Nimra Khan: Let’s start with your story. How did you begin your career as an artist and when did you know you were going to be a painter?
Unver Shafi Khan: It was really in college in America, where I was on a scholarship. I went to a private liberal arts college with no idea what I wanted to do in my life. It was 1980 and I was in the arts building in 4 weeks – I was told by my father to study economics – but I was in the arts building and I took my foundation courses for art.
And that was it; I came back from college, back home. It was 1984 and I was going to stay on in America but I came back instead. I realized that by then it was a dilemma that it should be writing or painting. And in many ways its remarkable how everything has evolved in 30 plus years. There was one art gallery in Karachi, Indus Gallery, there was one in Lahore, half dead, and there was Rohta’s in Islamabad, but really it was just Ali Imam. And I thought should it be writing? But then I was suddenly very clear when I came back that it was going to be painting not writing, because I felt that color and form belonged to no one. I feel no matter what form it is you are free to play, and that language doesn’t belong to anybody. So I said you know that’s going to be my journey and I never regretted it.
NK: How do you feel your work has evolved and where does your current visual vocabulary develop/originate from?
US: The dots have been in my work since college, I haven’t left them. And as I say now all my third world vocabulary, the architecture of visual vocabulary, goes into that work. I find the dot transfixing. It speaks to me. And these kinds of forms speak to me, and the day they stop speaking to me I will not paint like this. Because they will be boring for me. In that way I completely believe that you work for yourself. You have to feel something. If you don’t feel the joy the agony whatever you want to call it, then you’re not going to be able to transmit that I guarantee you. So that’s the evolution of my thinking. That’s the story that I’m interested in, and you have to have some years before you can make that, to show when your own self comes out. That’s what I say to have forged a language that is uniquely mine.
NK: What is your process when you start a painting? Is each piece premeditated or impulsive?
US: I draw for these. I have a sketchbook going back about 15 years. I draw and I keep erasing. I draw post-it stamp size and from that little black and white sketch I go to this [gestures to paintings]. Sometimes I do controlled paintings for the color I’m thinking about when I’ve drawn a certain form.
At my recent exhibition somebody said “I love the monotone colors you have used” and I think that was a brilliant compliment in my opinion because I’ve used 13 different colors but in such a muted way with so much control that it’s a compliment. I always have a little mule canvas of 1’x4’ and I keep playing. You know that form over there [points at painting] at the bottom, that round form, I do those often because when I want to play with complex, subtle variations of colors, that’s the form I can handle – it’s not complicated. So then I do one of those, but it’s not always the same, it’s very different, it’s hard to explain actually, Nimra, because the starting point of that painting was a red ground. It’s transparencies of color really. So it’s not really shading it’s painting in very thin layers of a very strong color so making it look like a pink but there’s no mixing of red, the red was dry in the background but then I started adding more carmine, crimson, and the whole thing starts changing.
And if you look at these pieces, there are also about 14 different brushes that I’ve used here because when I start there is a lot of vigorous brushwork; you see all the brushwork. I start with an inch and a half and I start going down, and I go down to a 12 for crosshatching. And then I start removing the brushstroke. So each layer that is applied has to be applied smoothly. So I’ve finished this (points at blue painting), this could be a complete painting, but if you look at it in a certain light, daylight ideally, you will see brushstrokes and I’m currently still working on removing the brushstrokes.
NK: Your piece at the Karachi Biennale 2017 was unlike your other works in both style and content. Tell us about it, and what you were trying to say with it?
US: When Amin invited me to paint for the biennale he said, “Unver, take one room and take four ethereal canvases in the style of Mark Rothko’s color fields.” And I said fine, great. But there was a theme, and that bothered me. So some months went by and I thought what do I want to say? Because what I want to say I say here. I wanted to contribute to a certain way of looking at things.
So what bothers me the most is the hypocrisy of the way we live and especially because we bang this bloody drum about religiosity. You would be drinking, commit adultery, pedophilia, not pay income tax, commit murder, behead someone, but when it comes to pork, you can’t eat that, that’s Haram! I’m very open-minded when it comes to religion, I feel it’s personal. Don’t judge me and I won’t judge you. But if you judge me, I have a problem with that. So this hypocrisy I have a big problem with. So I chose a nice pink pig, and I twisted his fact and he is smiling at the public. And that was my little commentary. That was the story behind “Holy Shit!”.
NK: Your titles are always very playful and whimsical, where do they come from?
US: Yes! You know this “Fox Hunt in the Persian Rug”? That’s a title from 1986 from my diaries. I finally made a painting [for it] which was at this show at Koel. And this is just the title I wanted. For me this is where the English Major comes in. The titles are fun for me. Especially the “Fabulist series”; it’s a word I coined and I’m quite happy how people now call it the “Fabulist” style. It came from fables, where you kiss the frog and he becomes a prince, the wolf becomes the [grandma] and something becomes something else, there is always transformation. Half the time [you don’t know] is it a man, is it a creature, is it a human being in this work. It’s phantasmagoric. So it’s a bit like fables. And I liked the sound of “Fabulist”. And then I started numbering them, till about 330-360 and then I got tired so then I started giving them titles and added “in the Fabulist style” because people recognize it now. And I think that’s worthwhile because now I love giving titles. They mean something to me. But some of these are also just titled “form”. I think it’s a matter of showing the continuity and mood. So yea the titles are hugely important to me. Because everything makes me think of something and I would like to title it such. And they’re witty sometimes. I want my work to kind of poke fun. Dr. Naqvi and Saquib Hanif have written a lot about that, whether I am poking fun at the viewer. About how serious is this business of looking at art and painting and the spirit and all that and partly yes, there is this whole notion of the trickster or the joker, or the clown, and do we take ourselves too seriously.
NK: The acrylic paintings are busier and have a distinctly different style than the quieter oil paintings that seem to play with pure form. Why do you think this is and what does it imply? Are they also different in content/purpose?
US: They all started together, whether it was the ink drawings, the early pen and inks, early watercolor going into acrylic, paint on paper and paint on Canvas around 2000. And that’s where the separation began as the large oils become minimal, very surface conscious, very monolithic, very minimal, very not-busy, and [the acrylics] get crazier and madder. And it feeds into me, I need both. And then the prints come in and they start going everywhere. So it’s all part of the expression. They come from the same place but they all touch you very differently and I like that. And Honestly I work on [the acrylics and the oils] at the same time so they give me ideas. I’ve done small fabulist series paintings with a certain form and they’ve become 8×5 feet oil paintings. I just removed the dots because I liked the form. Or I’ve done a form which I’ve worked into my Fabulist style.
NK: And where do the prints come in?
US: The prints are just fun. They’re so much fun. They allow me to revisit work, reengage with an image. The prints do that to me, every two years suddenly the prints get into my head and they make me follow a direction in terms of painting. So it’s a good fun cycle you just keep going around in a circle, or rather a spiral that’s evolving towards something, and that’s a good concept. So long as its making me feed into my work and think about my work I will keep doing it.
NK: I feel the works from 2010 and before had more animal forms, and the figures and forms were more distinguishable and recognizable even in their stylized state compared to newer works. What this a conscious decision? What does this reflect?
US: It’s becoming more painterly in a sense. You’re absolutely right. It’s going somewhere else and I like that transition. There is a lot more expression of brush. If you look at these pieces there is a certain awareness of veins. It’s a lot more painterly, showing the brushstroke instead of the rigid form it had before. It’s loosening up, becoming a lot more abstract in a sense. It’s paint, it’s flesh, you have to feel, you can enjoy it or you can hate it but you can’t ignore it. And I’m coming more towards the human form, you’re right there, and I’m conscious of that. I’m kind of enjoying not doing [animal forms]. I’m kind of done with that.
NK: Where do you see your work going from here?
US: I want two years without thinking about anyone else, I want to try and make a good body of work. I have the sketches I have this idea. I just want to be left alone, I work that way. I still sit in front of a blank canvas and I want to make the best painting. I want to feel the emotion whether its sadness, joy, whatever one is thinking at the time and I still haven’t reached within myself and done the best, that still hasn’t changed.
I am also doing this series of portraits of artists that I admire. But they’re not going to be “portraits”, I’m messing with a bunch of stuff in the title and in the whole premise of what is our identity. I really want to do those. I have all the artists I admire, so Souza, Amrita Sher-Gil, Zubaida Agha, Shemza, Ahmed Parvez, Sadequain, Zahoor; I’m going to do 8 of them. I don’t want to give the titles and what I’m doing but it’s quite funny.
So what I’m trying to say is I need to be back in my studio alone, working, because I need to make sense of what I have inside me. Otherwise, what’s the point? Making money is a different thing and being an artist is something completely different.
NK: So you don’t think you will be exhibiting again?
US: No. actually never again commercially. I would not like to show commercially ever. I really don’t enjoy it. I mean I do sell my work but to those who come [to my studio] and who are familiar with my style of work. So it’s fun when they drop in. and not many people drop in, honestly. But it’s enough to get me by and that is by God’s grace enough for me.
NK: Thank you!