Inside the South Asian Y2K world of ZHK Designs

Zoe Harveen Kaur

What makes Y2K culture so compelling?

By Janvi Sai & Samia Abbasi

Y2K, aka Year 2000, has blossomed into an aesthetic that’s taken over fashion, pop culture references, and TikTok. For older Gen Z, we immediately picture Bratz Dolls on lunch boxes, butterflies adorning lavender crop-tops, That’s So Raven, and Tamagotchis. While Y2K stems from 1990's to early 2000’s pop culture, the majority of Gen Z was not alive or barely remember this time period. Even so, it speaks to a deeper nostalgia for the early internet days and the things that are on our minds. What better way to explore all of this than through the medium of digital art? 

Meet Zoe Harveen Kaur: the Gen Z digital designer and artist behind ZHK Designs. With a mission to “Educate and Empower,” ZHK Designs is infused with vivid Y2K colors and motifs and relatable references to South Asian culture. In this interview, we learn how Zoe has made sense of her South Asian identity through digital art. In turn, she's helped so many brown people feel seen on the internet. 

Q1. Tell me about yourself, Zoe!

A: Hi, my name is Zoe Harveen Kaur (she/her), and I'm a digital artist! I was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, right by the mountains, and I’m currently based in Calgary. I'm the designer and artist behind ZHK Designs, co-owner of Brown Girl Memes, host of Desi Girl Horrors on Rukus Avenue Radio, and I'm a fur mom. 

I come from a Punjabi-Sikh background and I truly value the South Asian community as many individuals have helped me realize my identity and allowed me to grow outside of my comfort zone. Other than being the busiest person I know, I'm loud, energetic and unapologetically myself!

Q2. Have you always been an artist?

A: I would like to think that I was always destined to be an artist, but the real answer is no. When I was in grade 6, I realized that I was actually talented? I illustrated a portrait of Mother Teresa in oil pastel for a class project and it ended up being “so good" (not sure what good is in grade 6), that they kept it up in the school. And it's still there! From then on, I enjoyed creating art; I went to art camp, art classes, I painted, sculpted and drew. 

University is when I actually found my passion for digital art, around 2016 to 2017. I ended up learning how to use Adobe Illustrator and my creative license took off! I created numerous pieces, and it wasn't until my mum saw them when I created @zhkdesigns and started sharing my art with the world. When I created my page, I had the intention of going to law school and pursuing law, but when my art started gaining my traction, I decided to leave my law dreams behind and pursue ZHK Designs!

ZHK Designs art
photo credit: ZHK Designs, @zhkdesigns

Q3. Growing up, how did you make sense of your cultural identity? Did creating art help you navigate it?

A: My relationship with my cultural identity is extremely complicated, but I do believe that art helped me navigate my identity. Growing up Punjabi-Sikh with the name Zoe caused a lot of confusion, mostly for others, but primarily for myself. Growing up, I was confused about my cultural identity and even though I accepted both Sikhism and Punjabi culture into my daily life, I had no idea who I was. 

When I started illustrating, I discovered a completely new version of myself: Zoe Harveen Kaur. 

It's important that all 3 names are included when I refer to myself because it represents 3 different parts of who I am. Zoe, for my legal first name, Harveen, my middle name based off of my grandma's name, and Kaur, which represents my Sikh heritage. I am so glad that my art has helped me realize who I truly am.

Q4. When did you realize this was your passion and what led you to making it a brand?

A: I think I realized ZHK Designs was my passion when I was 19, about 3 years ago. I was in my third year of university and my page was blowing up! At the time, there weren't many other South Asian artists that I was aware of, so the response to my artwork was just incredible. This was the time when I was applying to law school, and I realized that if I don't pursue my art now, I would never be able to do it. From then, I went on to illustrate for BBC, Jaz Dhami, had a pop up shop in Calgary, and I began to illustrate more and more.

Q5. Who &/or what has influenced your work?

A: When I first created ZHK Designs, I was (and still am) very inspired by South Asian artists, including Babbu The Painter, HateCopy, and Singh Street Style Designs (unfortunately, he no longer illustrates). Those 3 artists were my biggest inspirations; I remember following their every move and admiring everything they did for the community, hoping that one day I would inspire others like they inspired me.

Q6. What's the mission behind your art and brand?

A: My brand is all about empowering the South Asian community, South Asian women, and anyone who wants to learn about South Asian cultures and traditions. Additionally, each piece I create strives to educate or empower the South Asian community and beyond. 

Education has always been a core value for me since I was little, so if I can learn from a piece and educate others as well, it's a win for me!

ZHK Designs art
photo credit: ZHK Designs, @zhkdesigns

Q7. What led you to collaborating with other creators to start Brown Girl Memes? What place does humor hold for you? 

A: When I first created ZHK Designs, I messaged everyone I knew — from HateCopy, to KayRay to Brown Girl Gang. Whether they responded or not was kind of irrelevant to me; I wanted to make friends, network, and get my name out there! When I was messaging various creators, I messaged @browngirlgang, aka Sanjana, one of the co-owners behind @browngirlmemes. She and I soon became very close virtual friends, which was incredible, and one day we reached out to Seerat Saini to create Brown Girl Memes. Having this separate platform has taught me a lot. 

Even though we are brown girls, our cultural customs, traditions and knowledge are completely different.

I am constantly learning and evolving from 2 of my best friends!

Q8. Would you say your art is a response to the state of representation in the media? Since it's reminiscent of the 2000’s, are you creating the representation you wanted growing up?

ZHK Designs art
photo credit: ZHK Designs, @zhkdesigns

A: I love Y2K moments! It is my favorite era to recreate, and I have been obsessed with the 2000s, well, since forever, since I'm technically Gen Z. I never saw representation growing up; I know everyone says that but I truly needed a Desi Bratz Doll, or a brown My Scene Girl. Because of the lack of representation, I have been recreating cartoons, movie scenes, CD covers, and more, to showcase that brown women deserve space in mainstream media and having diverse women in mainstream media should be more common. I definitely think I gear towards 2000’s themes because there was so much cultural appropriation at that time. 

I believe that it's our time to reclaim our identities, and what representation means to us.

 

Cover photo credit: Zoe Harveen Kaur, @zoeharveenkaur


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