Boasting of big names such as DaVinci, Van Gogh, Picasso and many more, the world of visual arts has come a long away. There are many new and upcoming artists who are leading the cultural conversation and ask the important questions which is pushing the art world in a distinguished direction.
Lahore-based visual artist, Zahra Asim, comes from a humble background where she was raised by her single mother, who nurtured her passion into a successful career. Zahra’s appetite for art began during her childhood when her mother would have to leave her behind while stepping out to work. Zahra had always wanted be an artist but it grew into a strong passion gradually and she got herself enrolled in NCA. “I visited NCA for the first time with my mother who was doing a short course there. A strong feel of belonging to the place led my decision to become an artist. From that day, I started doing drawings seriously and praying to be the part of that fraternity,” she reminisces. She graduated with a degree in Fine Art from National College of Arts, Lahore in 2014 and completed her Masters in Art and Design from Beaconhouse National University, Lahore in 2019. It has been 8 years since she has been painting professionally and having exhibited her work in numerous groups’ shows both nationally and internationally.
Talking about where she started painting from, she relays, “I was raised in the narrow lanes of old Mozang area of Lahore, born into a working-class family. I started painting the crowded interiors of my old house which is still there. To create the feel of overcrowded space, I chose to work on a small scale and rendered the objects in intricate details.” She looks in the distance, feeling a sense of nostalgia despite the hurdles she had faced living in a congested space during early days of her childhood.
“I developed a phobia of the place where I used to live in my childhood. That domestic environment was chaotic, congested and felt further constricted with a dim yellow bulb light. The feeling of no cross ventilation and fear of not getting enough air and light still makes me feel uncomfortable,” she opens up. The aspiring artists believes that she can transform her unsettling childhood memories into art which is quite cathartic. “Those memories are now my major concern as an artist. The objective is to confront claustrophobic memories through studio strategies and turn them into nostalgic past. I usually exaggerate light in my work. And for that I use ‘glazing technique’ in my work which only comes with oil. I work in layers and I don’t think any other material would give this feel or do justice,” she explains.
Zahra specialises in oil paints but she also wants to explore other mediums. “I always feel good working in oil paints but I usually work on smaller scales. Working with a variety of compositions and a rich palette, I developed these visuals gradually by applying thin layers of paint. I would, sometimes, work on wood or canvas but it's been a year that I have been using metal sheet as a surface,” she states. Zahra is also a self-taught jewellery designer and you can see traces and technique of that aspect in her work as well. “I am currently working with wires and metal sheets. It is a fragile medium for me when it comes to make those fences with wires. I have to keep on checking if the wires are in proper form as I use very small gage for intricate designs. The best part of my work is when I glaze my painting in some other colour. That technique for me is unpredictable,” she says excitedly.
Coming from a humble background and having seen struggle in her early days, Zahra developed into a quiet child. She preferred to keep her feelings to herself and didn’t have a lot of friends. She found her voice through art and that is where she started growing as a person. “Art for me is the only source where I can express myself. When I got admission in NCA, I was a shy person with no exposure to co-education so I would remain isolated. All my activity was studio work. Spending time at NCA helped me a lot in developing myself and I have become much more confident. I believe my paintings are my personal diary in a visual form,” she expresses.
Artists are constantly looking for inspiration and the surrounding environments so often influence their work. Travel is an eye-opening experience that allows them to gain a fresh outlook and draw on new cultures and surroundings to push them and their art to a new level. “I love travelling and it is the best way to find inspiration, especially as an artist. So yes, I travel in order to gain knowledge and get inspired. That’s what residency’s role is basically. Artist residency inspires you by the place or space so you get to work/inspire in response to the place,” she articulates. Recently, she was a part of a residency at Sanat Initiative, Karachi in 2019, VASL Summer residency, Karachi in 2019 and Dastaangoi Residency, Islamabad in 2021. Talking about her visit to the city of lights, she imparts, “I have done two residencies in Karachi. And totally fell in love with the city. During Vasl residency, I considered and reflected on the building structures, forms, grills and facades of the city, which surrounded and overwhelmed my creative contemplations. I evolved those forms into insightful sculptures. The scale and spatial form of my work belies the urban and human scale of Karachi, upending the hierarchy for the viewer.”
In contrast, the Islamabad exhibition named ‘Bad e Saba’ by Dastaangoi turned out more exciting and distinctive. “It was a two week artists-in-residence show. The residency involved various artists where all them came together to create and become one with nature with no mental stress at all. It was one of the best experiences,” she gushes.
The artist believes in healthy criticism and often finds ways to how she can improve her work. “My art is my reflection. So, there are a lot of things which even I hate in my artwork. But I find myself lucky that I have been working constantly and my work has evolved a lot with time and the residencies have helped me immensely and I hope my evolution won’t stop here. I take criticism well because it gives me diverse perspective and make me think in a different way,” she expresses. On the other hand, she also holds extreme pride in her work and believes that her work is a reflection of her inner self. “I love when people say that they feel nostalgic seeing my artwork. That makes me realise that people do get what I want to convey through my work. I always feel proud of what I create because that is my reflection and I’m brave enough to show it to the world in a visual form,” she exclaims.
Revealing her favourite artist and where she drew inspiration from, she says, “I don’t have a specific name for favourite artist. I also believe artists are not constant. I love specific work of different artists but if you would ask me a specific one then I would say Salman Toor.”
Zahra talks about how she is really fond of drawing fences and loves including it in her art. “I’m very fond of fences... the typical fences design which we all would see in our old house or our nani or dadi’s house. My dream project is to make a large installation out of fences on a bigger platform,” she says.
The art scene has changed a lot in recent years, especially in Pakistan. There are various platforms for artists to exhibit their work and don’t necessarily require a gallery or an exhibition to display their work. Although, representation of the artist’s work is an important aspect which contributes to their growth. In this regard, Zara shares her opinion, “I think now artist itself is a label and after pandemic, things have changed a lot. I also believe now that Instagram itself is a library of an artist where an artist can create a brand out of their name. But I also think that for artist, they need a gallery, an authentic gallery, where they can be represented. Artist needs to be presented in a bigger platform because it’s still their need. I believe that Pakistan has a tremendous pool of talent and the art scene is so in action. The artists are making us proud by exhibiting works all over the world.”
On a parting note Zara wants to emphasise on the fact that it is important to give time to your work. “The most important advice for young artists is to make their own personal space/studio. It doesn’t matter how small the space is, one needs to spend some time there. Just start spending time in that space even if it’s for a mere ten minutes. It will be your own personal space where you can create magic.”