In conversation with Khalil Chishtee


ArtNow: One of the most significant responses to your work is an overriding darkness and melancholy. Was this due to a personal angst or is it a universal metaphor?



KC: I am not sure about your dark or melancholic readings of my work. I paint what I see and experience. For me, the purpose of art is much more than what schools, museums or other art institutions tell you.  If your art does not lead to self-discovery and a deeper introspective understanding then it is as bad as offering social services for personal satisfaction rather than the greater good. One can always debate classifications and categories or changing views of labels like art that is dark or pleasing or decorative. Take the example of eastern classical music. In authentic classical singing, the “Thumri” or related genres like Dadra, Tappa, Chalti, or Jhoola used to be considered light or pleasant forms of singing. Singers from established ‘gharanas’ of music rarely performed Thumri or Dadra in important concerts. Now, these are considered by many as serious classical forms. In these times when millions of collectors, galleries and museums look at art as most delectable “morsels” to be easily devoured, anything immersed in reality and un-acquirable would become indigestible and considered dark or morbid.



AN: You use plastic bags in your work. How does the detritus of an advanced ‘civilized’ nation differ from that of a third world country? Is it sterile and uninspiring or is it much the same?



KC: I see differences in every sphere of life. In the west, people rarely use grocery or shopping bags to dump their garbage. The idea of recycling is not really prevalent and is restricted to factories or art and craft. In Third world countries we recycle everything; for instance we use plastic yogurt containers to freeze ice in, we use old plastic bottles for drinking water, worn, used fabric is used in quilts. There is wisdom in recycling but I’m not sure whether we do it for the practicality of it or because we’re stingy. In other areas we don’t show any kind of sagacity. We hardly believe in social work, we have no respect for time and when it comes to being charitable we are tight-fisted (I don’t consider all those millions of rupees that people give to beggars while sitting in their expensive cars. That is just a way to tackle one’s fear or hide some shame).



We believe in keeping everything for ourselves. See, we even marry our own cousins. So I think recycling is in our blood not because we are careful or environmentally aware but because we are greedy and like to hoard.  Because I belong to this culture, I share all these qualities and the work I do with plastic bags is not about recycling. I work with plastic trash bags that I buy brand new. People throw their garbage or filth in these bags but I record/store my finest emotions in these bags; your dirt is my gold.



AN: How has living away from Pakistan changed you as an artist? Has it?



KC: One is human first and then come other classifications and forms of identity. Moving away from my birthplace has affected all of me; my beliefs, ideas, clarity of thought — everything. It’s very normal to love the beautiful aspect of one’s country, but when that very love takes control over all rational thinking, we call it nationalism. These are things I could never understand while living in my country, confined within my culture.



The need for substantive identity strikes hard when you live in a foreign land. Ideas of religion, culture, and nationalism strengthen their roots in you. Incidents occurring around you can influence you. Ethnic/religious groups try to make their way into your psyche because you are vulnerable. But only the aware, conscious mind can recognize the intrusion and choose the difficult path of non-alignment. My university professors wanted me to use elements from my culture, religion or country but I always felt it was wrong to make formula based work. If we carefully review all the recent international successes in art, film or literature that are based on cross-cultural issues, you can discern a recipe that mixes personal, ethnic, local and regional ingredients into a palatable dish, assuring international commercial acclaim. Look carefully at works like the movie Slumdog Millionaire (which is based on a much repeated pattern), or novels like The Kite Runner or most miniature paintings; even the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. His forefathers would have disowned him for singing some of the qawwalis that made him most popular. But instead of trying to discern the reasons for their success, we begin to venerate these producers of formula-based arts and consider them icons of achievement. Art departments in Pakistan are working like factories producing miniature painters, artists that make issue based works. Other artists proudly talk about the influence of truck art or the tradition of billboard painting in their work though they have no clue or interest in saving these soon-to-be-forgotten genres.



Nationalism is a trap. Religion leads nowhere and culture or ethnicity are nothing more than habits, frozen over the centuries.



AN: You told me once that when you arrived in California, you didn’t tell anyone you were an artist and in fact paid your bills by doing manual labor. Why?



KC: I think it was because of my old fashioned training: In the eighties and nineties, it was taboo to pander to galleries or collectors. There was a clear distinction between art and commercial art. Sadequain and other landscape painters showed and sold at galleries but on the other hand artists like Zahoor-ul Akhlaque, Shahid Sajjad, Salima Hashmi, Shakir Ali or Anwer Saeed would rely on their friends, students or families.



Art was more of a quest than a source of making money, acquiring fame or living a celebrity lifestyle. For anyone else moving to a larger audience would have been a wish come true but for me art was not meant to amuse or impress an audience or to find inroads to a larger market. I still believe that art should be for personal nourishment than for selling or buying. That is why instead of jumping into the art mafia I decided to understand this change, and embrace each aspect of it with all of my being.



AN: You were deeply affected by the war in Iraq and produced a body of work, sketches, in response to it. Aren’t you affected equally by events in Pakistan? You have no work to show for it.



KC: Like any other thinking person, I am always affected by any disaster that affects mankind anywhere. Works that I made during the early days of war in Iraq or Afghanistan was in response to Picasso’s paintings that influenced many art historians. It was to make a point, which was part of a larger, ongoing discussion.



Art is not a campaign, and especially now when many artist are making issue-based art, as many journalists have started to write about art as well, it has become a mutually beneficial game; journalists are looking for stories and artists are very much ready to provide them stories. For instance one of our famous artists made a very elaborate piece about Dr. Afia Siddiqui without knowing much about her case. To me this is a perfect example where someone has shown a complete lack of understanding/information in the name of social service or to adopt a patriotic/humanitarian stance.



I think any incident that happens in your home affects you more when you are away. The migrant Pakistani worries more about Pakistan than those who live there.



If you look at my work you will see my concerns reflected in it but there is a difference between a poet who sings of his personal pain while millions relate to it without putting any label on it and a beggar on the roadside who shows you his open wound to make money; one makes you aware of a situation and the other wants to create fear in your heart.



AN: How is your work seen by the art world in the US? Are you an exotic element in their mundane lives? Or are you a mainstream artist?



KC: I am certainly not a mainstream artist nor would I ever be an exotic element in a foreign land. My work is exactly like the language I speak. I use the English language as a mode of communication and unintentionally my accent highlights my birthplace. The same goes for my work I do not use my Pakistan (iat) or Subcontinent (iat) or Muslim (iat) to render my identity. I am another human being who was born and raised in Pakistan but fortunate enough to see the trap.



AN: You have drifted from the use of plastic trash bags to other elements like wood and paper. Why? Does an artist tire of a singular element or is it for reasons of discovery?



KC: I would hate to see myself as a signature artist who is known for a particular style. One very basic idea of my art practice is that it helps me understand my life better. I would also hate to see myself stuck in one mode of thinking. Life changes every second and I am here to see and acknowledge this change. I am not just one kind of artist, all materials are mine to explore. Every style belongs to me and I have no reservation towards any genre of art. One is born to be free not to be enslaved by a rigid thought process in the name of clarity.



AN: How is it to have an equally renowned artist for a spouse? Do you ever have theoretical conflicts over art?



KC: We are two different people, who think differently. I would not call our different approaches towards art “conflicts”. These differences are there because we are normal human beings.



AN: What does your studio look like?



KC: My studio is in Brooklyn NY and it is a mess; a very sweet lovely mess. I go there in the mornings and experience the joy of creative moments.


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