Hard time makes a person stronger to face and deal with the harsh realities of life. The patriarchal society and our culture is one of the factors that unceasingly suppress women from budding and prospering. But there are a few names in every field that beats the brutality of the society and continue to grow to show their strength to the world and set examples.
Born in Delhi in 1970, Nahid Raza is one of the prominent and widely acclaimed artists who have set an example in the art community as a strong woman.
She eloquently and boldly advocates women rights and women issues in her symbolic paintings and her highly renowned women series and Chawkandi Tomb earned her Pride of Performace in 2007.
Meeting Nahid Raza at her exhibitions and different occasions has always been a humbling experience but knowing her closely through this interview was an opportunity and a different experience as her paintings are a perfect reflection of her personality; vibrant, soft, complex yet meaningful.
Maheen Aziz: How would you define art? And how do you the changing dynamics in the art world?
Nahid Raza: There is nothing more serious than art; it’s not a joke or time pass. Art is a meditation to me because when I need loneliness to think clearly and this process prepares me to do art. It’s very spontaneous. My emotions and feelings are art. Artists choose their subjects to paint and I feel blessed that I am a woman and I can paint a woman in hundreds of colours so I choose to paint woman.
MA: Why you choose to be an artist?
NR: My father was a journalist and he used to bring printing papers to our house. I would keep those papers in my room and before going to bed I would draw on those papers. When I was in my teenage, I started telling my parents that I want to become an artist, but my family had different plans for me – to make me a doctor. However, I clearly said I do not want to become a doctor; I just want to be an artist.
My cousin agreed to get married to me only on one condition and that was if I become a doctor. I showed him the exit and told him that neither I am becoming a doctor nor I am marrying you. I did what where I found my happiness.
Art has to be taken seriously otherwise it doesn’t take you seriously. If you can’t put in your feelings, emotions and seriousness then you can’t be an artist.
MA: Tell us something about what a woman is to you as you have done many successful series on women.
NR: Woman has all the colours and attributes; she is a lover, mother, friend, sister, and daughter. There is nothing more pleasant than observing a woman’s beauty and paint it. My favourite is painting woman as a mother, I cannot describe the beauty of being a mother, it completes a woman, and fills me with satisfaction. Mother, as a name, creature and no matter what form soothes the eyes and pleases the soul.
I speak through my paintings. What I can’t say in words is expressed in my paintings through colours and symbols. In one of my paintings I painted a tree which signified that woman has the qualities of a tree that is strength, to sacrifice by observing the heat of the sun and provide shadow to others. She has so much positive qualities and depth that the more you dig deeper the more the qualities and attributes of a woman, especially a mother, astonish you.
MA: You are not only an ace artist but a strong woman as well; your canvases eloquently share your personal experiences. Would you like to shed some light that how it affected your work and how these series of yours speaks about your journey?
NR: I portray what is true about women. If I lie in my paintings, there is no point of me being an artist. The truth of this universe is the strength of a woman and especially when she is a mother because then she is ready to sacrifice everything for her children from the day she conceives till she dies. Her shoulders are always decorated with the medals of sacrifices she has made in her life.
My life is the subject of my paintings; my experiences are truly portrayed on my canvases. When I got divorced I painted a man and woman standing at a distance in opposite directions and I titled my painting ‘Divorce’. My painting had a truth in it and it was appreciated everywhere and got sold in Germany.
MA: You portray the strength of women in your paintings and speak about women empowerment and womanhood. Do you think females in the art world are stronger today?
NR: Today’s females are very strong. But the fact is the attitudes and ethics have changed. Everything seems fake and vague; as there is almost nothing to learn or teach. It’s hurtful to see this change and everything going hay-wire. The lessons are forgotten by this generation or maybe nothing has been ever taught to them. My mother’s lessons have always stayed with me, made me strong and competent. Not every parents and children are like that today but, unfortunately, most of them.
MA: You have also participated in KB’17. How your experience was and what do you expect from KB’19?
NR: From my series ‘Vird’ I made a giant painting depicting the patterns of life and how they are interlinked with one another. A painter says things in symbols and I mostly use symbols in my paintings. Being a part of KB’17 was a good experience.
My expectations, if matter, then I would say that these Biennales are so grand that they should spread themselves as much as they can. This should become a platform of everyone and should provide opportunities to the artists to prosper and grow. These Biennales should become art institutes. Everybody is putting in their efforts and hard work. I always expect good coming from the artists and art community. I am not a negative person so I’m seeing KB’19 as another successful Biennale.
MA: What impact Ali Imam had on your decision to pursue the arts?
NR: He was my mentor. I fall short of words when I speak about my uncle. He was the one who convinced my parents that I am an artist why are they stopping me becoming an artist (laughs). Artists usually focus on polishing their skills but lack mental training. I was lucky that Imam Uncle gave me such strong mental training that made me a strong artist. It’s still fresh in my memories and his lessons keep me going even today.
MA: Who has been an inspiration for you? Any favorite artist?
NR: Jamil Naqsh was such an inspiration. I really liked his textures which I brought in my paintings also but I did it my way. I didn’t copy his work. I admire Naqsh and he will be deeply missed. Other than that, Moazzam Ali’s and Late Sadequain Naqvi’s wok I admire and appreciate as they are among those artists whose work speak about their religious zeal towards art.
MA: You have visited many countries for your solo and group exhibitions. What do you think could be adopted by Pakistani art community that would help artists and art scene evolve?
NR: First and foremost, we do not have a habit of reading and learning. We just know running around the bushes. In abroad, there are so many books, documentations and what not through which you could refresh your knowledge on the arts or what you are practicing as an artist. There is no documentation of art in Pakistan as well as not much books that is why people lack knowledge. I have an incident to share about how easy people think art is. Someone came to me and said that they have opened an art gallery; I asked them that what knowledge do you have of the arts? How do you define art? They couldn’t answer such simple questions. This way people are making fun of art and I don’t consider such people even a little close to art.
Secondly, there should be talks, lectures and discussions on art that should be documented as well. We are more inclined towards making name that we have forgotten to serve the arts. I don’t understand on what grounds an artist or an art gallery expects people to praise them?
In my 40 years of career, I have never asked anyone to write about me or interview me. I have made my name in the arts, people write or don’t write it does not affect or cease my popularity. My uncle used to say an artist is someone who devotes his life in this field.
Last but not the least, in abroad artist solely focuses on their work without concentrating on tactics to become famous. In Pakistan there is a mediocre thought about art, it hasn’t evolved the way it should have been. I have stayed abroad and worked there, the artists abroad are much focused and determinant. Here in Pakistan, either an artist keeps repeating the same pattern of work or he starts following that artist who is making good from his art. It’s very important for an artist to do experiments in his work and produce quality work that could speak about the artist’s caliber, stamina and potential. Repetition brings stagnation to the work.
MA: There is a division that could be observed in the art community today. Whereas there were times when there used to be two or three galleries who were serving the arts. Today it’s very hard for an artist to understand which gallery he/she has to go, after he/she graduates, and that utterly affects his practice and interest.
NR: This has somehow sabotaged the art world but I believe that neither a gallery nor an artist would survive long in the art world if working with such approach. Unfortunately, in Pakistan no one experiments in the arts and the only focus is how art can be utilized commercially or modified in a way that could be commercially beneficial for the artist and the galleries. Art has become a business.
MA: Having a protracted journey as an artist, do you have any suggestions that could improve the art scene of Pakistan?
I would say that an artist should improve himself and do not completely rely on what the institutes and colleges have taught. There are bunch of skilled artists who have never seen art institutions but what made them who they are today were their skills and self-improvisation. Picasso is an example who had never gone to any art institute but he is one of the most famous artists of all ages.
Secondly, there is an immense need of a good art history teacher who could teach history of art of the world. I, and the others who studied with me, are blessed that Ali Imam Uncle taught world’s art history to us. My Uncle studied from London and he was aware that how important is it to teach art history as a subject. He was well-aware of the changes in the arts and taught us how Paul Klee, Pablo Picaso and Henri Matisse and all other artists had worked. In our fourth year, he gave us an assignment to write about Picasso and Paul Klee’s work and what are our thoughts over this.
Thirdly, when one goes to abroad, they should invest time in visiting museums and art galleries to understand the culture and revise art and bring that knowledge back to your country and share it. My recent trip to London gave me an opportunity to see Farida Kahlo’s work. I spent my whole day in the museum observing her work. I got so fascinated by her work and thought to myself that I found my trip a meaning.
MA: What do you mean by saying that young artists should learn from the seniors?
NR: Frankly speaking, I have also been telling this to my students and fellow artists that learn to question. I used to be so shy when I was studying that I would not utter a word in front of the artists and would share this with Imam Uncle that I feel so nervous asking questions to the artists. He gave me the courage and told me that you should ask whatever is in your mind, don’t be shy. The artist would either satisfy your query or would not, there is nothing happening in between. Artists from every generation should interact with each other.
MA: There shouldn’t be a generation gap you mean?
NR: Yes, of course. If there is a shy attitude or hesitation in interacting with the senior artists then how young artists are going to learn?
MA: After the demise of Ali Imam, who would you consider your mentor?
NR: His death had left me in deep grief. After his demise, I felt there was no one who could replace him except one person and that is Salima Hashmi. Hashmi is one of the greatest educationist, teacher, artist and a person full of knowledge. I have no words to describe her intelligence. She is very dear to me and I respect her a lot. She is not only a great person but an asset for the country and Pakistan’s art world.
MA: What advice would you like to give to the up-coming female artists?
NR: For the female artist, I would advise don’t paint thinking that you are a female (laughs). You are an artist and should work like an artist. Your feminism should not become a hindrance in your art.
MA: I would love to know any quote that is close to your heart and sums up your life as an artist or as a person?
NR: There is a book written on me by Marjorie Hussain and I captioned it as ‘Art is my life’. And when I call art my life then there is nothing more I could define my life as. An artist should be open and bold enough to tell the truth and have transparency. One’s art and personality should not contradict. People lie about their work and it really hurts me knowing the truth and seeing the person lying about it.
An artist is a messenger of art and a big responsibility relies on an artist’s shoulder to deliver the true art. There should not be lies and dishonesty in an artist or his work.