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Beautiful and Grotesque: In Conversation with Irfan Hasan

Haajra Haider Karrar: When did you first realize that you want to pursue art? Tell me about the journey which led you to the National College of Arts?

Irfan Hasan: Initially my parents wanted me to become a doctor and I was interested in it because I enjoyed drawing diagrams. Though when it came to theory I failed. Then I enrolled into Islamia Art and Commerce College where I studied psychology and philosophy. While studying psychology, my interest in art developed further. That’s when I left for Lahore to learn drawing from R M Naeem.

As a child, I used to draw regularly. It was important for me to make at least one big sketch every month, drawing images from books, posters, calendars; any form of visual information.

My interest in art comes from my grandfather, Bashir Niaz. He was a film story writer who wrote the blockbuster, Aaina. Throughout my childhood I used to visit Lahore and go to Royal Park (Pakistan film industry colony) and the Pak tea house with him.

He had a beautiful library which I visited often; there were a few books on art which deeply fascinated me.

HHK: Drawing being your forte you could have chosen any discipline. Why specifically miniature?

IH: Initially I was trained as a painter. I used to bunk school and go to Khouri garden and Bunder road to old book shops and spend my pocket money buying books on Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, J.W. Waterhouse and draw/paint them.  By doing this, my interest developed towards figurative art.

By the time I reached second year, I could paint fairly well. But I did not know much about miniature painting that’s when Sir R M Naeem suggested that I should learn a new technique.

I have always been hesitant using water colors. So I decided to hone my technique. Plus miniature is the only technique which requires replicating different styles, though my figures in miniature painting have always had a realistic edge. I liked that because it enhances your skill.

I feel drawing improves the most in miniature as one needs to possess a drawing vision in order to understand the differences between Mughal, Persian, and Pahari Miniature; especially Persian miniature, which is based on drawing and geometry, being derived from calligraphy.

HHK: You have attended quite a few residencies; some of them being prestigious ones. How do you feel that experience affected your work, if at all?

IH: Travelling is always eye opening. Especially New York, it was a different and a great experience for me. I was the youngest among thirty artists from around the world. I now feel that one thing that I should have done differently is spend more time on interaction with other artists rather than producing work throughout. But then it was my first exposure abroad.

The next major residency was the Commonwealth fellowship in India. I was the second person after Abdul Rehman Chughtai from the Mayo School of Art and NCA after 99 years to go to Government College Arts and Crafts, Calcutta, one of the four art schools established by the British Raj.

I was also teaching during my research and it has changed the way miniature is being practiced by young artists there, their imageries have changed from mythology to depictions from daily life.

I wanted to explore new materials and mediums thus consciously did not carry any with me when leaving from here. It gave a new opening to my work. I tried different papers instead of vasli, and used the technique of Bengal School of painting. I experimented with different mediums and started following photography.

Through my interaction with the local artists I learnt to enjoy the simplicity and lightness of work.

My reason for going to Calcutta was based on two artists who have greatly inspired me; Ganesh Pyne and Bikash Bhattacharjee. I love the darkness in their work. I was privileged to live and work in the same studio that was once theirs.

HHK: Your work does not culminate at your exceptional skill; in fact it starts from there. Your imagery is quite bold, provocative and often heavy with political and social connotations. Can you please throw some light on your thought process?

IH: My thought process stems from whatever I am going through at that moment in time. It always varies; sometimes it becomes socio-political, sometimes personal, or abstract dream like. I do not pick a topic and start working. Often while making the image, the concept starts becoming clear and the narrative builds up in the process and defines the concept.

I am always looking for and building connections in my work.

I am really interested in the grotesque and morphing existing entities to form a new creature. I love horror films and I love being scared.

HHK: In your recent solo show ‘After’ exhibited at the Canvas Gallery, there is an evident shift in your concept. The otherwise dark and grotesque imagery is replaced by aesthetically pleasing and light images. Where is this coming from?

IH: I think the grotesques images are coming from a dark period in my life. It was a difficult time for me.

The series ‘After’ is a tribute to the masters whose work I replicated as a student.

One day I was looking at a painting I did in 2004 of Gustave Courbet, produced while learning oil painting. I thought why not translate it into miniature. That was the inception of ‘After’.

There is darkness in this series as well but it’s quite subtle and maybe because I have used human bodies they do not seem grotesque.

HHK: Can this series be described as miniature painting?

IH: I have not followed the rules of traditional miniature but I have used the same medium.

On second thought even that medium is contemporary as well considering its’ factory made and mass produced.

But the sensibility and the method are coming from miniature; of building the structure of the painting, in small steps with detail and finesse.

HHK: Do you ever have the audience in mind while making work? Are you conscious of it? What part does the audience play in your work, if at all?

IH: In the beginning I was not. But artists have certain responsibilities, and one of them is what you are showing and whether the viewer is able to navigate the work, as there are times when your audience is unable to relate to the work. For example the works that I made depicting Maa Kali were greatly appreciated by Indian collectors compared to elsewhere. So now I am a bit conscious of the kind of work I display in a certain culture/ region, and careful about where it would be appreciated most; especially ever since my work was rejected by a gallery in Dubai because of its content.

HHK: You have been teaching ever since you graduated. It seems to be an integral part of you? What role does it play in your practice?

IH: It plays a very important role. Even when I was studying in NCA I was always surrounded by my contemporaries and juniors. I have always had a studio based relationship with my juniors and students as I spend most of my time there; when teaching at R.M. Naeem studio and now at Indus Valley.

This interaction is a transfer and sharing of skills and ideas. It gives me feedback and maintains and improves my skill. There are times when I learn a lot from problems being faced by students.

I feel it is a social responsibility as an artist to share your knowledge, and I enjoy it immensely.

When I started a private studio at home, it brought a complete new community to me, which included people of all ages, who wanted to learn, some who admired my work such that they wanted to learn from me.

I feel that this is where you grow the most, it builds your confidence and keeps you working and alive and gives you the edge to become a better artist.

HHK: What’s next? Anything we can look forward to?

IH: There are a few projects in the pipeline.  There is one coming up in New York, probably one of the most important shows of my career so far. I will be displaying with quite significant names from the subcontinent. ♦

Haajra Haider Karrar is a graduate of the National College of Arts, Lahore.She is a visual artist and a curator. Currently she is the curator of IVS Gallery, Karachi

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