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25 January 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 7:38am

How Zayn Malik is challenging power dynamics with a retweet

Sharing fanart can be a radical act.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Sometimes small, personal acts have the potential to be radical: from selfie-taking, to eating whatever you like, to wearing clothes not designed for your gender. They might seem self-serving, trivial or even vain, but for some people, these can be liberating: little moments of rebellion in a society that encourages a specific set of contradictory behaviours.

Zayn Malik shares fanart. From the comfort of his Twitter account (with its 17.4 million-strong following), he finds drawings of himself, made by his many fans, posts them, retweets them, and compliments them. Yes, it’s a small act, and one that could be considered pure vanity, the symptoms of a vague megalomania. But in many ways it’s also a generous one. Yes, arty illustrations of his latest topknot serve Zayn as another form of self-promotion, but in sharing this work, Zayn, of course, simultaneously promotes the artwork of his fans.

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As a boyband member, Zayn was always marketed as the “arty” one. The One Direction movie This Is Us is peppered with shots of him graffiting his walls, and any self-respecting fan will tell you that Zayn draws his own tattoos. He’s shared his own drawings on Twitter: it’s no surprise, then, that many fans have tried to reach out to him through artwork.

In reaching out and responding back, Zayn is unusual for a young male artist. He shares customised Vans with captions like “You, my friend, are a genius,” and has even reportedly sent messages to some artists with comments like, “That’s an amazing picture – you should be proud of how talented you are.”

Zayn’s fanbase is mainly comprised of young women and teenage girls: a demographic that are already discouraged from entering the art world, and often have their work dismissed as juvenile or flimsy when they do. On top of that, these artists are producing a drawings in a category that is even more thoroughly ridiculed: fanart. Zayn bucks the trend, and tells the young women who draw him that their work is valuable, and their talent meaningful.

Twitter user @vulcains_ had her artwork tweeted by Zayn: he called it “sick” and he made it his icon. She told me, “I think most amateur artists have issues with self confidence in their work (at least I do), so seeing Zayn recognise it helped me with that a bit. ‘If Zayn likes it, then it must be good,’ or whatever. Although Zayn likes Minions so I don’t know now!

“This wasn’t his intention, but as people were already scrambling to be seen/recognised by him, now it’s like fanart is a way to get noticed. So more and more people are posting work and saying it’s their own, or implying it’s their own (that’s actually what happened when he had mine as his icon). Regardless of that, it’s still really exciting to be recognised by your idol.”

Yes, it has its downsides (in this case, stealing art and posing as the artist), but by paying attention to his favourite pieces of fanart, Zayn is fostering a culture of creativity amongst his fanbase.

It’s not just fanart: Zayn also frequently retweets his fans’ jokes. It’s basic, but accepting that fandom can be a space for funny, clever, creative teenage girls to express themselves (rather than just an endless, mindless scream), is significant: it’s a fact that simply hasn’t occured to many male musicians and music writers.

Intentionally or not, through this series of small exchanges, Zayn goes some way in altering the traditional power dynamic between artists and fan. Here, it is less a closed, one-way exchange where the artist gives and the fan silently receives, but has the potential to be an open, mutually beneficial, limitless cycle of artistic production.

It’s no secret that Zayn lost some fans after he departed One Direction. Many felt betrayed, and ultimately lied to: they had been sold a fantasy without disagreements between band members where Zayn was only ever having a “sick time”. In actions like this, Zayn is demonstrating to the people supporting his solo career that he values them not just as fans, but as equals who are artists in their own right.

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