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Naiza Khan: a whiff of fresh air

Author: Amar Ali      Publications: Newsline - Art Line      Dated: Oct 2000

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To get out of being stuck you have to branch out. Hence the continuing experiments. Drawings, paintings, collages, etchings, engravings, calligraphy, photography, sketching, and then juxtaposing one upon the others. Always trying out new ideas, always exploring possibilities.

An artists working life is a journey through stages of increasing and varying awareness of change in his own potential on the road to self-discovery. His work undergoes modifications forced upon   him by changing external stimuli as well as the transformation of his own responses to the limits his medium and working material will allow him. The artist is always striving to extend outwards and move forward, He has to push and then push some more to see how far he can go.

The stimuli that work upon the artist react and juxtapose old images in his memory with images stirred by the current images. “Drawing is not a mysterious activity,” says the well known art critic, Leon Kossoff, who also mentions “Drawing is making an image which expresses commitment and involvement.”

When artist Naiza Khan, who quotes Kossoff for this writers benefit, returned to Pakistan in 1991. she was confronted with many vivid images that she still recalls with wonder because they were so strong and striking, the poverty in the streets, for example, and the glare of the sun. Drawing and painting, Naiza feels, are “essentially visual at the end of the day, however you intellectualise them.” They are visual representations of ones reaction to stimuli, external or subjective. Most of her early work in Pakistan, was in the realm of photography. She later used it in some of her collages and triptychs. It was her perception and reaction to what she saw a shrouded woman, an old sturdy labourer or a squatting child in a doorway.  Her series, Homage to Hali is also a reaction, and strong at that. Naiza had  been asked to a gathering of women, where Begum Shaista Ikramullah talked about Bosnia and quoted Hali. Two of her prints, displayed at her current exhibition, were Naizas has, in varying degrees, responded to literary stimuli. She is familiar with Faizs translated works and feels that he and the Spanish poets Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda had a lot in common.  Naiza Khan has the advantage of formal training in art. She 3/4 was four years old when her family went to Beirut, from where she later went to England and did her O levels. That was the beginning. She showed promise in art, and therefore in her A levels the three subjects that she chose were Spanish, Art, and the History of Art, which she studied at St. Pauls Girls School, London. Then she did an Art Foundation Course in 1986-87 at Wimbledon School of Art. From 1987 to 1990 she was doing her Bachelors in Fine Art at Oxford University-Somerville College Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art.

Her mother used to paint before she got married, and so did one of her maternal aunts. Painting, therefore, was already in the genes.

Naiza has already had a few exhibitions in Pakistan, at Karachi and Islamabad, since 1991. From 1987 to 1991 she has had nine listed exhibitions in England – one each in Liverpool and Oxford, and the rest in London.

Her latest work, most of it done in 1993, has been on display at a 10-day exhibition starting from November 14 Chawkandi Art Gallery. This work shows that Naiza appears to be much too preoccupied with the study of the human bodys multifaceted shapes, especially the contours of its forms and shapes in what appear to be restful postures, at peace with themselves and the surroundings. Though the bodies are explicitly drawn, most of them seem to be headless. When her attention was focussed on this aspect of her work, she assured this writer that the heads were indeed there. More striking is perhaps the impression that one gets that the drawings have all been visualised from the same distance. The size of the torsos and the languid limbs is nearly the same everywhere. It is as if the artist was unable, by inclination or by working space, to distance herself from her subject. Or is the close proximity an expression of unwillingness to tear away from her subject? The result, however, is the human body into sharp focus.

Asked as to why her present work showed preoccupation with the female body, Naiza remarked, “One has to work with what one feels passionate about. As an artist you have to work through the explicitness of things, with what surrounds you. Whats in the mind and the heart has to come out. The human form is, among other things, a symbol of relationship of people to self.”

Could an artist stop his stimuli? she was asked. “Of course”, she said, “if one chose to, one could go further and reject the stimulus,” but she has herself not done it so far.

ln the drawings that she has selected to display, she has chosen to work with charcoal. Odilon Redon, one of the artists who has had considerable influence on Naizas work, said long ago that “the heavy and vital ardour charcoal gives, depends on the fullness of physical energy… it carries the vitality of the experiments, including scraping his canvases. He influenced the works of Henri Matisse and George Roualt, two more French artists whom Naiza likes.

Other artists whose works Naiza has been impressed by are the English Howard Hodgkins, Frida Kahlo from Mexico, the Indian Coomaraswamy and the French Odilon Redon. Hodgkins is reported to have the worlds largest collection of Indian miniatures. He began to collect them at the age of eleven, buying them from his pocket money. He is still adding to it. Kahlo died in 1954.

Her paintings, according to Susanna Gamboa, a curator, were “full of age, old Mexican symbolism, which has less to do with Frida as an individual than with Mexico as an aesthetic heritage.”

Coomaraswamy is an Indian art historian who has written at length on Eastern aesthetics. Redon was a French symbolist painter, lithographer, and etcher of poetic sensitivity and imagination. His prints explore haunted and fantastic themes and foreshadowed the Surrealist and Dadaist movements. His oils and pastels won him admiration as an important colourist.

Naiza makes the point that all these influences on her work and thinking are of artists who have been categorised by critics as belonging to different schools of thought. At this stage of her career, she is not willing to be thought of as belonging to one particular school. She feels that most artists do not start off as consciously wanting to restrict their work to a particular style. But later on their work assumes an individual style, and because of having been influenced by some other artists of note or their work having close affinity with their contemporaries, they are bunched together.