Australia based artist Nazia Ejaz’s work is current and thoroughly expressive on many levels and touches upon relevant queries regarding identity and culture in an expatriate lifestyle. She talks to Saba Ahmed about her art, life in Australia and her mother Madam Nur Jehan’s influence on her

What influences drive your work?

Two distinct narrative threads run through my work: one is my response to my lived experience and another parallel one is about the exploration of the medium and engagement with global art discourse. I think that both investigations work side by side. On the one hand, you can engage with your emotions and everything that’s happening around you and try and interpret that through your work, the conceptual matter. On another level, I try to engage with what’s happening in the art world today. The materials that I use and their limitations and the way I test those limitations informs my work as well. I think both aspects are very important and interesting to me and they keep me engaged, the conceptual and the material.

How do you decide between mediums, such as paintings and installations and what informs your decisions?

I really enjoy the idea of working between mediums. In fact, the work itself is about being in between. The conceptual premise of the work is about being inside and outside. If you’re inside something, then you’re outside something else. The fact that my work moves between mediums also fits in with the concept and it doesn’t limit itself to any specific medium like sculpture or painting. I’ll photograph something and then I’ll paint it and then take a photograph of that painting and then I’ll do something else with it. As far as the medium is concerned, my choices fit in with what I’m thinking about conceptually as well. That’s what I find interesting at the moment.

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Jaali

My love for Lahore I think is connected to my relationship with my mum (Madam Nur Jehan). She’s not the focal point of my work but she’s linked to everything that influences it. We’ve always had eyes on us being so and so’s children and this perspective is something that I’ll be looking into for a long time through my work

Which mediums do you most commonly work with?

The jaali (screen) is what has inspired these paintings. The jaali was in turn inspired by some paintings I had done earlier. So, you see, the work moves back and forth. I use materials that are at my disposal and use whichever medium I feel like working with at that time. It keeps me interested in the work. More recently, the screen has translated into grids and patterns, which I’ve used metaphorically in the three wall paintings in my most recent show.

Apart from traditional mediums, like photography, painting and sculpture, I use things such as plastics and mirrors, and light and shadow. I plan to use mirrors in future works, because mirrors are also about here and there and I enjoy playing around with the philosophical implications of that.

Tell us more about the jaali and being the ‘other’.

The installation of the jaali fits in with my concept of the experience of our environment. I feel that the experience of our environment is a mediated experience in so many aspects of our life, whether it’s gender, nationality or religious affiliation. And to anything that is different, we respond through these affiliations. So the jaali is almost like a screen which is there almost all of the time, especially in our interactions with other people. Being ‘the other’ myself, living in Australia and coming back to visit Pakistan, where I’ve lived away from for 11 years and before that for 4 years when I was away at college, I find that I’m very deeply rooted within this society, but at the same time I’ve always been on the outside of it.

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The jaali is multipurpose and, in my work, it also refers to how sometimes truth or reality can get covered up deliberately or sometimes unwittingly. The jaali is also used extensively in Islamic architecture. Throughout South Asia, you can see it used as a shield. I’ve used that as a metaphor for talking about separation. It also directs the gaze, making it an interesting metaphor with which to work. At the end of the day, it’s about the shifting perspectives, because everything depends on which side of the jaali you are on, either you’re inside or you’re outside and, on both sides, the perspective is very different. It becomes a major concern when you come across it all the time. Once you start realising that, you begin to notice it everywhere and in everything. It’s not other people but it’s your own personal journey and how you respond to these situations that determines who you are. That has been a main area of investigation for me.

What time of the day do you like to work?

Well, I’m a mother of two, which means that apart from taking care of my children, I work all the time. When you’re younger and single, you have the luxury of choosing what time of the day you work as opposed to when you have children you work at whatever time is available to you. I do like to paint during the day because I need natural light, so I’ve got to work around my children, especially since I live abroad and don’t have the support system that we do back home. When my kids are at school, I paint and do other work while they’re asleep.

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How is your work received differently in  Pakistan and abroad?

The work was very well received in Australia. Obviously it takes time for people there to understand the metaphorical implications, but there are people there that can engage with the work. Where I exhibited was a non commercial hub of galleries and is frequented by a number of people that are connected to the art world and already engage with art, art history and what’s happening now in the contemporary art scene. It’s not difficult for them to take in the symbolism in my work. However, some of them are not well versed in Indo-Islamic art history where some of the features of my work are coming from. But thankfully so far I’ve received a good response.

Lahore is home territory for me and it was really important for my colleagues in Lahore to see my work as well. It’s a lovely feeling. The responsiveness of the art world and the community that was present and supportive was heartening.

What role did your mother (Madam Nur Jehan) play in your art?

She always encouraged whatever I did and she was always an inspiration for me in terms of her attitude towards my work. My sisters and I are all hard working and that comes from our mother because we’ve seen her work ethic and how hard she worked throughout her life. For me, my work is strongly connected to Lahore and, again for me, Lahore is all about her. My love for Lahore I think is connected to my relationship with my mum. She’s not the focal point of my work but she’s linked to everything that influences it. We’ve always had eyes on us being so and so’s children and this perspective is something that I’ll be looking into for a long time through my work.

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How do you feel about the current art scene in Pakistan?

Take miniature painting, for example, and the boost it’s gotten from internationally acclaimed artists, such as Shahzia Sikander. Pakistani artists are a force to be reckoned with all over the world. We have so much young creative talent and institutions support it, but I would love to see some support from the government as well. In Australia, a lot of artists would not be able to produce art without the grants they receive. They’re doing non commercial work all through government grants or public artwork commissions.

I recently saw that fantastic Birdhouse commission outside NCA and I think it’s great. I believe that art belongs in the public domain and would love to see it come out of galleries and be displayed in public spaces. In a gallery, only a select few get to see it. An artist’s job is to think about life and to illustrate it in the way a historian might document it or a writer might interpret it. It becomes richer with interaction because you need the viewer to complete the work.

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