Colours of the soul

Sara Riaz Khan's stunning new exhibition is smorgasbord of colours, observes Amna R. Ali as she interviews the artist

Colours of the soul

Channels course and
Pulse before us,
Flood and rust at
Their own pace and
I stand here right
Beside you, in my
Bones, just renting space.
—Sara Riaz Khan, 2014

Muscat-based Pakistani artist Sara Riaz Khan’s latest exhibition ‘Earth in My Bones’ opened at the Nomad Gallery in Islamabad this week. The artist was here from Muscat, where she lives, teaches and paints. This was her first exhibition in Islamabad, in an ideal setting at the Nomad Gallery, one of the capital’s oldest galleries, now located at the Saidpur Village, nestled in the foothills of the Margalla Hills.

Unreservedly abstract, her canvases have a larger-than-life energy, pervading the space that they inhabit. Her work delivers a poignant and strong message of Khan’s deep connection with the natural world; her vibrant colour palette borrows from nature’s beauty and its dynamic, immense visual resources. An intuitive, spiritual quality is the bedrock of all her canvases in this series, beckoning you to wander into a spatial wonderland where you pose questions and ponder about the very nature of our existence.
"Working with layers and stains, I found I could start working through my feelings"

Sara’s previous work exhibited most recently at the Bait Muzna Gallery in Muscat  (2014)– a solo show entitled ‘There is Beauty Yet’; in group shows at The Drawing Room Gallery in Lahore and the NM Art Gallery in Dubai; at the Chawkandi Gallery in Karachi (2010); and at the V.M. Rangoonwala Gallery (2006).

Earth In My Bones XII - Oil and Gesso on Canvas - 80 x 100 cm
Earth In My Bones XII - Oil and Gesso on Canvas - 80 x 100 cm

ARA: Tell us why your technique is abstract. What drew you to this genre?

SRK: Shapes and colours have always caught my attention. My work had already started shifting in 2007, when my family went through a crises and I needed to find a way of expressing myself honestly but still reserving some privacy. By working with layers and stains, I found I could start working through my feelings and I have been developing this approach ever since.

ARA: Why is your connection to nature important in much of your work?

SRK: My family spent much of our time at the farm in the Punjab when I was young and those early experiences, impacting all of my senses, became part of who I am. Some of my earliest mark-marking came from trying to smudge the colours of flowers and leaves.

Earth In My Bones XVI - Oil and Gesso on Canvas - 100 x 120 cm
Earth In My Bones XVI - Oil and Gesso on Canvas - 100 x 120 cm

ARA: How did this particular exhibition come about?

SRK: I was reflecting on the question you just asked me! In trying to pin-point my connection to nature, I wrote the poem ‘Earth in My Bones’ – initially I was going to add “Mitti” at the end. The words of the poem and some of the colours came to mind as parallel downloads.

ARA: You say painting is the equilibrium between your dreams and your practical nature. Tell us more?

SRK: My day to day approach to life is fairly balanced. Painting gives me license to plug into the pure freedom I enjoyed as a child, without this I would be incomplete. By being creative, even writing, I take risks with an abandon I don’t live by.

ARA: How do you find splitting your time between painting and teaching – what is the importance of young people in your life?

SRK: Working with young people has been a revelation. I came late to teaching, conscious of why I felt it was important. What I did not realise was how much I would come to respect the journey they are on – one forgets one’s own – and how hard it can be for them.
 "Painting gives me license to plug into the pure freedom I enjoyed as a child"

ARA: You’ve lived in Muscat for nearly 14 years. How has this impacted your work?

SRK: There is a unique, raw natural beauty in Muscat, and somewhat like Islamabad, the mountains provide a significant backdrop. Initially, seeing them split in half to create motorways brought home the significant impact of humans on the environment which was reflected in my work. I also explored some ‘Mountain Women’ images in my 2006 exhibition at the V.M. Rangoonwala gallery, where the trees and earth were transformed into female faces and clothes. More recently, my work has been more introspective, for this exhibition I refer to an “internal topography…a no-man’s land in time and space.”

Sara Riaz Khan
Sara Riaz Khan

ARA: What techniques do you use in your painting and which mediums did you use for this series?

SRK: Oil and Gesso has been the predominant medium in my recent work. Particularly with the larger pieces, the creative process is a physical one as I layer, stain, drip, scratch and excavate the surface. For me, letting go of areas and working over them is a way of moving forward. After a point the painting nods it heads and takes over and then I really don’t know what it will eventually look like!

ARA: Are there any innovations or experimental concepts you would like to bring to your work in the future?

SRK: I am excited about working on larger canvases and seeing what I can get away with in terms of colour tension. I also love stories (and movies!) and would like to bring in a different kind of narrative in the work.

ARA: What is the relevance of the last lines of your poem ‘Earth in My Bones’ (noted above)?

SRK: We are “renting space” here, on this earth and we need to be mindful of how we use that time, in our treatment of the earth itself as well as of each other.