"We’ve missed out on still life"

August 25, 2019

Interview of Irfan Cheema


The still life or nature morte has been a constant subject throughout the history of art, its significance shifting over time. Irfan Cheema, a practitioner of still life, revisits, updates and subverts the classic Dutch formal floral displays by including both modern and rustic artifacts and symbols. His oil paintings tick all the traditional boxes, with elegant flowers, succulent and glowing fruit and birds, along with chinoiserie -- the gift of his association with Shanghai, China, where he lives and works as a fashion designer and curriculum coordinator at the University of Shanghai.

Below are excerpts from an interview conducted at Tanzara Gallery in Islamabad, where the artist held his last solo show, Tableaux.

The News on Sunday (TNS): If I were to assume that you are a self-taught painter, would I be right?

Irfan Cheema (IC): You’d be partly right. As far as my academic background is concerned, I didn’t learn to paint. I studied fashion design at Pakistan School of Fashion Design way back in 1995, when it used to be located on Sundar Das Road or Thandi Sarak in Lahore. As part of the curriculum, I did, however, study drawing, art appreciation and design theory; but, as far as painting is concerned, I am totally self-taught.

TNS: What made you switch over to painting?

IC: I haven’t made a switchover. Fashion design is still a major part of what I do in China. I work as a curriculum coordinator in the Department of Fashion at the University of Shanghai. I do a number of other things, too, such as international accreditation, curriculum development and teaching. We work with translators. Since the department is being run by the National Fashion Academy in France, there’s a team of foreign designers there.

There was a period of 8-9 years when I didn’t paint at all but I continued to make sketches. In 2013, I started painting again. But more than anything else it began out of an academic interest in pigments. I was looking at the origin of oil pigments in history. Meanwhile, I remained in touch with the contemporary art scene. China has a very vibrant art scene, anyway.

TNS: How did you choose China to work from?

IC: I didn’t choose China. China chose me. I was working in Egypt when I got the offer to work in China. I had been fascinated by China for a long time. For some of the projects I did during my fashion education, I picked China invariably. When the offer to teach in China came my way, I accepted it readily. Initially, I went there for 4 years. It’s been 14 years now.

TNS: It appears that ever since you’ve been painting seriously, your subject has been still life. Comment.

IC: Initially, I experimented with pigments, looking into the chemistry of paint and technique concerning the onset of oil painting in the West, and the preparation of surfaces, etc. There’s a deep relationship between the surface and what is laid out on that surface. As a genre, still life has always fascinated me. When I was studying art as part of my fashion education, and more recently, during my visits to biennales and art fairs, I realised that still life is never mentioned as a breed of any importance. It is mentioned as part of art history or as a minor segment, to the point that no book on still life can be found. There is a mention of Dutch still life painting but that is not enough.

TNS: Were you following the style or technique of any particular master while working on still lifes in oils?

IC: Before I took to painting still lifes, I studied many still life artists, starting with the Dutch masters of the 17th century and including 19th century French Realists and Romantics. To name but one source of inspiration would be a tricky proposition.

I love the paintings of the French master, Henri Fantin-Latour. There was a time when I wished I could paint like him. He would have a simple background with flowers strewn on tabletops that seemed alive, painted in a rather simplistic and nonchalant abandon. His paintings had a natural grace and elegance, and the surfaces were a pageant of colour and fancy strokes. You could see each stroke, holding there for a purpose. I still love his work but I have stopped trying to emulate him.

Apart from inspiration, there’s also technique. There are techniques developed by the Realists and the Dutch masters that I do follow in terms of preparing the ground, the underpainting, laying down of colours, and putting things together. In fact, I take a lot of different things from different areas, and put them together.

TNS: What made you arrive at a traditional/conventional approach to making still lifes as opposed to examples set by Cezanne, Matisse or Morandi, or by the contemporary artists, for that matter, including the abstractionists?  

IC: I think it was my lack of art education that led me to a traditional approach.

I wanted to explore the medium, and to paint but every time I tried, I failed miserably. Then I looked up great masters and their techniques in books. Talking about the Realists or the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists, about Van Gogh with his amazing still lifes, it was never quite my target to emulate their style. As a matter of fact, it never occurred to me what I should be painting.

TNS: That should lead us to conclude that ‘lack of art education’, in your case, has been a blessing in disguise.

IC: It is not a matter of blessing or the lack of it. While I was studying art appreciation, I was repeatedly told that anything made before the 20th century is not art because it was made with a religious intent and so forth, and most of us were extremely sure of that. I don’t know how people would react to a shark floating in a formaldehyde vitrine 20 years from now on, but today we are sure that that’s pretty much ‘art’.

For many years when I did not paint, I could not because I wanted to paint in a certain way. At the back of my head resided the notion that that’s not what the artists paint nowadays. That is what stopped me from painting until I reached the point where I was only doing it for self-appeasement. I handpicked the most downtrodden genre not out of sympathy but because that’s what I wanted to paint. It was not as simple as making a painting that matched the colour of my couch. Between the 17th century and cellular phones, there was a whole world that still had these objects as an important part of everyday life.

TNS: While the objects and artifacts in your work are beautiful, they smack of an orientalist approach.

IC: A part of my collection is authentic Kashmiri, and the other part French imitations. The "orientalist approach" is an observation on your part that you are at liberty to make.

In our art history, we’ve missed out on still life. We’ve had some remarkable still life artists though, such as Shakeel Siddiqui and Akram Spaul. If I were making portraits, I would have had some very strong references that we also acknowledge. The same goes for landscapes where we have big names. In still life, however, we don’t. Maybe, the only reference then is the western still life.

As far as my technique is concerned, oil painting, and not oil paint per se, is totally European. When it comes to the subject, it doesn’t matter to me whether you call it eastern or western, oriental or occidental.

TNS: Be it ‘still life’ or ‘nature morte’, the genre is declared dead by the very nomenclature.

IC: Still life is a scene. It’s a moment. Sometimes, it can be a laboriously put together scene meant to convey meaning. Sometimes, it’s just the artist’s whim and fancy. Take, for example, Paul Cezanne whose apples are red and alive, almost on fire like burning coal. I admire certain still lifes merely for their skill. I admire the level of skill on display primarily because I admire craft.

"We’ve missed out on still life"