Female newcomers the focus for artist in residence

Sumaira Tazeen aims to spark open dialogue about cultural identity, displacement and belonging


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Birch bark is coarser in Canada than it is in the Himalayas.

Biting it, a native Canadian art form, is something Sumaira Tazeen plans to incorporate in her project as Kitchener’s artist-in-residence.

Blending old customs with new ideas isn’t foreign to the Pakistan-born artist.

It’s said seashells add a sheen, but she isn’t so sure.

“They create an easy-to-contain palette to mix colour,” Tazeen said, sitting cross-legged on the floor of her Cambridge studio.

However, the artist swears by the squirrel-hair paintbrushes she makes herself with only the finest hair from the tip of the tail.

Creating contemporary constructs from tradition is what she does best, and blending a cultural art form to tell stories from the broader community will be her main objective in the months ahead.

Tazeen has worked in a variety of media, including sculpture, needlecraft and textiles, and more recently digital video and sound, though her main focus and inspiration lies in South Asian-style miniature painting, a practice she majored in at the National College of Arts in Lahore, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1996.

“I still take my inspiration from the same school of thought that I’ve been trained with,” she said.

In more recent times, Tazeen has used neo miniature painting to explore a variety of issues, especially those facing her own culture. Her work has been featured in various group and solo exhibitions all over the world.


A miniature scroll she created to highlight the extinction of elephants due to poaching was presented to the Queen during a royal visit to Pakistan in 1997, but Tazeen more often tackles themes relating to women, such as body image, dowry and relationships.


“I’m not a feminist, but the issues that I deal with are mostly women issues.”


She often incorporates the pattern of a sunflower, a monoecious plant containing both male and female parts.


“I take it as a metaphor as human beings, because we all have both the genders in us, as well — like the idea of yin and yang, and the Holy Qur’an also talks about it, too,” she said.


“As a person, if I conceive something, I act as a female. If I am delivering something or talking about something, then I am a male character. That’s how our psyche works.”


Tazeen’s residency, entitled “Sabz Bagh” (the grass is greener) references those who come to Canada in search of opportunities and a better life and then encounter a variety of challenges and barriers once they arrive.


“When I moved from Pakistan to Canada, I thought everything for whoever comes from another country would be good and rosy. But when you come here, there’s a lot of struggle you have to go through, and then, ultimately, you reach the goal or the destination where you want to go,” she said. “Sometimes you reach that part, and sometimes you don’t, so that’s what I am kind of talking about and working with.”


Tazeen wants to learn and tell the stories of other female Canadian newcomers.


“It does not necessarily have to be women who recently immigrated,” she said. “It can be women who have moved to Canada long ago.”


A series of workshops will engage participants in the creation of collaborative needlecraft and textile works. Participants will be encouraged to share their stories of resettlement, and art produced in the workshops will be part of a final exhibit at city hall in December.


“I am taking this biting as a metaphor to describe my frustration,” she says, applying a piece of bark to create a sunflower.


“When you have anger and frustration, you bite your teeth; you clench your teeth and show your frustration.


“I’ll probably be asking women to bite birch or some other material and taking their teeth marks and using them in my work.”


Tazeen hopes that the project will provide an opportunity for the public to thoughtfully consider the complex, and at times contradictory, emotions experienced by newcomers.


Emily Robson, the city’s co-ordinator of arts and creative industries, said she’s thrilled to be working with an artist and educator who will be exploring experiences of immigrant women, an under-represented focus in the program’s history.


Part of the exhibit will include a sound installation featuring interviews with workshop participants. Furthermore, Tazeen plans to engage the broader community, including youth, through art activities, demonstrations and performances at local festivals and events.


You can follow her on Twitter: @siyahqalam, or on her website at For more about the artist-in-residence program, visit



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