’re not working, if you’re a mother or you’re a student, your brain is still working. The subconscious mind is still at work, you look around you, the social and personal issues, emotional issues with your kids, with families, with yourself, and how to interact. There’s a process at the back of your mind, it’s going, and you’re thinking about it, things that are affecting you. So people always fascinated me because if you look at the world around you, it is about people. Without us, nature was there. It’s gonna stay there. But the players, we are the actors, we are the players, it’s all about us right now. Nature doesn’t give a damn what we do. It’s an inspiring nature.
Obviously, there’s no substitute for that. But people, they keep changing. I enjoy talking with people, although I talk more. I like to listen, I like to converse with random people on the street, I painted so many pictures just from the coffee shop, or I met someone with a friend and I would take a picture because the person would fascinate me. Actually another interesting thing – I always felt that I could see through faces, that’s how I felt that behind the skin and the eyes, this brain and this heart, so I could get the pulse of the person. So that would always fascinate me, not the beauty or the ugliness, although everything has beauty. People always fascinated me, I always wanted to paint them, and then I did. The compliment, the remark, or the comment that you get. You have to capture the soul, get the character, or you get the inner stuff like that in your portrait.
Sometimes I feel the twitch or a twinkle in their eyes, a light expression. I feel that it’s that moment that sparks and while I am painting I feel that “Oh, it happened” and in some, I don’t. The interesting thing is that I paint faces to relax, I was doing one after the other. I did Risham’s portrait, she’s an artist from NCA and I wasn’t really happy with what I did. I was so exhausted and it was late at night, it was very late, and I’m an early sleeper, but I just painted a canvas and just doodled. And while I was doing it, I realized it was so relaxing and therapeutic. And like I felt like I’m unwinding myself that’s when I realized that painting portraits are emotionally exhausting because I do get involved. I feel that I have a relationship with that person, the one that I’m looking at. I feel like I’m trying to kind of suck the soul and try to put it on the painting and if I don’t get there, it’s so frustrating. With Risham I didn’t enjoy doing it. I didn’t like it and it was so frustrating and exhausting. I did that portrait I came to the conclusion that I need to take breaks after I do portraits. So that was interesting that I learned from my own experience. I didn’t know that I thought I just enjoyed doing it but I do get exhausted. I do feel like lying down and just either reading, sleeping, or doing something else.
How amazing, do you feel like that is true for every portrait or every piece of art that you pursue?
Bushra: Some features are just some faces. I look at your picture, I could draw you already and I thought that I’m going to draw you as we started talking. Like I could see a face on YouTube or TV channel on a news channel. I take a picture of a face that fascinates me. So if it is a personality which I could immediately paint in my head. I know what I’m going to pour it on paper.
I get the reassurance, when someone else also points that particular thing that I know I have put my heart in, then it’s so satisfying and rewarding and it’s that internal happiness that I don’t know I want to share but I don’t know how I can share it with someone! It’s like oh my god, I want to hug that person! If that person sees that same thing that you know! It’s a stereotype thing but it’s like your baby. When your babies start to walk or do something nice and someone appreciates them, it’s like that. But it’s not always exhausting, it’s sometimes very invigorating. It gives me energy when it turns out good. But I still do get exhausted but that is not out of frustration, but out of when you get such positive energy, that you get excited.
It’s a labor of love.
Bushra: A labor of love, you’re right. And I realized that I have to take some breaks or otherwise, I stop my connection. I feel that my connection with the portrait breaks If I don’t take a step back and give it some time and then I back to see from a new perspective. I think I get too close with that person or with that character, that it gets hard for me to separate myself from the person. That’s a struggle I feel I get within myself. That’s how I feel when I Paint too many portraits one after the other, and I never say that’s my thing, I never say no to people, I’m like, okay, I’ll paint you, but I don’t know when. So I have a list of so many, even people I don’t know, on Instagram who have asked when I will paint them, I say okay but I don’t know when.
But you’re staying true to yourself and I love that! You’re saying yes but also making it clear that you do not know when. And I feel like that’s a tool on your palette. That’s originality, you’re not just cranking out portraits. And that actually leads me to ask what is your view on doing art for the sake of art when I can do it. Versus ‘I must complete 15 pieces by the end of this month because this needs to go out’.
Bushra: Yes, that is a very important, heavy, loaded question and honestly, I don’t know the answer. I think the culture, narrative, understanding, and how art is looked at as a business. How do you value it? Do you want to paint just to make it? Because people don’t know if I’m just painting or if I’m painting honestly.
So if I want to sell 15 paintings then I would just do that without thinking. I detach myself and I paint and get some money. That is one thing, but then where do you draw the line? If that is your business and obviously you have to sell, that’s fine. But if you’re doing art for yourself, then it is important and for me, it is important to draw that line. Sometimes I think about how Sadequian would paint, even Durre (my sister), she’s very honest with her work. And we actually talked about it too. We stay honest about our work and at the same time, if someone were to ask me out of lightness and love or really value your art the right way, then you would want to paint for that person. It doesn’t have a price, but it has a value that the person is recognizing. So far, I don’t feel honest about my work if I would just paint to submit to get money. Obviously who hates money! But I don’t think that I will be very uncomfortable if I did it. But I don’t know what life brings you maybe one day I would have to.
I think it is very important to me that I have that genuine connection when I paint. For the detached thing, I have graphic design! I can do it and the client can be happy so I do it for them. And even if they don’t like it they can get upset. But if I don’t like it, I would tell them, ‘it’s not the best thing. It’s not what I wanted to do. But if they don’t like it, I’ll try again. Well, without saying I would try again if I don’t like the piece. I want to be happy when I do something. It’s very important that I am happy too. There were times that I had to do a portrait twice because I didn’t enjoy it. For example, I’m also a board member of a design platform. We have an annual event and we were giving door prizes. A lady won a prize, and I said, I’ll do her portrait. I did the portrait and it was good, but I wasn’t happy. I redid it. Then I had both versions, the one that I didn’t like, I still have it, but I gave her the one that I actually loved. So yeah, I want to stay honest, it’s my own thing. If people recognize my work, that’s different but I’m not seeking that. For myself, I want to stay honest.
That is so refreshing! It is like your point before. If you choose to pursue that journey at any point in your life, as you said so rightly, and I think that’s my favorite quote of the year. “Even on your deathbed, you have the ability to innovate” I completely agree. I want to backtrack and ask you – you are an artist. Your sister is an artist. And you mentioned you had more sisters who are artists?
Bushra: Yeah, so I have a younger sister. She’s an artist too, the youngest. She’s a sculptor. She actually teaches at NCA. And my oldest sister, she’s an artist too. She does calligraphy, but she did her Masters in child psychology. Durre and my oldest sister, they started painting, going to the Shakir Ali Museum for art classes together. My older one practiced watercolor and drawing which she was good at, but then she didn’t pursue it.
That’s fascinating! How was the process for you to tell your parents that this is what you wanted to do in life?
Bushra: So that’s another very interesting question. I have a large family, both from my mother and from my father’s side. From my mother’s side, all of them are artists. No one actually went to school for it, except for one of my aunts, my mother’s sister. She’s an artist and she did three Masters from Punjab University – Fine Arts, English Literature and Philosophy. So she was an artist, but other than that my mother could draw, although she didn’t go to art school, but drew faces, eyes, her drawing was amazing. We have plenty of uncles and aunts on my mom’s side who all could draw. They would paint. They didn’t get any formal education, but they all could draw and paint. So I think my mother’s side had that gene. We saw that on my father’s too. They weren’t into painting, but they were into fashion and photography. One had a tailor shop! It’s very interesting. We have these secondhand shops called “Landa”. So in University, my uncle would buy western suits from Landa shops and he would get it cut and have his suit stitched from that pattern. His friends would borrow his suits because they would fit so well and they would copy the patterns. He was an actor too, he was in one of the Pakistani movies. So I think that creative gene was there in the family, although no one really pursued it formally.
To answer your question, it wasn’t a struggle to tell my parents I wanted to pursue a creative field. Actually, it was our second nature. We were just all into arts, art language, that vocabulary was familiar to all of us. We didn’t have to struggle for that. And I realized, we all could just draw. Durre was the best one because she was a true artist. Even since she was very little. Because she was older than me, she was my role model. I would look up to her, follow her, do what was doing, she was like my prophet. In school, she would draw, paint and I would copy her drawing. But the arts were not something “unique” in our family, it was second nature. Now I realize when someone asks “Where did you learn the arts from?” only then I think that we didn’t really have to struggle to learn. We just polished it. The instinct was probably there. We could just do it. We just learned new ways and just improved or evolved.
Exactly. Like enhancing what you already knew from the start. And you are right. My dad has cool examples of clothing he got from his thrifting adventures or the Landa shop. He’s like, ‘You see that shirt? Yeah, that was like two bucks’!
Bushra: Exactly, although things have changed in Pakistan now, but when we were growing up, all the western things would end up in Landa shops and we could score some great items. I mean, all of us from NCA – there was a bus stop there so we would catch a bus to Landa. Although, we all would hide the fact that we got it from Landa (laughs) but we got some of the best things from there. The wool would be so good. My grandmother would get sweaters and she would undo them to make balls of wool. Landa was a huge part of the culture when we were growing up.
Wow! It sure sounds like it! And so, as you went into your formal learning at NCA, who were some artists, or what were some cultures that inspired you? Did you see that change throughout the years?
Bushra: So when we were growing up, General Zia Ul Haq was the dictator and I would say the island democrat like the Blue Island was NCA. The red was surrounded by the Jamatia (a radical political group in Pakistan). Jamatia had a hold on the University. They tried to get a hold of NCA. With their operation and control but they were unsuccessful. So when we were growing up, art was suppressed. But there was still room to create in NCA. Colin David used to teach here but he was from the University, and Salima Hashmi. They were trying and holding exhibitions privately such as at houses or private places. But generally, it was kind of a downfall for both design and art. The revival of art is very recent, I think. Like 10, 15, 20 years when it has been recognized. Things have changed with technology. That’s another thing. I went to Lahore College, where Durre also went and Durre was always good at painting. So it was understood and I was very precise and Durre’s work is very painterly. I would say mine was more linear because I will say be precise and in design, we had design class and the painting class and stuff. In design I was brilliant and in painting too. So, without thinking when you’re like growing up in that environment where art wasn’t, I didn’t really know. And I thought Durre is into painting, so I should go into design thinking that I could also go to fine arts you know? I thought I’m good at design because I actually am. Although, I was painting and I enjoyed that too. So I applied for design. Then in the first year, I realized I was in depression, I realized that I want to go into fine arts. At that time, they said, you can only switch if someone wants to come in, you can swap so I couldn’t join. Although I enjoy it now, when I look back I think it was actually good that I went to design because that gave me an added way of looking at things from the design perspective because color and spacing and how you place the element. The composition and color, I take it from a design element. I think it’s a natural flare, drawing just happened, as I told you it wasn’t so much of an effort, faces always fascinated me. I look at them so much that sometimes I had to kind of really, I realized that oh my god, I had been staring at that person for so long. Sometimes I have to excuse and apologize.
But that’s amazing. What you just explained to me is that like, you know, choosing your journey and choosing where you want to go and having other artists in the family and everything as well. It was a discovery sort of process for you saying, you know what, yes, this is a journey for me that I want, do I want to switch back or not? And making your own identity within like a whole family of creatives was in itself a thing. But then you did it so beautifully, and you continue to do it, I have nothing but so much admiration for you.
Bushra: Thank you so much. That’s another thing that being an artist or a painter wasn’t something unique. Going and doing design was something noble. So I thought that okay, I’ll get into something because painting, that’s Daisy’s domain. She’s the one so and the painting goes on. So I thought, okay, I should choose my thing. So I think painting designs is going to be something different are my thing. But I think and it’s, again, I don’t know how it can be fused, but it can be because I am now I’m doing another book cover for a Pakistani writer, Fahmida Riaz. She wants me to paint her portrait. I’ve painted, she didn’t like it and she now asked me to just feel free and paint it the way I was painting, I didn’t know there was a middleman. I didn’t know what I’m painting what the author wants me to do. So there was like a disconnect and I was stressed out. I painted, it was okay. I wasn’t really happy but then I talked to the author and she said that you know, feel free! Now she’s given me the leverage and I’m going to see how it turns out but it’s going to be designed as well as the Fine Arts in it. So I’m very thrilled. I’m excited to do that. I will obviously post with permission on Instagram once it’s done. So design and Fine arts, as we discussed earlier, everything is actually one. You cannot just separate one from the other.
When people could just like design something on cue, crank it out. Here’s my composition, 1,2,3,4. Did you not want to understand the soul of why you’re doing what you’re doing? And what I love about what you’re saying is exactly that’s like, you know, we as artists, or creatives, we don’t like red tape, and what is that even right? I completely understand on a level and you have way many more experiences than I do. Did you feel like that? Did you feel any changes in your process of transition as you moved from Pakistan and South Asian culture to here, to the States? And what was that like?
Bushra: Oh, yes, I think it was a huge change. As I told you that we have a big family, and we grew up under Zia’s regime which was very suppressed and when we were growing up, obviously as females, you’re not allowed to do this and that and blah, blah, blah. Although my family wasn’t very strict and conservative, I felt that my house was an island from outside, but I was a tomboy. I used to play with my boy cousins and I had nothing to do with the girls. I’m really friendly, but I would ignore them. If we’re with the boys, we go out with boys. Especially one of my cousins he’s my age. He was like my partner in crime and in going out. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Pakistan?
I have. Yes. We are from there, but I was very little. And actually coming to America and everything like that, there wasn’t much of a culture change for us because our parents kept kind of sheltered and never exposed fully.
Bushra: In America? you were sheltered here?
No, in Pakistan
Bushra: Oh! In Pakistan, and when did you come here? (New York)
We came here in 2010
Bushra: So you know Urdu as well?
I do. Yes.
Bushra: That is good, I think that’s the best. That is the ultimate when you have the best of both worlds. You know the language. Language is a big advantage. Urdu language and If you’re taking care of the Rungg gallery, which is, both ends you have to know or do as well. So for me, it was a culture change. I was always the kind of a black sheep in the way that I had questions. I wasn’t how society defines the good and bad. I wasn’t that kind of bad but I was kind of a tomboy so I want to go out with Boys. Boys, my cousins and I didn’t want to sit on the motorbike with both legs on one side. And under Zia’s Regime, now this is a common thing, but I’m talking about 30, 35 years. So I said I don’t want to wear a dupatta for no reason. We were such a huge family. And as I told you, that’s so much because so many of us didn’t have an identity so I was like nothing among 30, 40, cousins. So even if I was the spoiled one, misbehaved or stubborn one, no one would give me any attention. Even with my mother, I was like I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to eat this. She would say don’t eat then and I wouldn’t get food. So I’d eat. Now we laugh. I also was scolded the most by my mom.
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Bushra: Totally! oh my god without realizing I was breaking the rules. I didn’t learn how to cook. If there was a gathering at the house any party, I’d be like, I’ll do the cleaning. No one asked me to get into the kitchen. I wouldn’t even step there. So nothing, all these girly things. So after high school, I went to Islamabad to visit. When I came back, that was the first time I was wearing chooria (bangles) and everyone was shocked. I didn’t get my ears pierced. I wanted to be a boy. Initially I wanted to be a boy because I felt they have more freedom. You can just step out to do anything. Standing at food carts, eating Paan, smoke cigarettes. They don’t have to take care of covering their body or “don’t do this or that.” I wasn’t angry. Maybe I was, in my adolescence, maybe in my mind I was.
Liberty market was very close to our house. We could walk there and in good weather, I always wanted to walk there to have tea or eat something or just go and come back for fun. But in Pakistan, you cannot. You have like 10 cars and motorbikes behind you. So the first thing I got when I came here was that freedom. You could talk to anyone. I’m very talkative. I would talk to anyone even back then in Pakistan. But in Pakistan, you know, I don’t know if you know the quote “Hasee toh phasee” if a girl is talking or if she’s laughing that means that she’s ready to sleep with you. That’s the mind set in Pakistan. They like if the girl is talking to you and smiling, and if he laughs, that means she’s stuck with you now. So I would talk to the store workers because with them it was safe. So I would talk to anyone, but then they start harassing, they wouldn’t let it go. When I came here, it was so liberating that you can smile, you can complement, you can talk to anyone and they would smile back at you. And that was very liberating for a very long time, I felt that this is where I belong, actually. My free soul and I’m very free. But as I started doing painting, I also did my art history. I studied history of art, history of our culture. That kind of took me back to my roots. And that’s when I missed the culture, the language, everything about Pakistan. I feel that this is where I belong as my nature as a free person and I don’t have to hide my thought process. I’m totally on that side so I don’t have to pretend. That freedom I felt over here we go back to people, I do understand the social issues and that’s very painful. So when I started painting, then I kind of felt like that’s where I belong. That’s actually me. You go back to your roots. So roots are the DNA of your DNA. The dirt, your flesh, which is what you are made of. I wanted to say one more thing about the culture which I forgot and which we’ll come back as we talk. Another thing that I felt that since, as they say, if you have not been heartbroken, if you haven’t lost your lover, you don’t get that push. Similarly in art, pain brings that sensitivity in. And if you’re honest with your work, it reflects in your work now. When I came here, I was in California as well, I went to UCLA and they had their final project exhibit and I realized that that NCA University’s work is so much better than their graduates. So, I felt that a vacuum here, that everything is in so much abundance here. People don’t have to struggle in that way. Their standard of living is good right at the comfort level, so they haven’t hit that pain that’s spot. Would you call that pain spot?
Basically that I think the pain gives you sometimes a purpose that you can represent in your work and I have a thing that struggles or that like that emotional connection from like here to then how you translated to here what makes it out of your hand right is something that is, is what you’re describing as that vacuum.
Bushra: Yeah, I felt that vacuum. Although obviously good works are here on the global level, there are many representations which are amazing. But when I was in college, the work that I saw and student work that I saw, I realized that our painters and designers are more expressive, they have much more to offer and share and say as compared to people here. The cultural difference, I do feel that the issues they have over here are so much later and far away from the basic the very basic core issues that people in Pakistani students feel over there like. For instance the girls. Boys wouldn’t even know our pain. The harassment we feel over there. Even traveling on public transportation and it’s so suffocating for girls. I’m glad that some girls know and that there is awareness. Our country is so multi-layered but now good artists make good art. They are up and coming and you’re doing a great job with Rungg gallery. So I was looking at the website, amazing work you have put there and all different types.
Well, thank you so much. It’s insignificant in comparison to like all the work that has been done. In essence, in a word, you can see it’s a gallery. But what it was really about was if I went to the Met, which I did hundreds of times, or if I went to like other museums in the city and stuff like that, I did not see work that represented from where I was from. So I went to art libraries. I went to the New York Public Library. It’s like it’s always under an umbrella of other South Asian or Asian cultures.
Bushra: Absolutely. And the category of Islamic art. What does Islam have to do with it? Obviously calligraphy or certain styles. But so much calligraphy has done by Christians or Jews or whoever knows the art of writing. So why Islam and stuff like that? But what you are doing I think that is amazing, as you said that it’s nothing as compared to bigger things but I think it’s a huge step. We need to represent our area and particularly Pakistan because today at the graduations they have, the inclusiveness of the diversity of the school. They named students coming from all over, except Pakistan. And I’m like, yeah, you have a Pakistani to here. But no, they had India and many others except Pakistan.
What you’ve just said, I understand. I had my graduation last year, from the School of visual arts, it’s a recognized school all over the world. And I’m sitting there at Radio City, and I’m waiting for my country to come up, and it was such a huge disappointment because I was like, wait. What this country, the United States has given you, is exactly what it has given to me, to be honest with you and now I am a US citizen. But to your point, that identity, that culture, whatever your cultural tradition means to you, is your interpretation to have and so that visual representation you’re talking about is so important. I completely agree. I agree. We love our Indian brothers and we love our Bengali brothers and sisters, and we love everybody.
Bushra: Absolutely no doubt about it. If you have seen Indian movies, It’s not just India and Pakistan. I have so many Indian friends and whenever we sit, we are in peace, we have the same culture. We carry the same gene, tradition, language, food, and that’s what culture makes. Before partition, there were Indians, Pakistanis, Hindus and Muslims, and many other Parsi Jews. They were all living together. And religion was like culture because it was our Eid, but Hindus would enjoy it, it was their Dawali, but we would also do the fireworks and stuff. So it was like one. Every household has its own culture. Division again, even amongst siblings, we have our own culture because of the way we do things. So the government, they’re cashing on our psyche. They manipulate that, it’s like selling. And that’s another thing when I came to America, I felt that I loved it at the moment. But as I started to understand and things looked around, I felt that America is a huge advertising agency. Everything is a product. Love is a product too. Every education, you pick anything, they sell that to you. Everything is a product. So there’s this artificiality that everything has, it’s packaged. There’s nothing organic. I feel that even relationships are so defined and they are sold. Mothers should be like this. Kids should be like this. The husband-wife should be like this, which is obviously good and bad both. But the difference I felt that from where we are culture, our relationships are very multi-layered. We cannot really define that. Because she’s my mother. I’m supposed to, or I’m not supposed to do certain things. We have a relationship from the heart. So, these are the things which I feel the gap and alienation. And now I tell my girls that I’ve learned from you guys, you know, as you went to school, you are learning, I’m learning with you. Motherhood too, because I don’t have family here but we grew up looking at our mother. How we were treated or we were raised. That’s how I did with my kids, but it’s totally different on a new land. So I tell my older girl that you are my first experience. I’m learning to be a mother through you. So I don’t know what to do. Every day, there’s a new experience for both you and me. So we have to figure out we have to come to meet somewhere in the middle. I came with a package of my own cultural baggage, but I undid it. I opened up my suitcase and I said, Okay, this is what I have. Do I condemn all of that or do something that I evolve from? So I learned being a mother of an American and Pakistani like the mix. All those things that experience also reflect somehow in my art.
I want to thank you for what you’ve just said is something that, I don’t really like to put a number or an age on anybody’s thoughts or feelings because I think that it can be very boxing. But what you said is that I have seldom done. I decided to let go of my feelings and the baggage that I came with and I open up to learning more, and I think this is a two-way street.
Bushra: I tell my girls that I wouldn’t have realized it, otherwise. I think that honestly, I think I’m sensitive. I try to be a human being right? So It is actually hard to accept that you don’t know. It’s so liberating once you just let go of your ego. It’s that ego we keep holding on to and we make our own lives miserable as well. I’m so happy you recognize and I think that, that is thing my girl understood that too that if I make a mistake, I changed my convictions and I let go of my conditioning. It’s hard to let go of a few conditioning. And I think my girl understood that. She’s like okay, my mother is also struggling, so I should give her some space and forgive her sometimes. England has reached the point where they have a big Pakistani population, like the Desi community over there, that now they have a third culture. They have to say even in Parliament and so, but we need to endure growing. So, continue the good work you’re doing. And yeah, the youth that’s another thing I love youth. I talk to everyone who ever talks to me, I talk to them, I share, I try to listen. The youth is the future Youth has the energy, youth has the idea we should listen to them. You should follow them. Without experience and wisdom and knowledge, offer them, and let them pick what they want to apply to whatever they’re doing. So yeah, thank you, shout out to what you’re doing. Carry on. It’s so promising and encouraging.
Thank you so much.
People always fascinated me because if you look at the world around you, it is about people. Without us, nature was there and it’s gonna stay there. But the players; we are the actors, we are the players.
I get the reassurance, when someone else also points that particular thing that I know I have put my heart in, then it’s so satisfying and rewarding and it’s that internal happiness that I don’t know I want to share but I don’t know how I can share it with someone!
Three Graces: redefined! | Series
I think it is very important to me that I have that genuine connection when I paint. For the detached thing, I have graphic design! I can do it and the client can be happy so I do it for them.
Three Graces: redefined! | Series
And I Thought I Was Alone
The revival of art is very recent, I think. Like 10, 15, 20 years when it has been recognized. Things have changed with technology.
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Woman with Large Glasses
I was always the kind of a black sheep in the way that I had questions. I wasn’t how society defines the good and bad. I wasn’t that kind of bad but I was kind of a tomboy.
It’s Written All Over You
They say, if you have not been heartbroken, if you haven’t lost your lover, you don’t get that push. Similarly in art, pain brings that sensitivity in. And if you’re honest with your work, it reflects in your work now.
Girl Who Found Her Earring
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My Cat Isn’t Mine | Pt. 1
My Cat Isn’t Mine | Pt. 1
All images provided by courtesy of the artist.