Zahrah Ehsan’s artistry is a decorous and bold treat for the eyes. There’s an overwhelming rutilance to her surfaces that lends her work the quality of dream-scape. The carnaval-esque palette and immersion into fantastical themes absorb the viewer completely at first impression. The fantastic luminosity of her canvases often carry messages that are feminist and self-interrogatory in nature. The beautiful tumult of colour serves as a prelude to the truth, often dark, enclosed within. Zahrah spoke to Afshan Shafi about her journey as an artist and of the creative visionaries that inspire her.
Please tell us about your background as an artist and your education in this regard.
I think I always knew that I would end up becoming an artist/painter, but was not really sure until I had a life changing ten minute conversation with my former O Level teacher, Farwa Tahir a day before my Art exam. During my time in Lahore Grammar School, I was fortunate to have teachers like her and Murad Khan Mumtaz as my O and A Level teachers respectively, who dedicated their time and saw the potential in me. Later I joined the National College of Arts, where I came across a diversity not only in terms of competent teachers, but also in terms of peers. I graduated with a Bachelors in Fine Arts majoring in Painting, and securing an honour for my thesis project. Both during and after my intensive incubatory training at the institution, I was able to undertake several exhibitions, projects and other similar enterprises. I think going to NCA was the best decision of my life.
Which artists, local or international, haveÂ influenced or informed your point of view the most?
I do not think I can ever limit myself to just a couple of favourites. As I was trained to self-reflect during the process of my work, I developed a habit of looking at artists coming from different disciplines and not just looking, but also reading about them and their inspirations. There is an exhausting long list of both local and international artists that I believe have influenced my way of thinking. To name a few Krzysztof Wodiczko, Edward Hopper, Jeff Wall, Pipilotti Rist, Iqra Tanveer, Alex Katz, Rachel Whiteread, Dan Flavin, Huma Mulji, Rene Magritteâ€¦the list is never ending.
What’s integral to the work of an artist?
For an artist, there should be an innate understanding in making sure that your work is reflecting a marriage between research and skill. The artist’s work will speak in volumes only when the artist himself/herself is well informed about his/her work and is not shying away from the transformations that are taking place in the process.
What has been a seminal, life changingÂ experience in terms of your art?
I guess that was when my work began to criticise the commodified types of women’s roles in modern society. I realised this when I made my pink and blue dream-like paintings with plastic baby tub stuck on them in 3rd year of college, along with a video that was hugely inspired by a parody video and performance piece, Semiotics of the Kitchen by Martha Rosler, and also similar to Salima Hashmi’s 70’s segment called Handa Hubaalna from the show Taal Matol.
What themes do you pursue?
My work hearkens back to that sense of longing for what is perhaps, unattainable. Teacups, the colour pink and dollhouses act as a metaphor for the ideals that the protagonist in my images holds, all of which are somewhat unreal. These are figments of an overheated imagination. I am obsessed with the notion of childhood dreams shattering as we grow older. To attain the â€˜happinessâ€™ that girls are told to wait for; the ‘happiness’ that they are promised while they pour tea into their doll’s tea cup.
What’s your ultimate, favourite art work?
My ultimate favourite art work has to be Rene Magritte’s The Tempest. The strange, yet subtle arrangement of ordinary objects shown in the painting will never seize to amaze me.
How has your practice change over time?
I think my practice has only improved over time, and the more committed I am to this course of life the better it gets. It is almost addictive, if I count the years of practice that started when I was a student and decided to display works outside college. It has been a little over a year since I have gotten a studio after graduating three years ago, and there is no going back. According to a dear friend, this studio has given me a good show. I am waiting what else it brings out in me. Looking forward to the challenges ahead.
What superpower would you have and why?
I would love to enter all these paintings of artists like Hieronymous Bosch, Magritte, Edouard Vuillard and experience what’s happening inside the canvas that only shows us one perspective in its two dimentionality. Haha, something very similar to how Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck enter Munch’s Scream in the movie Space Jam and turn into that screaming man, or start melting when they enter Dali’s painting, The Persistence of Memory.
Name something you love and why?
The beach! I love the sound and the view of the waves crashing on the beach and how it naturally reflects the sky. The beach is the best place to have real conversations.
Name something you don’t love and why?
Clutter is something that I can bear with, but I loathe things lying around. The kind of routine that I have, I am not able to keep my room and studio clean at all times. But when I do, my studio mates are also unfortunately caught in the storm.
I am obsessed with the notion of childhood dreams shattering as
we grow older. To attain the â€˜happinessâ€™ that girls are told
to wait for; the ‘happiness’ that they are promised while
they pour tea into their doll’s tea cup
What is your dream project?
I would want to create an experiential party like setting in a given gallery space and would want to be there as a host, rather than as an artist displaying works. And no, I am not talking about the kind you saw in Alice in Wonderland. This is something that I am still working on.
Name three artists you’d like to be compared to.
Edward Hopper, Rene Magritte and Gerhard Richter.
What work of art do you wish you owned?
Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Lightyears Away by Yayoi Kusama.
Which artist living or dead would you have loved to collaborate with?
I think I would be happy to collaborate with this Canadian artist, Jeff Wall. I have always been drawn to his staged photographs like The Destroyed Room and Mimic. I like how his photograph’s compositions are cinematographic and relatable at the same time.
What is an artistic outlook on life?
For me an artistic outlook on life simply means to acknowledge and embrace the highs and lows of your artistic journey, and to accept that an artist’s work makes them who they are and tells them where they stand.
What under-appreciated artist, gallery, or work do you think people should know about?
Leonora Carrington, a member of the surrealist movement, is well known as Max Ernst’s wife. I think she is one of the many under-appreciated women artists in the art world. I find her dreamlike, highly detailed fantastical paintings along with her life story extraordinary.
What’s your favourite thing you’ve ever created?
That is a tough one as all of my works are an outcome of a more personal struggle. But recently, one of my four new works that were shown at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, with the title Monologue is currently very close to my heart.
Which creative medium would you love to pursue but haven’t yet?
As for now, I have attempted almost all kinds of mediums that I was familiarised with in college, but I believe I have not been fully able to explore installations.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
I remember my former A levels teacher, Murad Khan Mumtaz coming in as an external juror to NCA for a painting critique and mentioning how my painting was â€˜well paintedâ€™, which was very unlike him. Similarly, I have had many other accomplished teachers, like Quddus Mirza, R. M. Naeem and Mariam Hussain, appreciating my work and their responses have really directed me to be more consistent with my practise.
Favourite or most inspirational place?
I do not think I have an inspirational place in particular. Any place can inspire me as long as I it can host art, music and conversation.
What are you working on as a future project?
I am working for a solo show at the moment. Details of the show will be disclosed soon.