I get asked, “Why is your work not about terrorism?”

Jamile Naqi interviews Waqas Khan, a sugarcane seller's son from small-town Okara who got into the National College of Arts in Lahore and was recently shortlisted for the Victoria and Albert Museum's prestigious Jameel Prize, awarded annually to art and ...

I get asked, “Why is your work not about terrorism?”
Waqas Khan graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the National College of Arts, NCA, Lahore, in 2008. 

His solo shows: Krinzinger Gallery, Vienna; Sabrina Amrani Art Gallery, Madrid; Lakeeren Gallery, Mumbai; Canvas Art Gallery, Karachi; Rohtas Gallery, Lahore.  He has also participated in numerous group shows and art fairs.  In 2013, Khan was shortlisted for the Jameel Prize (Victoria Albert Museum, London). 

Jonathan Jones in The Guardian on Khan’s works at the Victoria and Albert Museum: “Waqas Khan makes ethereal drawings inspired by Sufism and minimalism… Khan draws fields of tiny dots that expand into dreamlike clouds of ambiguity. He is a truly powerful artist, who in my opinion deserved the prize.”


Jamile Naqi:  Tell me about your growing up years.

Waqas Khan: I was born in Akhtarabad, a town near Okara. I was the eldest child.  I went to local schools while my two younger brothers were sent to schools away from home.  I being the eldest was designated to stay at home and help my father with his business and other household duties. We lived in a joint family; my uncle had only daughters, so I looked after his household requirements also.  I bought groceries for my mother, daily. I took dinner for my father, in the evening, to his shop.  I know all about farming and am knowledgeable about growing crops and vegetables. My father has a sugarcane (shakkar) business; I can make shakkar too!  From my eighth class onwards, I helped at my father’s shop during my vacations. I collected deliveries from trucks and did the accounting. Honestly, that is what I do now too.  My father is getting old; when his munshi goes on vacations I go and help out.


[quote]"I do not belong to a family with inherited wealth"[/quote]

JN: Did you resent it?  Your brothers studying in good schools and you stuck with chores… 

WK: Not really!  I do not belong to a family with inherited wealth.  My father is a self-made man.  I have seen my father working very hard; how early he went to work; how late he came back home.  So you can say, it is an in-built thing. It was a grassroots upbringing and the best part was that I was with my family all the time. My mother was a mathematics teacher and she would teach me math and that too was good.  It was not boring.  It was very nice.

JN: Who had the most influence on your life, mother, father, or uncle?

WK: It was the surroundings.  It was the whole atmosphere.  How do I say it?  Oh, it was everything that I grew up around.

Closeup of Shadow
Closeup of Shadow

Forming spaces V

JN:  After matriculation, you went to NCA?

WK: After matriculation, I got admission in Fsc, as my father wanted me to be a doctor.  I knew my course books on my fingertips and if I was asked a question, I could tell the page number where answer could be found.

JN:  You have a photographic memory?

WK: No, I wouldn’t say that.  I experiment; when reading I pose questions to myself. I create a dialogue with the writing (which is another person’s expression) in my own way; I put my own story into what I read.  For example, when I was reading about cells or the nucleus, I named the nucleus Omar, gave the cells other names.  When I was with a group of friends, I related that to cells – ten cells going for tea, this is how cells get together, this is how cells act and react. I made a drama and that’s how I remembered my lessons. I believe education has to be a happy, living experience.

[quote]"I heard about NCA from the canteen-wala in college" [/quote]

JN: Unique way of learning! How did you end up at NCA?

WK: I did not want to be a doctor. I kept looking around for something else. I heard about NCA from the canteen-wala in college.  I was inclined towards graphics and decided to go study there.  I got into NCA on my third try (I was rejected two times).  I was looking for freedom, for fun; I did not want to be confined.  NCA was the space that clicked with me.  It was not important to me that I be an artist but I wanted to be in a place that offered free expression. You can say it was  a whisper,  from a divine source, in my ear that prompted me to look at NCA.

Closeup of the Dance in retina II
Closeup of the Dance in retina II

When I got admission, I got to know I had an A+ in my drawing test  (I was one of the four who topped in drawing).  I wanted to join graphics.  However, the admission panel guided me to join fine arts on the strength of my drawing.  This was okay with me.  I did not have a plan about what I wanted to do at NCA but there was a push in me that this was the campus for me.

JN: Can you describe the NCA space?

WK: Different art activities go on there: music, theatre, art, architecture. Students also have an opportunity to work outside the college  (firms approach students and offer them short-term assignments) in theatre, interiors and so on.

NCA has true cultural diversity:  boys and girls from Hunza, interior Sindh, Balochistan; pehlvans from Gujranwala.  Some cannot even speak or write Urdu and English and then there are the elite and privileged children from convent schools.  I believe NCA is the only  college in Pakistan that has such a varied group of  students. A unique undergraduate experience.

JN: What was going on with your studies?

WK: After my first year in Fine Arts, I went on to study printmaking.  I was lucky that NCA offered printmaking.  Printmaking is an ancient art and I wanted to play with it.  I mixed the ancient techniques with modern nuances to create prints.  I felt I was on the right track; I was doing manual work and using a state of the art computer for my work.

I was hardly a model student!  I would come do my exam work in one day and present to the jury and  I would pass. I was lucky that I had great teachers such as Naazish Ataullah, Afshar Malik, Anwar Saeed.  They never had a two-plus-two-equals-four formula or judged me harshly for doing my own thing; they were friendly to me.

Dance in retina II
Dance in retina II

JN: Students in art school pick a discipline – fine arts, architecture, design – and their career path follows.  What about you?

WK: Before graduation, the bursar called me and asked,  “What are going to do when you graduate?”  I replied,  “Sir, I have to tell you, when I get out of here I am not going to do any ‘art-wart’!”

I was enjoying printmaking, performances, music, and I was doing all of it, but I was not thinking of becoming an artist and picking up a paintbrush. I had a job offer in Dubai.  My family friend had an accountancy office and I planned to go to London for a vacation, then to Dubai to work as an accountant.  At my final jury, my teachers said,  “Waqas, don’t go away from art.  Even if ten years pass, pick up a pen or paint brush.”  That is how I graduated!

Letter to lover II
Letter to lover II

JN: You graduated from NCA and did not plan to be an artist.  How did you come back to it?

WK: A couple of months after graduation, I was with a friend who was preparing for her art show in India.  I was sitting around getting bored.  There was a felt pen and paper lying around. I picked it up and put a dot on the paper and started doodling.  Once I started it clicked with me and I sat there for four days.  I made a work.  I had always been working with a dot. I made drawings with dot, video with dot, graphics with dot.

After that, I missed all my plans to go to London and Dubai.  I got a place.  I sat there with a pen and paper and drew and kept going.  This is one thing that touched me so badly, so badly, you would not believe it.  I was just there, just there.  My vision was clear, I wanted to explore where I could take this dot.

Forming spaces XI
Forming spaces XI

JN: How did you start exhibiting?

WK: My first exhibition was at NCA with miniature artists and Imran Qureshi was instrumental in getting me there.  Then I approached Ma’am Salima Hashmi.  I was hoping when I went that she would not recognize me as she took my final jury!   She saw the work and said, “Who are you?”  I said, “Ma’am, can we see the work please?”  Then she recognized me, “It is you! Why did you not do this work in college?” That’s how my second exhibition happened! It was at Ma’am Salima’s gallery, Rohtas, in Lahore.

JN: And abroad?

WK: The same way: my teachers recommended me to a gallery and I had my first overseas show in India.  After India, I went to Dubai Art Fair and from there three different galleries picked me up.

Forming spaces XII
Forming spaces XII

JN: You are now recognized in the art world. Would you say you have a plan? Could you leave the art world?

WK: The first thing is that it should work out for me.  I dance with my work. I sit inside for months to create just one piece; I let go of everything else: I am not a psycho man!  I am sitting inside – there is a dialogue between me and my work; these are beautiful moments I spend with my work.  The monster that I am  (I am a big, 6ft 2in guy),  that monster’s energies are converted into that small tiny dot; like a four-year old doodling...

[quote]"I have to hold my pen with both hands"[/quote]

JN: A child doodling is creative but rarely amounts to great art!

WK: My training, my art education is there.  When I am working I have to be 1000 percent focused.  I use permanent ink. It cannot be erased because energy and inspiration are in the moment.  I do not know how long I can sit at my work, my back hurts, other issues come up.

I work holding breath, exhaling my breath.  While making a mark on the paper, I have to hold my breath, I have to hold my pen with both hands, I have to be very precise, very focused, where this mark should be; then I exhale. This is how it is.

JN: This dot, this nuqta, tell me about it.

WK: This whole space – Iran, Pakistan, India – it has something, a spiritual energy (though I am not confining it to this region; I have travelled so much now and see this energy everywhere).  However, we are lucky to be in Pakistan (the Indus Valley Basin) as you can literally feel it here.  If you are having a conversation with another, you feel the energies; for example, your mother will say, “Teri Khair Howay” (‘May good come your way’) and there is some kind of sweet gesture in that.  The dot is one of the spiritualities. I feel it; and then I make it.

JN: Say more about it.

WK: For me it is repetition; repetition of everything becomes part of the spiritual journey.  Yet, it is not only about repetition.

From a bird’s eye view, any view is circular. Sufi wisdom, Nuqtae wich gal mukdi (‘It is contained in the dot’) expresses this essence.  It is like it is complete, contented, unending. No other dimension can come out of it.  The dot since ancient times has associated with the Sufis; not only Sufis, it has been associated with the spiritual world.


JN: People are looking toward the arts of South Asia. Why?

WK: People are looking to South Asia because much is happening here. In Pakistan there is war, militancy, new democracy.  We are in the news.  I get asked, “Why is your work not about terrorism?”

I say, “I do get affected by such things here, electricity, gas, roadblocks, bomb blasts, the daily uncertainty.   But I do not label my work, i.e. this is what is going on so let me pick up this topic. No. My reason for making art is to craft a new visual experience. Something like that…”

JN: You have exhibited with the best, Marina Abramovic and Gavin Turk and others. Were you intimidated?

WK: There have been big moments but I never got scared.  I took them on.  I try my maximum best; there is no word ‘No’ in my book. Newton said, “I thank the people who said ‘It can’t be done’  They made me do it.”  I feel that way too.

JN: You just got back from your show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.   How did it feel? What was the highlight for you?

WK: It was super.  The buzz, the excitement, the people, other artists, judges, critics. Very exciting.

For me the highlight  was having my friends (artists and gallery folks from many countries and museums) who came to support me and be there for me.