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Talha Rathore

Talha Rathore, born 1970, Gujranwala, Pakistan received a Bachelors of Fine Art from National College of Art, Lahore in miniature painting and went on to win a UNESCO bursary for young artists in 1997. A prolific artist, she has exhibited in several galleries across Asia, Europe, and North America. She lives and works in Brooklyn New York.
ArtNow: You refer to cellular organisms in your work. How much of this idea is related to the physicality of the body and how much is about the unseen psychological terrain?
Talha Rathore: I started using the unicellular organisms (mostly bacteria and viruses) in my work to represent the feeling of being observed. The reason for choosing these small entities was that these life forms are too small to be seen by a naked eye. These are invisible until closely observed under a microscope.
As much as everyone hate to be around any kind of bacteria, they exist everywhere, inside and on our bodies. Most of them are completely harmless and some of them are very useful. But some bacteria can cause diseases, either because they end up in the wrong place in the body or simply because they are ‘designed’ to invade us.
So I guess, this idea of using these forms in my work is related to both, its physical and psychological aspects.
AN: How has living away from Pakistan affected your professional career? Do you think you have gained in leaps and bounds? Do you think you could have had a successful career in Pakistan?
TR: My first experience of producing art outside Pakistan, was when I was being invited in 1997 to represent Pakistan in a show in Honk Kong. Seven artists were chosen from seven different countries in Asia, and were offered to produce an art work while their 15 day stay in Hong Kong. That was the first time when I tried to look around and find something from my new surroundings and my experience of being in a different place. As much as I enjoyed that experience I was not aware at that time how it helped me grow as an artist.
My second experience of living away from Pakistan was In 1997, when I was awarded an UNESCO bursary for young artists, at the Sanskriti Kendra in New Delhi, India for a period of three months. The isolation in an idyllic artists’ sanctuary in Delhi gave me the opportunity to put my repertoire of traditional techniques under the microscope of an analytical process.
A big change in my work transpired with my move to New York in 1998. The state of living between cultures, missing the home and trying to find a new one while negotiating the conflicts of having two homes gave another direction to my work. The imagery was both tense and celebratory. The complexities of the Diaspora provided a deepening of content and the construction of a fresh formal vocabulary to my work.
I am a Pakistani artist living in New York, and am sure that my work would have been a lot different if I was living in Pakistan. But making different choices at different times makes you who you are.
AN: You didn’t attend the opening at Chawkandi Gallery in September 2011 because you were unsure of the political turbulence. Has being away increased your fear of the chaos in Pakistan? Do you feel secure living in New York which sees more street violence than most cities in the US?
TR: This is true that political turbulence was a concern, but not the reason. I couldn’t attend the opening at Chawkandi Gallery in September mainly because of a personal reason. My mom was supposed to come stay with my kids in my absence. She had her visa and everything ready but just two weeks before the opening she noticed that her passport was expired. She applied for renewal at Islamabad, but she couldn’t get it back in time. If she had make it to NY even two days before the opening, I would have come as my ticket was booked.
I had a solo show in Lahore at Rohtas II in December, 2010. I was there for the opening reception. Although the political situation was very unstable, and terrorist attacks were happening in Lahore, but I had no fear going there. I’ve lived most of my life in Lahore. I have my family and friends there. I belong to Lahore and feel connected, so I was very comfortable. As compare to Lahore, Karachi is not that familiar. I’ve been to Karachi 3 times in my whole life. I think, I would have had a total different experience if I could come.
I think when you live at a place for a long time you develop a bond with that place. I have lived in New York for about 14 years now. I have developed that bond with New York and found many similarities with Lahore. To be very frank, I feel quite secure living in New York.
AN: How does your audience abroad see your work? Are you considered ‘exotic’? Are people more easily attracted to the formal and technical aspects of miniature?
TR: You find all kinds of audience everywhere. Yes! people feel my work is ‘exotic’. People are fascinated by the technique, and show a lot of interest in my work’s technical aspect.
AN: Maps of the New York subway form the basis of many of your works. What is the significance of this? Does it serve as a locating guide or is there more to the idea?
TR: Maps are used as a guide to take you to places. When moved to New York City, I had to use these maps. I’ve always been very bad with my navigation/direction skills. Always using these maps but still would end up into wrong direction. A mixture of numbers and letters, a jungle of mechanically printed lines and patches of greens and blues, inspired me to use it as a surface for my artwork.
The idea of me being trained as a tradition miniature painter working on the map of a city that is a symbol of modernity, seemed very interesting. Specially painting the micro organisms floating on top of a mechanically printed surface gave another meaning to my work.
In more than one way, both aspects of my work – the map of a western city and the traditionally rendered surfaces – represent me.
AN: How was the Karkhana experience for you? Did that catapult your career?
TR: Karkhana project was a unique experience. It actually gave all the artists of this project a great exposure and boost in their careers.
AN: Is there any notion of spirituality in your work? If so how do you manipulate it?
TR: In my opinion, miniature painting technique itself is very meditating experience. When I sit in a specific posture to paint, and start rendering a small area with thousands of tiny strokes, it seems like I’m in a trance. When you produce work from that trance, the work is spiritual.

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