Haajra Haider Karrar: When did you realize your interest in art? What made you decide to pursue Communication Design instead of Fine Art?
Imran Mir: It was the strength of my drawing skills and then my portfolio that got me into art and design schools wherever I applied, whether it was the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts (CIAC) Karachi, Royal College of Art in Copenhagen or finally the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), Toronto. But I realized early on that as an artist it would always be an unending struggle between having to eke out a living and pursuing what I was passionate about. All artists are faced with this dilemma but I chose the uphill task of wanting both. I made a conscious decision to acquire a degree that would give me a career so that I could paint without the anxiety of the burden of daily living. In my time, the art world was much smaller, there were fewer players – most artists, barring a handful, were paid minimally for their work and there were only a few collectors. It has worked out for the best but it’s been a challenging journey
HHK: Right after completing your initial training at the Central institute of Arts and Crafts (CIAC) you left the country for further education. How was that experience for you? How would you describe the period of transition?
IM: I received a scholarship from Pratt but could not get the visa because I had received an award from the Russian Cultural Center and the Cold War was at its peak. I travelled to Copenhagen to study at the Royal College of Art Copenhagen, but it was difficult as I was required to learn the Danish language. One of my teachers in Copenhagen, the renowned Danish artist and print maker Asger Oluf Jorn, saw my restless, exploratory spirit and suggested I apply to OCAD. When I went to Canada, the art world opened up for me. I had the opportunity to physically view works by the artists I had read about; Robert Rauschenburg, Jasper Johns, Alexander Calder, Rothko, and Robert Morris all of whom had inspired me greatly.
I was privileged to study under the tutelage of artist Steve Campbell, and attend a workshop by artist Max Bill. I learned straight on that art is not governed by a holy book. You make your own rules and you learn to break them in an informed manner – that is creativity.
While the experience of all the exposure to contemporary art and design was compelling and inspirational, it was also a very strenuous time for me. I used to work after school and then come home to finish my projects. It was also a lonely existence and there were few means of communication unlike now when the world is a smaller place and distances seem so much less.
HHK: How did the conceptual art movement affect your art practice? How was it different from the work that you were making while in Pakistan?
IM: Everything changed in the 1970s; music, film, art. I went to see an exhibition of works by Robert Morris at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York and when I saw his work for the first time I was awe-struck. It reinforced my belief in non-figurative conceptualism which I had already begun to formulate in my practice. The immersion in western contemporary art changed my perspective by 180 degrees from the time I left Karachi. Drawing came easily to me and I knew my lines were strong and resolute so I could easily have become a representational artist. But even then I was inspired by artists like Ahmed Parvez whose exuberant abstract works had always been viscerally appealing to me. What evolved was my interest in geometrical, mathematically structured painting as opposed to more spontaneous and vibrant works
HHK: What triggers your thought process? What is your inspiration?
IM: My mind is the instigator and my senses are the sponges. I am always thinking and absorbing details that most people would not even notice. Even when I am travelling I keep my paper and pencil with me. I cannot explain my work because it is intuitive although you may feel it’s calculated and measured. I am just like you when looking at my work; an outsider. What you see is what you see.
HHK: What is your process of art making? Do you have a routine? How do you juggle your time between your art practice and your advertising agency?
IM: I have a very disciplined process. The work is resolved in my sketches either on paper or on the computer and in maquettes for sculptural works. I feel it is necessary for technology to play some role in an artist’s developmental process even if the involvement is minimal. It indicates an indispensable keeping up with the times we live in.
I work at night, often all night with loud music. I cannot work without music.
When I am working on my final pieces I completely cut myself from the outside world, and take time off work. Even when I was working at Herald Publications with Hameed Haroon, I made it a point to take time off for my studio practice.
HHK: Have you ever considered exhibiting your sketches since they are resolved?
IM: My sketches in pencil are sometimes stronger and more sensitive than my paintings. But they are small and hence do not have the same impact. I might print them in a book. But there is that paradoxical issue of whether they are able to stand alone without the final image to revert to and whether the end work would have been to my complete satisfaction if I hadn’t made the drawings. If I can resolve that issue, I’ll know if the sketches have a ‘future’
HHK: How important is scale for you? And why?
IM: Scale is very important for me. I find it easier to paint on a larger scale then on a small scale. The influence dates back to my initial days in Canada and the USA where the idea of largeness in art works was and in fact, is commonplace. But it also has to do with my personal engagement with space. To me the void is full of meaning and possibilities and I can’t create that kind of space in a small painting. The emptiness is not viable in smallness.
HHK: Your palette is very calculated as well, primary opaque colors of the same hue? How would you define these colors?
IM: I never thought about it, they come naturally. I have also used softer colors in the past. In my new work I have used fluorescent colors. I wanted to experiment and explore with new colours that are offered with advances in technology. But the use of colour is an integral part of my paintings and it provides aspects to the paintings that are essential to its sensory reception
HHK: Does you work cater to a specific audience?
IM: No, not at all. I exhibited my works in the Dawn building. They were up for a month. The employees during their lunch break would come and look at the work. They would bring their families and friends and ask questions. Art needs to be more accessible especially to school children.
HHK. What is the relation between your art and design, considering that they both stem from the same person? Has design ever made you feel limited as there are client requirements involved?
IM: In many respects, art and design share boundaries and yet they are disparate in many ways too. When I was at OCAD studying design I took a course in Experimental Art which steered my thought process towards the imaginative and the inventive. For my degree show, I made an installation which was a light sculpture. So the lines between design and art have blurred consistently for me and many times, I consciously interchange elements of these two disciplines, as I do between my art and installation. People make distinctions between disciplines, not artists.
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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