Montreal is well known for its numerous art galleries and museums, and at a point in time, was regarded as the fashion capital of North America. It is also famous for nurturing and supporting avant-garde artists and art movements, such as the Les Automatistes.
Les Automatistes movement was influenced by Surrealism and its theory of automatism in which automatic drawings (in contrast to drawn expression of mediums) were a means of expressing the subconscious. In automatic drawing, the hand is allowed to move randomly, applying chance and accident to mark-making, and free of rational control. Through this process, the drawing produced may be attributed in part to the subconscious mind and may reveal the artists’ psyche, which would otherwise be repressed. Well known practitioners of automatic drawing technique include André Masson, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and even Pablo Picasso at some point is believed to have done it. Shireen Kamran is also an Automatiste and I happened to experience this first hand during a recent visit to her studio in Montreal.
Shireen Kamran’s studio is located in her sub-urban home. Although she has in the past experienced working from a studio space in the St. Henri locale of Montreal, she now prefers her current studio space, with accessibility to her studio at all hours. Winters in Canada can be long and treacherous, reducing daylight hours and limiting outdoor travel. However, it does have some drawbacks too. Isolation for instance! But it offers benefits too. “I find I am more focused, removed from external influences, more meditative and contemplating. On any good day I am there by 9 am working till evening, with some breaks, my companion, music and my thoughts!”
Her taste in music is a diverse mix of classical Western and Eastern. At one point it was the Gregorian chants, Jan Garbarek’s Officium Novum, Classical Ragas, Nusrat Fateh Ali and Abida Praveen. She says “Abida is a good friend and her music has taken me through a lot of paintings. I also enjoy Qawalis, and find them very inspiring.” Her friend introduced her to Soprano Jessye Norman rendition of Strauss and Wagner, which has stayed with her and greatly informs her work.
It’s fascinating to see Shireen Kamran at work. Like an Automatiste, she has no preconceived notions or set ideas. She simply follows her instincts and her meditative thoughts from the subconscious. Shireen says, “I find the process is central to my work. The gestural energy, numerous layering, scraping and building of the textural surface. The act of creating is for me the most interesting part of being a painter. As I go along there are things that appear and disappear, either intentionally or by accident. I like imperfections, scars, marks, cracks and crevices that come with lived experiences. I am very rough with paints and go through a relentless process of building numerous layering, scrapings and rubbings. They endure a lot with me. Then calm ensues, there is some time to be spent in reflection, contemplation and rationalization. I will often keep the works with me on the walls to experience them. If they are in dialogue and communicate with me, I know they can be on their own.”
As I look around the large and cluttered studio space, I find numerous stretchers in progress on the walls and on the floor in her studio. Loads of brushes, scrapers, paints, primers and pigments in recycled containers fight for space on a table. Finished works are hung on the walls in the sitting room outside her “inner sanctum” of the studio. Shireen says “my work always starts with the priming that gets me started as to where I want to go with the painting. I draw a lot mostly with graphite or charcoal, I use it with the wet paintings too, as it gives an interesting texture. It can be erased, reworked and incorporated with the paint. I infuse my paintings with paper collages, torn drawings or random bits of paper with interesting paints and drips , they are instrumental is adding depth and texture to the works and sometimes helps to complete the painting . Color is my main domain, I play a lot with colors they can range from ancient reds, greys, khaki blues to ivory whites or lighter. The palette changes from one to the other depending on my state of mind.”
Commenting on Shireen Kamran’s work, Salima Hashmi[i] said” there is an elusiveness at the core of Shireen Kamran’s work. Deliciousness of surface, the materiality of color, intricacy of mark should serve to situate the work in the realm of the tangible. Yet one senses an intense desire in it to flee location, definition, interpretation.”
When I asked her the question “Do you feel people truly understand the depth and essence of your work?” she modestly replied, “I think it’s crucial that I understand my work before others do. I have to feel good about the works before placing them in a gallery. Once I have been through the creative process, it is easy to let go. Painting is a great therapy; you go through the highs and lows, you deal with it, make decisions and cleanse your mind and move on. I constantly persevere, discipline myself to paint, seek delight in the ordinary and enjoy my passion.”
Shireen’s last two solo shows were titled ‘Soul Matters’ and ‘Seeking Nothingness’. The latter was held at Canvas Gallery in January 2016 in Karachi. In May, she is exhibiting her artworks in Ottawa at Gallery St-Laurent and Hill. The new works are a continuation of her deeper exploration of the Sufi philosophy and she is excited to share this philosophy with a Western audience. She says “I think since my work is very contemporary and in so many ways Universal, it can relate to a wider group of people.”
Canada is a beautiful country with pristine landscape, snow-capped mountains and emerald green lakes. One cannot ignore the beautiful landscape, its four distinct seasons and most of all the changing colors of the Maple trees in the fall. Shireen says “I did a lot of landscape paintings in earlier years following my relocation to Canada. I did the Zikr series, a kind of abstracted landscapes in oils. That has changed a lot, and I have more appreciation for abstract art. I am influenced by the abstract expressionists, Rothko for his color field and emotional paintings, De Kooning for the highly energized gestural works and Gustons earlier works. I am greatly impressed by Sadequain’s drawings, paintings and calligraphy inspired by the Gadani Cacti. He was a true genius and a legend.”
Shireen is clearly a strong proponent of Sufism. She is drawn to Rumi’s poetry and feels that he expressed in a few poetic lines the whole philosophy and thought system and shared the highest experiences through simple stories and metaphors. She says “I would like to read more on Sufism, but I greatly appreciate Annemarie Schimmel’s The Triumphal Sun: A study of the works of Jalaloddin Rumi and Mystical Dimensions of Islam, which are my one-stop source of information, references, etc.”
“My journey in Mysticism in all earnestness began here in Montreal. A sort of a nomad at heart, I found my calling here in Montreal. Far removed from the familiar, I found myself confronting myself, all the time aware that something was missing from my life. I came across some interesting people who encouraged me to pursue an art degree at Concordia University -a great place for artistic expression without limits. Sometime later, a Mystical experience led me to the pathway and introduced me to Sufism. Finally I had a sense of direction. Everything unresolved and unexplained started to have meaning. The sense of humility derived from the Sufi philosophy informs my work today, both in the underlying philosophy, my studio practice and in the very act of painting itself.”
Linda Biron recalls[ii], “Sufi poetry took up permanent residence in Shireen’s life. It entered through a door left intuitively ajar since her childhood in Pakistan when readings in religion and classical literature awoke a spiritual longing for deeper understanding. A philosophy taught entirely without airs, in metaphors, stories and parables, surprised Shireen and fueled a desire to share with others the whimsical imagery used in Sufi poetry to impart deep wisdom and simple truths. The poems illuminated her paintings while the paintings elucidated the poems, both working in a mystical space that lies between image and word.”
Shireen Kamran has consistently produced a mature body of work from her studio. To be internationally recognized and appreciated, a strong and disciplined studio practice helps an artist develop their own distinct style – not something that was created to try to fit into a trend or to please everybody – which ends up pleasing nobody. Successful artists spend hours in the studio, developing their signature style which expresses their authentic personality. I have come to realize that Shireen Kamran is one of those artists.
Ali Adil Khan is an art writer, curator and collector based in Toronto. He is the founder of South Asian Gallery of Art (SAGA) and Visual and Interactive Arts of South Asia (VIRSA). He actively promotes South Asian art, music and culture in Canada.