In conversation with Sumaira Tazeen


In conversation with Sumaira Tazeen

Pakistani born artist, Sumaira Tazeen received her BFA in Miniature Painting in 1996 from the prestigious National College of Arts in Lahore. Since th

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Pakistani born artist, Sumaira Tazeen received her BFA in Miniature Painting in 1996 from the prestigious National College of Arts in Lahore. Since then, she has dominated the art world with her constant evolution as an artist. She is also a curator and beloved art educator especially for many in Karachi where she served as Associate Professor at the Department of Miniature Painting, Faculty of Fine Art at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture  from 2005 till 2012. Her work has been exhibited in established group and solo exhibitions across South Asia, the United States, Canada, Europe and the Middle East, and has been presented to such influential figures as Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Rania of Jordan. Tazeen is the recipient of a number of awards including the Haji Muhammud Sharif Award for Miniature Painting (1996), the Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship (2004), the Department for International Development Scholarship Award (2003- 2004) and Ontario Arts Council’s grant for Emerging Artists (2014). She has attended artist workshops such as the Vasl Artist Workshop (2001) and also completed an artist residency at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga (2009).


Sumaira continues her practice in Canada, where she resides and has shown in prestigious public art galleries like Art Gallery of Mississauga. She is part of  AGM’s educational roster for schools as Artist in residence. She is a member of South Asian Visual Arts Center, Canada (SAVAC) Her recent curatorial venture was a miniature painting show “Traditions leads to innovation” at Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto at South Asian heritage day (2013). She is the master of traditional gilding techniques and have conducted an adult workshop at Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. (2015)



JA: Let’s start at the beginning; how do you think going to an art school (NCA) influenced your way of thinking of the world. What became your concerns that then appeared in your work? Was there a shift in your thoughts about the world around us when moving from Hyderabad to Lahore for those four years?


ST: “Art buchpun sae hee tha” I was creative and was inclined towards art from childhood and going to the art school was part and parcel for it. I got to know about NCA through a TV program on thier thesis graduates in which Mrs. Salima Hashmi was the host. From that day onwards NCA was the institution of my dreams “Parhna tha tu bus NCA mein”. Although I belong to a family who has been exposed to most of the amenities of life from good schooling and the best exposure to the social life of the city of Hyderabad, life spent at NCA has completely changed the outlook of my personality. It has groomed me in and out. This college gave me the best exposure to almost every aspect of life, from personal style to art, literature, poetry and music. Big names of the art world like Mrs. Salima Hashmi, Lala Rukh, Quddus Mirza, Ustad Bashir Ahmed, Saeed Akhtar Sahib, Khalil Chishti, Madam Talat Dabeer, Nausheen Saeed and many more have played an essential role in grooming my personality as an artist from formal training to experimental growth. Four years spent at my Alma Mater are the golden years of my life that I have spent with my teachers, friends and creating and learning about art.



JA: Do you think your migration to Canada influenced your practice? If so, please elaborate in terms of work and thought?


ST: Migration to me is a process of displacement. It can be physical and spiritual both. Moving from Pakistan to Canada was certainly a huge roller coaster ride. Although it was a deliberate decision, it was not easy. Indeed moving from one continent to another was a huge leap in almost all aspects of life. It certainly affected my art practice too. I would say it mostly affected me in terms of subject as I have always worked with personal and social narratives. I investigate the conceptual discourse of how traumatic events disrupt the identity construct (gender/female). Being identified in Canada as a Muslim South Asian woman and trained in miniature painting and stitch crafts in Pakistan, I draw from wide sources of symbolism from nature, land, religion, politics and historical and cultural events. I seek to subvert traditional boundaries of art practices through experimentation with scale, mediums, and materials and create objects that project dualities. As a female artist in the diaspora, I explore narratives on social issues that are important to me, such as displacement, abuse, alienation and belonging.

My formal education at NCA was in miniature painting and sculpture. I started delving in sculpture and video art in 2009 with a piece in Shanakhat festival, which never happened. I started making small format/scale videos that were installed in small boxes. Then all other mediums seeped in gradually which in the end have culminated into installation and site specific work.


JA: You graduated at the time of the Neo-Miniature style where Pakistan became of particular interest to the rest of the world for their traditional miniature skill. Could you tell us about your firsthand experience at the time? How did it affect the country, our art scene and you personally?


ST: Yes, I was one of the passengers of that train 🙂 I have seen a boom of miniature painting in terms of acceptance and rejection. From the debates to whether an artwork from a formally trained miniature painter is a miniature or not? The battle between traditional and contemporary, large and small etc. can be taken as positive as well as negative. On one hand it challenged us to make more experimental art and on the other it cornered us with a lot of pressure in terms of acceptance in the main art stream. Now after 25 years I feel that the train has reached its destination and now people/critics as well as miniature painters are out of this band wagon. This pressure was definitely in back of mind too in the beginning as a graduate but it never over powered my art practice. I have always experimented with medium, surfaces, scale etc. throughout my career, which has continually allowed me to progress. Our art now has made its mark and no one questions on the teething concerns. It has taken its place as a genre and with all the effort from previous artists, youngsters now have the advantage to experiment more conceptually as well as creatively.


JA: Sabz bagh is something that you have continued to rejuvenate throughout your career and speaks about the process of migration and emotions one feel when going through it. How did the work develop from I-IV? Was there any particular reason in the shift towards 3-dimensionality?


ST: Sabz Bagh daikhna aur dekhana, is an Urdu proverb for ‘the grass is greener’. This proverb fits in my concept in many ways. I feel what we see in reality is not the actual story. This idea or term started emerging in my work in 2010 from the Karachi Miniature show at Poppy Seed gallery. I showed my three dimensional miniature trunk (Jahaiz peti) works which were actually pointing on to the duality of behaviors in relationships. Later on I used it in a video work Sabz Bagh displayed in “Awaaz” Baldia Factory Inferno in 2013. I used this term on multiple levels and constantly playing with my metaphors. At Baldia Inferno it was a comment on current futile and numb behavior of dignitaries in Pakistani government and was linked with my ongoing research in the context of “Bagh”, that we all are in search of a garden of peace. Sometimes this garden is present in your surroundings, but most of the time it just looks green on the other side far from the reality. In it I used poppy flower, water and a national song as my metaphors. I believed that it is high time that we should all unite and work towards the renaissance of Pakistan.


I also reference this bagh with search to find the perfect garden refers to “Jannah”, which in Islamic religious philosophy deals with the idea of having abundance and prosperity in life here and after. My multidisciplinary works or installations are inspired from Mughal miniature painting borders and patterns which represent the same idea of garden. The symbols from flora and fauna and golden orbs refer to the struggle of people migrating from other countries to Canada in search of opportunities for better life. It is about the garden which is always green on the other side. Also regarding mediums I did not deliberately change my mediums from painting to installation, it just happened gradually from making videos and doing site specific works from a Center| Margin Collaboration with Abdullah M. I. Syed at White Wash in Gandhara to 011-91 011-92 show at Art Gallery of Mississauga, Canada curated by Stuart Keeler. Suitcases too, kind of emerged from my use of Peti, box, trunk etc. Also the sound piece initially began from Band Baja Barat show where I used a gramophone which actually had sound recordings of songs sang at my wedding. So I would say it all just got mixed together 🙂



JA: Your oeuvre has been consistent with non-figurative and abstract imagery. Where do you think the preference stems from and how successful do you feel objects are in representing the human world and its concerns?


ST: My very earlier work till 2002 were very illustrative and figurative but with lot of metaphorical use of objects. Later the symbology started getting minimal and non-figurative. I think it just flowed with my concept. No such deliberate effort. I was painting what I was finding appropriate for my idea and was growing from within and my paintings. In my view bringing a metaphorical element to ones work bring more depth for the viewer. It leads you to think on multiple levels not just one. As humans we are all connected to nature as well as objects in our surroundings, in our culture and traditions. All of these things inspire me as an artist and I feel a strong bonding with them. However my parallel practice as a traditional miniature is extremely figurative illustrations with use of metaphors. These figurative/ illustrative paintings are usually commissioned works that I have made for public and private collections. I continue on with this traditional practice as it keeps me intact with my roots.


JA: Along with your fascinating skill in painting, you have also mastered the art of gilding. Why is gold such a recurring hue in your works?

ST: Gilding or illumination is part of our formal training as miniature painters at NCA. Although I have consistently illuminated my works with gold and silver leaf as well as collages of real gota (Sucha Gota) in my ‘Virsa’ series, the real interest began in gilding when I attended a day workshop at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2003. That workshop and exposure to Illuminated manuscripts and paintings at V&A and National Gallery in London inspired me so much that I made a real effort to go to an art store in London that specialized in gilding tools and spent a fortune to buy all of it :). I still have these tools with me and I still use them. Conceptually the hue is connected to my subject. I have used it as a reference to show festivity, lust, glitter, shine, love, passion, courage from my ‘Virsa’ series to ‘Sabz Bagh’. Apart from gold my colour palette has become minimal since 2002 onwards. It was not deliberate but just an enjoyment of using red, blacks, blues and whites which still continues till I no longer feel the need for these colours.



Aaap ka Kam aap ki zindagi kae saath chalta hae, bus jaisey durya behta hae waisey kaam ka bhi flow hota hae, ideas aatey rehtey hain cheezain buntee chali jati hain 🙂



JA: You have been a member for the teaching faculty at IVS as well as held workshops. How has sharing your knowledge with others helped you as an artist?



ST: “Sharing is growth” the more you share the more you grow deeper in yourself. I started taking workshops at different art institutions and galleries in Karachi on Miniature Painting right after my graduation in 1996. At that time I was the only energetic young artist who wanted to share her knowledge of traditional miniature practice to contemporary. Almost all the miniature painting departments in Karachi were started and established by me. I feel honoured that I am part of the movement that changed the perspective of contemporary art practice in Pakistan. I became a part of the IVS faculty in 2005 where I started teaching miniature painting. Now I am happy that the knowledge I shared with my students has made them shine in the field as practicing artists.
Teaching is an experience that always makes you grow. Problem solving for students actually contributes towards one’s self growth as an artist. The challenges that you face day today are actually taking you on to the next level of thinking and progression in your own art practice.

JA: How did the shift from paint to installations and interactive pieces happen? Also, could you tell us about your collaborative piece ‘Love Art Eat Heart’ with Abdullah Syed where the audience was served heart shaped barfi on customized paper plates at the Band Baja Baraat show at IVS?


ST: The shift from two dimensional to three dimensional to space and interactive is gradual. It came naturally with the progression of my work/concepts as well as my exposure to other genre through travelling and learning. “Love Art Eat Heart” a collaborative interactive performance work was basically a part of my ongoing collaborations with Abdullah Syed. The collaborations started in the form of paintings from 2006 in a show 6/6 The Labyrinth curated by Abdullah Syed and Roohi Ahmed. Later this specific idea of Band Baja Barat emerged from our collaborative piece in White Wash at Gandhara in 2011. The project extends on our on-going collaborations, which argue the nature of art, its consumption, reproducibility, and value. Taking the cue of our previous collaboration, Centre/Margin (2011) in White Wash, Love Art Eat Heart further argues the role of art and the artist in a society where art as idea itself becomes an idea, with the potential to be shared endlessly. For Syed, the repetitive typing and stamping of “Love Art Eat Heart” suggested to the nature of art as an idea that figuratively and emotionally consumes him. For me, the filigree and heart imagery visualizes the idea of art as something consuming the artist, who rarely takes centre stage in our society. The idea of the show was festivity and joy, and to us it was an opportunity to share with the audience our moments of happiness by distributing sweets through our artwork, as a small gesture of positivity and happiness. On the other hand, audience participation to consume, appreciate or perhaps ridicule the artists’ sweet love for art, which gives them more pain than pleasure.



JA: Finally, I would just like to add that your continuous experimentation with various mediums is a definite inspiration to emerging artists such as me. As an educator and experienced artist, is there anything you like to tell our viewers fresh out of art school?

ST: I think my art journey has a lot to inspire for young graduates. First of all be honest to yourself, to your work and to others. Art is life; it’s a parallel practice that strengthens one’s inner self, so never give up on your art practice. Keep making your art and you will reach your destination. The key to success is to keep practicing with the flow and never stop even if your personal life has a lot of struggles. I think those struggles bring deeper thinking so don’t stop thinking deeper 🙂 World will be yours.



JA: Thank you for your time.



ST: My Pleasure 🙂