Aisha Khalid (1972) is one of Pakistan’s leading contemporary artists. She graduated from the Miniature Department of the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, and is part of the so-called “Neo-Miniature” movement’s first-generation. The trend, which started in Lahore around 1990, “rehabilitates” the traditional miniature painting technique from the Moghul Empire, giving it new life by mixing it with other media and updating it to reflect a more contemporary aesthetic.
Her work has been displayed widely in celebrated exhibitions, such as: When I am silent, Pao Galleries, Hong Kong Art Center, 2014; The Divine is in the detail, IVDE Gallery, Dubai, 2013; Larger Than Life, Whitworth Art Gallery and Corvi-Mora, London, 2012.
Khalid has also been part of many group shows, including: Threads. Textile in Art & Design, Modern Art Museum Arnhem, The Netherlands (2014), Moscow Biennale (2013), Sharjah Biennale (2011) and East West Diwan, as part of the Venice Biennale (2009). Her works are also in the permanent collections of M+ Museum (Hong Kong), Sheikh Zaid Museum (Abu Dhabi, UAE), Sharjah Art Museum (UAE), Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK), Harris Museum (Preston, UK), Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (Japan), World Bank (Washington DC, USA) and Queensland Art Gallery (Australia).
The research Khalid puts into her work highlights the contemporary potential of this ancient medium by using modern media and by narrating present events. Her highly appealing and decorative works include painting, embroidery, video, site-specific installations with a focus on global social and political issues, cultural stereotypes, and misunderstandings between East and West.
In this interview, Khalid discusses her development as an artist and the themes and practices that inform her artistic process.
When did you know you would become an artist and how did you enter the NCA?
Aisha Khalid (AK): As a child, I actually wanted to become a doctor. We used to live in a small town in interior Sindh and art was not something focused on at my school. Then, in 1989, we moved to Lahore, where one of my father’s friends was teaching at NCA. He took me to an exhibition; I think it was 1990. It was a group show with works by Salima Hashmi, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Ahmed Khan, and a couple of other artists from the same generation. It was an amazing exhibition and so inspiring for me. This was when I started thinking about becoming an artist. I started taking private drawing classes, to learn the basics, and then I applied to the NCA.
What mediums did you concentrate on and when did you decide to focus on miniature painting? How did you come to appreciate the contemporary potential of this very traditional technique?
AK: I was very much interested in textiles thanks to my mother. She sewed herself and taught us how to sow, stitch, and embroider. In our house, every girl had to learn how to do all the household chores, but it was not a form of pressure for me. I was really interested in learning embroidery and sewing. I used to stitch my own clothes from a very young age. When I was in the eighth grade, I stitched my first school uniform.
When I first thought about going to the NCA, I wanted to join the textile department. But, then I visited the miniature department and was very inspired. It was wonderful to see how peacefully people were working. It was a small studio; everyone was sitting on the floor, listening to music. It really fascinated me and I decided to take miniature painting as my major subject instead of textiles.
Later, I discovered that the medium is an ancient technique of painting that belongs to this region. But, this knowledge did not restrict me from expressing myself. I used and continue to use the miniature form in my own contemporary way, from very tiny postcard size paintings to pieces 4×8 feet in size.
What is your family background?
AK: I come from a Punjabi family. My parents and grandparents migrated from Indian Punjab after Partition, from the Jalandhar and Kapoorthala State. My grandparents moved to Pakistan and acquired land in interior Sindh. In 1989, the political circumstances became harsh for Punjabis and conflict with the local Sindhi population increased. Upon receiving a death threat, my father decided to move back to Punjab.
For your post-graduate work you went to the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam between, 2001 and 2002. What was the impact of your visit to the Netherlands?
AK: It was my first trip to a Western country. Before that, my impressions of Europe and the West were based mostly on stereotypes I learned from the media. I viewed this part of the world as composed of established countries where women were independent, liberal, living in ideal situations.
I went to Amsterdam with this frame of mind. But when I arrived, I found another extreme, another way of exploiting women. I started comparing the two cultures in my work and created an album called Birth of Venus with paintings which depicted fully veiled female figures against backdrops of Islamic symbols. It was formatted as a book and I painted it to resemble a diary.
How did the Dutch public react to your work?
AK: When I was at the NCA, my teacher, who was a strong traditionalist, used to say I was, “destroying the miniature painting technique by doing experimentation.” But when I displayed my work in Amsterdam, viewers found it very beautiful and traditional, and could see in it a certain religious or spiritual dimension. I remember someone saying it was “unnecessarily beautiful!”
The attacks of 9/11 occurred during your stay in the Netherlands. Is it true that you had to leave Holland?
AK: When 9/11 happened everything changed for me as a Pakistani and as a Muslim. Before, people used to ask me where Pakistan was located, or if India and Pakistan were two countries or one. After 9/11, when I came back to Amsterdam, everybody knew about Pakistan and started understanding the symbolism of my work.
At that time, the administration at my school decided it would be better for me to go away. They were worried for my personal security. I flew back to Pakistan for two and a half months where I organized the “Dermiyaan” artists’ workshop with Imran Qureshi (Qureshi is Aisha’s husband and a popular artist in his own right).
What was the workshop about?
AK: When I was in Holland, I heard a lot of negative news about Pakistan in the media. They were showing bearded people burning places and things on BBC and CNN. But, when I arrived in Lahore it was as normal and peaceful as always.
At that time, we thought that as artists we should react to the situation. It was a very hard time. No one knew what was going to happen to our country.
The day the Afghan war broke out was the first day of the Dermiyaan workshop. We invited seven artists: Salima Hashmi, Imran Qureshi, Sammia Ahmed Vine, Risham Syed, Masooma Syed, Sania Samad, Quddus Mirza, and one of my German friends, Sophie Ernst, who sent her work from Berlin via the Internet. We all worked for seven days at Rothas Gallery in Lahore and then exhibited our work. It was a very powerful show and a turning point for me.
West looks East is the title of a gouache painting from 2013, but it is also a recurring theme in your work. Why does it keep cropping up?
AK: As an artist, I still feel strongly about the consequences of colonialism and I think my interest in how Western countries look at the East comes from there. This preoccupation also grew out of the two years I spent in Holland. My first piece about the topic was the video-installation Conversation (2002), which I did during my time at Rijksakademie. It is a commentary on how the West reacts to Eastern traditions and aesthetics.
The work consists of two video projections, side by side on a wall. In one projection, you see two dark skinned hands (my own hands) embroidering a red rose and in the adjacent video white hands undo the flower at the same time. The piece is about the rejection of traditions and beauty and also about my own experiences living in the West and how the Western public reacted to my work. I feel people in the West believe, often in a non-critical way, whatever the Western media portrays about other parts of the world.
How did 9/11 change contemporary art in Pakistan?
AK: I think it has completely changed Pakistani art. It was a very intense time.
In the last fifteen years, the Pakistani art world has really revived and received substantial interest from all over the world. Pakistani artists are now showing their work in famous museums, bienniales, trienniales, in commercial galleries. Curators of museums and galleries are showing a lot of interest in Pakistani art.
Your Burqa Series, which started in 2000, focused on the question of females in Pakistani / Muslim society. What inspired you?
AK: Like any other symbol, the meaning of the veil differs from piece to piece within my body of work. Sometimes, in my work, it appears as a symbol of oppression, while at other times it is a shelter. Recently, it has appeared very poetically in my paintings, like how one would talk about the veil in poetry, a veil between a lover and her beloved. My symbols change with time according to the content I comment on.
Do you consider yourself a political artist?
AK: Yes. My work always addresses the surrounding political situation. However, from 2009 onwards I have also been very interested in Sufism and have tried to explore the divine through my work, loving and searching for God. But, whenever I do site-specific projects, they are always political.
What role does a particular art medium play in your research?
AK: For me, the medium is a tool, which any artist can use in their own way. Miniature painting is an ancient medium, which I have been exploring for several years and I do not see any limitations in it. I feel it should not be something that bounds and limits one’s art.
Whatever medium of art I use; there is always one essential thing present in my work: the process of working, always very repetitive, and also very meditative. One can see this repetitive element in my work, especially when I paint very detailed geometrical patterns, or in my textile pieces and even in my videos.
Geometric, repetitive patterns constantly reappear in your work, almost like a grid. Is it a way of putting ideas in a particular order to “reassure” yourself?
AK: When I started with patterns, I used a lot of geometric and floral motives. In my earlier works, these two types of patterns contrasted and highlighted two aspects: one more “material” and calculated, and the other one more “natural.”
Later on, I favored geometric patterns, which have evolved with different meanings in my work. Making patterns is special to me: as an artist the most important thing is the process of making art. It is a meditative process and this process is everything to me.
Kashmiri Shawls is a beautiful piece, with a very strong political message. How do you balance beauty and strength in your work?
AK: Aesthetics are essential to my work. Kashimiri Shawls is something that looks very beautiful and precious. On one side, you see a nicely embroidered shawl and, on the other side, there are a sharp series of pins, which look painful and violent. I created the piece this way because I feel things affect the viewer more when they are told in a settled and polite way. For example, when I read poetry it reaches my heart more than if someone talks directly to me. So I try to make things poetic.
Textiles, and embroideries are intertwined with the feminine sphere of life in Pakistan. Typically, they are used to create clothing, and make things look more beautiful. Traditionally, and even now in the villages, women still use the medium. They place messages in their creations by, for example, making a flower differently from others or changing the color of a few flowers to make them stand out. I think any technique can be used as powerfully as you want, to spread your own message.
You are working on a big project for the opening show of the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. Can you talk about it?
AK: I am going to work with textile, steel, and gold plated pins to create a big carpet. The proportions and concept are inspired by the proverbial “red carpet,” the usual runner at VIP events. The garden design on the carpet comes from Persian gardens with the classical division between water channels, fountains, and foliage. From one side it will look very precious, very beautiful, and on the other side it will be plain red and the sharp side of the pins will be visible.
The carpet is going to be 6×18 feet and will be hung from the ceiling. The theme of the show is Garden of ideas. It will open in September 2014, which will also be the museum’s inauguration.