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Interview with Shireen Kamran

Aziz Sohail: Tell me a bit about your path to becoming an artist

Shireen Kamran: I started school late, when I was 40, once I moved to Montreal about 15 years ago. I already had a degree from Peshawar University but was always into art.

When we moved to Montreal, I had this feeling that I was missing something in my life and once we reached there, I met a few artists, and I realized art was something that I needed to do. I was encouraged to apply to university, so I applied to Concordia and I have never looked back.

AS:So you always wanted to paint?

SK: Yes. I was a born painter. Somewhere along the way I got lost, and I started doing other stuff, arts and crafts, raising a family, moving from place to place, a very nomadic existence in some ways. So when I ended up in Montreal, I was really questioning, and I had time to think about myself, and I had all the time and space, to do what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, it sort of took place on its own. As I said, I met some interesting people who encouraged me and I knew this is what I wanted to do , and listen to, and I made a commitment to myself.

AS: When did you graduate from Concordia?


AS:So you have been active for 14 to 15 years? Tell me a bit about the journey since graduating.

SK: I was offered a show right away, at the Visual Arts Center. Then I have recently shown there too again, the same show as here, Soul Matters. It is such a wonderful feeling to be an artist, I am passionate about my work. I was doing oil painting before but today I am focusing on acrylic and pigment. There is a lot of collage in my work, and a lot of texture, and playfulness, basically I am a mark-maker.

I also feel like an alchemist, I like taking things which have no value, that have been discarded, and then I use it in my work.

AS: So can we talk about conceptually about your work. Your work is conceptually dealing with a lot of ideas, you are not trying to self-exoticise of course, and your inspiration is diverse. Can we talk about current show, what does Soul Matters mean and then you have a work like Chaand Raat in it, so clearly you have a link in some ways to Pakistan and culture

SK: There is definitely a big link, I am very inspired by Sufi culture, a constant thread in my work, this concept of Sufi philosophy, reading Rumi etc. I don’t paint in the traditional way, how I express it on to canvas. Most of the titles I have this show are from his verses, all from Sufi values.

I want people to feel this through the work, this is what the idea is, to express in the contemporary way, I like to be personal, I like to rough it out with the paints, I want to be free with the medium. I don’t like to be confined to a movement or something, I want to be me, and that is the beauty of the work.

You know, I love miniatures, I have looked at so many, and when I am making work it might be on my mind the way they are made is so beautiful, I am inspired by them, I come from that inspiration, but of course I could never do miniatures… I want to splash, but the point of departure is there.

AS:Who are your artist’s inspirations?

SK: I have always loved De Kooning’s work, Rembrandt, I used to copy paint in the same style as Picasso, I was influenced by cubism, in fact there might be strains of cubism in my current work, I love how he used to tackle stuff, I like earthy stuff, It draws me, the organics and earthiness, the forms and shapes. I like Gerhard Richter’s work. In South Asia, I love Sadequain’s work, he stood out to me, I met him once, when I was younger, he made something for me, just a little drawing, of my face, somewhere in a book, I remember meeting him when he was in Islamabad, sitting on the floor. I think Gulgee’s work also inspired me, his earlier work, and some later as well.

AS:When you are making work who are you working with?

SK: I am there, but everything is embedded in me, so the culture here shows up, I am not here necessarily, but the colours and so on are work. My last show ‘Of Totems and Minarets’, it was really about these two spaces. There is a stark difference between the two places. I hear the azaans when I am here, from the minarets, there I see the totem poles, reaching out to the sky. A little of this and a little of that. Also I find my work, I think it reaches into other times and places.

AS:Of course you started your career later, at the age of 40. Many artists go into school at 18, 19, and are considered mid-career by their 30’s and 40’s, did you ever have to deal with this challenge of being an older artists, defying the norm in some ways.

SK: Age is of course irrelevant. I hope I am healthy enough, when I was studying, I was studying with young people, my kids age, the first day I entered the classroom, I was maybe one or two minutes late, and the professor was leading Canadian artists. And there was a group of young students, and they looked at me, and she looked at me, and I asked are you in the right place? And I said yes, I am in the right place, and that’s because I knew, I was eager to learn. It was all in me, I needed to experience what it meant to be surrounded by artists. I did very well, at Concordia, they were pleased, I had numerous courses I took on, 4, when they usually gave 3 at a time. I was getting validation for what I was doing.

AS: Why go through those four years?

Because for me, it was in my mind, unless I had formal training, I would always be an amateur artist, I believe in formal training, it made a ton of difference. Being a hobby or amateur painter, I didn’t want that, I was already that.

I came to Pakistan in 2003. I called up Salima at BNU and I said I am an artist, I am visiting, and I would like to meet you. I remember she said that I have an opening at Rohtas today, why don’t you come there and we will meet. I ended up going there, I sat with her and showed her some images. She said, okay you will get a show, when do you want to get a show. I said, I will go and come back again. I had asked the Canada Council of Arts for a travel grant. I got it, and said I want to go back to the country of my origin, and came back. That paid for me, and it was not about money, and for me it was important that I got the time and space to make new work, and also be able to get their endorsement. The exhibit was in Islamabad, at Rohtas, and we had a bunch of diplomats attend, including of course the Canadian ambassador at the time Margaret Huber. And then we traveled with the show to Lahore.  I thought it was important that I should show and leave my work with people in Pakistan. I never wanted to take the work back. I wanted to be here. I wanted my connection with my country. This was important for me from the beginning. After that I had a show in 2008 at Alhamra, that was curated by Aasim Akhtar and included Noorjehan Bilgrami and Meher Afroz and Ali Kazim. I felt good, because I was in the presence of these big artists, I felt confident, and people responded favourably to my work. I loved the Alhamra, it was a nice space, it was huge, I wish they had money to clean it up and maintain it regularly.AS:How did having solo exhibitions at Canvas, this is your third here, and  exhibiting in Pakistan in general happen

Then Salima got me connected to Sameera and I ended up having my first solo in Karachi and Canvas.

AS: How do you feel that people respond to your work?

SK: I think people respond in emotional ways. There is this one story of a woman, she loved my work. She said she had given up looking at art and then she wanted to get a particular painting of mine. It was sold and she was so sad she said she cried.

There is a human form in my work, it is incomplete, I never paint the whole body, and there are limbs and the animal becomes human and the human becomes animal. I am dealing with a lot of ideas, of hybrid form and wondering how we differ from the animals, and I wonder how we react, and this is very… my ongoing research, so to speak and the universe comes in, the cosmos comes in, and it is a full moon, a crooked moon, it is like failed calligraphy. I cherish marks, that come unintentionally, and that are dripping. I move the works a lot, because they are on the floor. So I am all over the place, so the painting moves around with me, the colours I have never used directly come forth, I want a particular shade, and different colours come forth.

The paint is important to me, it is the art itself. Collage is also a factor, I use it more and more. There is a richness, I bring it to the painting through the collage, and I think people respond to all that.

AS:So what is next for you?

SK: Hopefully to paint, and to evolve continuously, because I hate to be stagnant, because I hate to do the same thing over and over again, there is so much to do and so much to discover.

I am preparing some proposals for group shows, maybe at the Alhamra and in Canada, maybe some other shows

I also need time to think and reflect and process. I always work on 10, 12 paintings, at the same time, in my studio at the same time, there would be 15 paintings at the same time, and as soon as it is completed, I put them up on the wall, I study with them, and then they are ready to leave my studio, sometimes I have sold work, that are still with me, and I can’t let them go, so I keep images of them.

So yes lots for me to process and work with and see where it goes.

Aziz Sohail is Studio Director for Rashid Rana Studio and an independent curator and critic based between Karachi and Lahore.



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