Sravya Attaluri: The activist of colour who is shaking up mental health and feminism through art

When it comes to mental health services in Asia ‘we’re not there yet’, the artist tells Peony Hirwani

Thursday 13 May 2021 08:50
<p>Artist Sravya Attaluri working in her studio</p>

Artist Sravya Attaluri working in her studio

For years Sravya Attaluri, a third culture child, struggled to fit in and understand her place in the diverse foreign countries where she grew up.

Today this 25-year-old artist and woman of colour, with a formidable social media following, uses feminist artworks to advocate for mental health and body positivity, while proactively drawing brown skin to connect with people who look like her.

Attaluri was born in Hyderabad, India, and subsequently her family moved to Korea, followed by Hong Kong. “I grew up travelling quite a bit, and when you do that and you’re third-cultured, you start to question your identity,” she said. The term third-cultured refers to those individuals who are raised in a culture other than that of their parents or of their country.

From an early age, the artist grew up questioning what culture she associated with.

“Sometimes I feel like I can associate with all the cultures that I’m exposed to, but at the same time I feel like I don’t belong in any.”

Attaluri learnt bits and pieces of the language of the places she lived in, but couldn’t speak them, which is when her love for art came in handy.

“Art was a way that I could communicate to everybody and is universal. So it became my language,” she said.

Sravya Attaluri’s artwork exclusively for The Independent

“Having different platforms and understanding how to express myself in different artistic mediums allowed me to express myself better than words ever could,” said the budding activist.

Based in Hong Kong, and hoping to move to the UK once the global pandemic eases, Attaluri’s lockdown days are filled with creating new illustrations. She makes art that de-stigmatises mental health, she explains. “It is a form of self-therapy for me.”

She starts her day with an art therapy practice called “daily doodles” where she picks up random colours and draws what comes to mind. She attends online therapy sessions, yoga, and meditation classes as a part of her self-care routine.

“Now, I need my morning meditation more than I need my coffee,” she said.

She has amassed a following of tens of thousands on her Instagram page (@sravyaa), and her posts often spark conversations with scores of replies and interactions.

One of her campaigns about normalising men’s mental health has gone viral, and is now available in the form of a clothing line which was launched on 23 April. “This is one of my best-selling and well-received pieces, and I’m proud of it,” she said.

“I see so many men in my life that are unfortunately unable to express themselves and are working hard on understanding their emotions. ⁠I hope that we can all work together to remove these harmful stereotypes and start conversations around men’s mental health,” the artist said.

Some of her clients include Instagram, the United Nations, and the mental health service Sesh among others.

Attaluri founded a platform called Draw For Mental Health which aims to empower artists to break the taboo around mental health illnesses.

Growing up, the first piece of art that genuinely meant something to her was a painting she drew of her mother, father, and her together. “My dad lived in Korea and my mother and I lived in India so that’s when I started to draw what I envisioned as happiness.”

Attaluri graduated as an artist from The Roski School of Fine Art at the University Of Southern California in 2017, and her emphasis has been on both graphic design and painting. “I switch mediums a lot,” she said.

In 2019, she also did short-term certification courses from the London College Of Communication (UAL) in Service Design and Innovation in intensive and digital marketing.

An illustration of Sravya Attaluri

A lot of her creations stem from the crisis of identity. “I had developed a monstrous frailty of not knowing who I was after nonstop travelling and my grandma’s passing when I was 15 years of age."

The artist never spotted individuals who resembled her in Hong Kong, and her body shape was different from the rest. “I couldn’t find clothes that fit my body so I started thinking how I look is not accepted.”

“I remember drawing visions like what depression looks like, and what suicide looks like,” as a way of showing people what she was suffering from.

“People were really uncomfortable with my art, and that’s when I was more shocked,” she said. They didn’t expect someone as young as Attaluri to talk about it.

Soon after, the activist was diagnosed with clinical depression. “It was a really hard time for me,” Attaluri said. “Not many people were talking about mental health in 2014 so someone had to start that conversation, and that someone was me.”

When asked about the increased demand of mental health services because of the trauma induced by the Covid-19 pandemic in Asia, the artist said that “although mental health resources and facilities are increasing, the stigma and lack of education around mental health means that the providers are often not able to reach the individuals that need help”.

Indian actor Deepika Padukone is someone she looks up to. “She has a similar culture to me, and she made me realise how important it is to have representation,” she said, referring to an interview where Padukone talked about her battle with depression.

“I started to tell myself that I’m not abnormal, and if these things are happening to me then it’s also happening to other people,” she said.

When asked about education surrounding mental health in Asia, Attaluri said: “We’re not there yet. If you have a stomach ache, you know that you have to go to a gastrologist right, but when it comes to mental health in Asia, you don’t know which specialist to go for what kind of depression/issue.”

The activist’s work is aimed at fighting against mental health stigmas, body shaming, and more recently, ending public sexual harassment as the Creative Director of campaign group Our Streets Now.

Our Streets Now is a grassroots movement created by young women to end public sexual harassment in the UK by making it a criminal offence and changing the culture that allows it.

It’s the kind of ambition that sums up what Attaluri is about – a drive to empower women and girls, even if right now that fight is happening 6,000 miles away. “My main motto is to uplift women like myself,” she says, “and ensure women of colour are better represented.”

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