The Rat Girl

By Iqra Sarfaraz
Tue, 10, 18

This week You! talks to a multi-disciplinary artist, Zehra Khan, popularly known as ‘Rat Girl’ to get to know more about her work and herself...

art interview

This week You! talks to a multi-disciplinary artist, Zehra Khan, popularly known as ‘Rat Girl’ to get to know more about her work and herself...

Ironically, in today’s world we are more connected to each other (via internet & social media) yet feel disconnected to them and ourselves. This is due to the fact that with so much access to information, we tend to be more worried, restless, overwhelmed, less empowered and poised for action. In the midst of all this, art can make a difference and connect people to a certain thought or idea. While art does not show people what to do, yet engaging with a good work of art can connect you to your senses, body, and mind. It can make the world ‘felt’. And this ‘felt’ feeling may encourage thinking, engagement, and even action.

Such is the art of Zehra Khan, who is a multi-disciplinary artist and likes to make things by hand. The best part about her work is that she connects herself with her work and makes people feel connected to it also.

Khan works in drawing, sculpture, installations, performance and painting on people. She is a Pakistani and American, born in Indonesia. She lived in Paris and Switzerland before moving to the US. Zehra received an MFA from the Mass College of Art & Design at the Fine Arts Work Centre in Provincetown, and a BS from Skidmore College.

She has attended art residencies at Yaddo, I-Park, the Vermont Studio Center, the Post-Contemporary, the Virginia Mountain Lake Biological Station. She is a current participant of the NYC Drawing Centre Viewing Programme and the deCordova Museum Corporate Lending Programme. She co-authored the children’s book ‘A Sunny Day for Flowers’ and contributed to ‘The Resistance Colouring & Activity Book’. Also, in March 2018, Zehra was nominated as one of the ‘10 Emerging New England Artists’ by Art New England. This week You! talks to Zehra Khan to get to know more about her work and herself as an artist...

You! What made you pursue art?

Zehra Khan: I fell in love with Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits when I was young. She didn’t seem scared of anything; vulnerable and invincible at the same time.

You! Why do you paint?

ZK: I make art as a way to absorb and reflect on the world.

You! What is your speciality in terms of the techniques and materials you use?

ZK: I love to create - be it drawing, painting, sculpture, photography or film. I use all these mediums when I create films starring animal performers. The performers are all volunteers - myself and friends, and through costumes and body painting we enact the surreal high jinks of animal humans. These beasts interact in recognisable reality mixed with drawn backgrounds and cardboard props.

You! Why do you portray humans disguised as animals? What connection do you see between the two?

ZK: Animals evoke fairy tales, fables, and ceremonies. Showing people disguised as animals allows for the viewer to distance themselves. My creatures act like humans, with the same habits and foibles.

The rat became my animal of choice for many years, to the point where I was called Rat Girl. Rats cause strong reaction in the viewer - seeing one rat as opposed to a swarm of them. Rats are instantly recognisable... everybody has a rat encounter story. My rats are supposed to be playful, not scary.

You! Is there an element in your art you enjoy the most?

ZK: I like to make art that suits my lifestyle. I need art that I can make when I’m feeling quiet, meditative and repetitive. I also need work that is physical, immediate, unknown to me... so I can explore, and problem solve!

You! What is the inspiration behind your work?

ZK: Art is an interpreter of all things. It helps me understand and absorb my life. Like a diary entry. Like interpreting a dream, it is a filter, a level of understanding.

You! Is there any work of yours you are most proud of?

ZK: I am very proud of the work that is inspired by real people or directly correlates to my life.

You! What do you dislike about the art world?

ZK: Gender bias still exists in the art world. In the United States, only 30 per cent of artists represented by commercial galleries are women.

You! What do you dislike about your work?

ZK: It’s a pain to store my artwork when it’s large scale. I’d be happier if it was out of my house and someone was enjoying it.

You! What do you like about your work?

ZK: Above all, humour. If a piece has humour in it, I immediately want to connect. I use humour to connect to people in my everyday life, and it seems to have spilled over into my art.

You! How do people receive your work?

ZK: People seem to enjoy deciphering how the piece was made, and the possible narratives. Children gravitate towards the drawings for being cartoonish and playful.

You! What is your dream project?

ZK: Creating large scale fantastical paper and cardboard environments viewers could roam around and interact with.

You! Name your favourite artists.

ZK: Yayoi Kusama and her infinity rooms; William Kentridge and his moving shadows; David Hockney and the kindness towards his subjects.

You! Do you travel in order to gain knowledge or get inspired for your work?

ZK: I try to attend art residencies once a year because they are great sources of productivity and new ideas, and where I created some of my most ambitious works. Art residencies are like Art Camp... you get to hang out with other artists and see how they work, in and out of the studio.

Travel has always been extremely important in my life... my family lives on several continents. My father’s side is in Karachi, my mother’s side is in Idaho, in the United States. I grew up in so many places. Travel has shaped my outlook and life, and my artwork.

You! In your opinion, how would you define surreal art?

ZK: Surreal art is the collision of reality and dreams. I love a little surrealism, which leads me to play with scale, proportion, and the viewers’ expectations of the space.

You! Tell us something about your book ‘A Sunny Day for Flowers’?

ZK: I wrote this book for children with the help of fellow artist Tim Winn. It shows animal characters from my performances interacting with paper flowers. The book is a mash up of all the different kinds of artworks I make. You can find it online at or specifically

You! What is an artistic outlook on life?

ZK: It’s an outlook on life that involves making art, looking at art, absorbing art, and hopefully sharing art with others.

You! What are your future plans?

ZK: I am very excited to attend two art residencies this month. I am going to Ox-Bow in Michigan, and then to Korea for a Green Arts Symposium at ‘Art Space Sonahmoo’, about an hour from Seoul. I hope to make art, laugh a lot, and take in all the uniqueness of these two places.