by Emily Ness
Political as she is poetic, and charming as she is fierce, Sonya Nayar is not only an artist — she is an activist.
Born and raised in Woodbury, Minnesota, Nayar comes from a rich cultural background. Her father is from New Deli, India. He came to the United States as a 19-year-old in pursuit of the American Dream. He decided to attend The Ohio State University after seeing it in a movie.
Unfortunately, the American Dream is not as glamorous as the movies make it seem. For a nation flying its flag of freedom with pride, race continues to be one the most visible sources of division in America.
A Graphic Design major at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Nayar’s art not only reflects the American Dream, but redefines it.
Recently, Nayar was awarded “Best in Graphic Design” at the Tweed Museum of Art’s Annual Exhibition for a project titled, “Trump’s America.” The 12-foot-long piece, which Nayar wrote while sobbing at three in the morning, is far more successful than she could have ever imagined. So successful, in fact, that the Tweed requested to purchase the piece for their collection.
“There are a couple of reasons we would buy student artwork,” Ken Bloom, Director of the Tweed Museum of Art, explained. “The first is if the student has a lot of potential and we believe that they will carry on in the field. The second is if the student has a lot of potential, as well as, hits the mark on the piece.”
Bloom believes that Nayar’s piece did both. And he is not alone.
“When you see it, you cannot help but stop and read it,” John O’Neill, an assistant professor of graphic design said.
O’Neill has taught Nayar for two years. He’ll never forget the day that she turned in a draft of what would become “Trump’s America.”
“I knew that it had potential,” he said. “After all, it captures the essence of the times that we are living in.”
Written from a first person perspective, the piece opens as follows: “I’m tired. I’m sick of ignorant people. I’m worn out from trying to be understanding, the bigger person, the one responsible for enlightening those with less world experience. It seems like it’s every day, all the time, everywhere I go. I currently reside in Duluth, Minnesota, and I can’t (obscenity) do it anymore.”
A census conducted in Duluth for 2016 and 2017 revealed that whites make up 90% of the population, followed by American Indians and African Americans at 2%, and Hispanics, Latinos and Asians at 1%. The other 3% consists of some other race, or two or more races.
Nayar, who has olive-colored skin and dark hair and eyes, is often mistaken for all of the above.
“It shouldn’t matter what race someone is. All races are beautiful,” she said. “I feel like I am constantly defending everything that I am and everything that I am not.”
In her piece, Nayar explains, “I am a 21-year-old, mixed race young woman about to live in Trump’s America. I’d like to just describe myself as a young woman, but my looks seem to be very important to everyone I come in contact with.”
At times, Nayar's struggle with intolerance has made the city of Duluth unlivable.
“It was bad before, but it got even worse after the election,” she said. “I have had people follow me around in stores, question me for using my mom’s credit card and call the police on me for using my ID to buy alcohol, even though I am of age.”
Unlike her Indian father, Nayar’s mother identifies as white. Often, when people see Nayer with her mother, they ask if she is adopted.
Nayar describes one particular instance from elementary school in “Trump’s America” when she got into a fight with her peers over whether or not she was adopted.
“I cried to the teacher who told me not to be embarrassed about being adopted.” Nayar recalled. “I’m not, I cried. There’s nothing wrong with being adopted,” Nayar continued. “Maybe I’ll adopt a child one day, I don’t know. But why would a teacher tell me I was? Why would she leave me crying…”
Nayar hoped that things would get better in junior high and high school. At 16, she got her first job at Dairy Queen, decorating cakes. She includes an excerpt about this experience in her piece: “Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas never looked so pretty. I say this not to boast; but to acknowledge here that I focused on those details because the women who already have that job sure like to talk about immigrants stealing jobs… Especially those Mexicans!”
When Nayar came to the University of Minnesota Duluth in the fall of 2013, she was assigned two counselors.
“At first, I thought that everyone had two counselors. Later, I realized that one of the counselors was meant to help me transition from India to America. They assumed that because I was Indian, I was from India. Didn’t they think I’d have an accent?”
College students weren’t much better. One male student told Nayar that she was “pretty for a colored girl.” Another told her that he strives to reproduce a child with naturally blonde hair and green eyes because that is "ideal."
Female students, on the other hand, have told Nayar that she is foreign and exotic. “What do you think of when you hear the word exotic?” Nayar asks in her piece. “I think of an animal in the zoo.”
The worst of the worst came on voting day, when Nayar was walking outside with a friend of hers. Nayar had worn a pantsuit to school to show support for Hillary Clinton. Her friend identifies as gay. Nayar’s pantsuit and her friend’s flamboyance attracted unwanted attention. A group of male students pulled their car over, yelled some vulgar words, and then spat on Nayar from out the window.
“I drove home sobbing,” Nayar said. “And, I mean home, home. I skipped school for a week.”
It was around this time that Nayar wrote her 12-foot, 3000-word piece.
“I wanted it to be really long,” she said. “I wanted people to have to walk to read it.”
Images of Nayar are included throughout the piece.
“In many ways, I walk with the reader,” she said.
Additionally, Nayar chose to use the color pink because she didn’t want to choose a skin color.
“You cannot actually decipher the girl’s race,” Nayar explained.
Finally, Nayar chose to disappear at the end.
“I also chose to disappear at the end to portray my rights disappearing.”
Activism, such as Nayar’s art, has the potential to improve the livability of cities like Duluth and beyond — for this generation and the next.
“‘Trump’s America’ will outlive all of us,” Nayar said. “ I hope that someday my children and grandchildren get to see it.”
Correction: Assistant professor John O’Neill's name was spelled incorrectly in a previous version.