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Living In The Light: Hiba Schahbaz Talks Truth, Self-Acceptance & Finding Her Artistic Freedom

Hiba Schahbaz never consciously decided to be an artist. In fact, her innate progression towards the creative profession happened as organically as the night becomes day. As a result of this instinctive happening, for almost a decade now, her prolific artworks have come to represent a beacon of light feminine energy within New York’s contemporary art space. Originally hailing from the vibrant city of Karachi in Pakistan, and later being formally trained at the prestigious National College of Arts in Lahore, in her formative years as a student of the craft, she often felt as if the strict conservative atmosphere her homeland imposed couldn’t quite facilitate for the vulnerable truths her artworks have always inherently confronted.

Upon making the brave decision to move her life stateside, the natural talent experienced new artistic freedom that enabled her to unlock a previously hidden inner potential. Eventually finding refuge in her own personal truths as she embarked upon a sentimental journey that saw her de-constructing her own multi-faceted identity through her own artistic innovations. Having recently closed the doors to a well-received, all-female-curated exhibition at San Francisco’s Chandran Gallery, Schahbaz’s next creative endeavor will see her work showcased at The Unit Gallery’s upcoming Beyond Borders exhibition in London – a place she’s yet to visit.

In anticipation of this, NBGA thought it’d only be right to reach out to Schahbaz ahead of time and become further acquainted with the soft-spoken woman behind the ethereal life-sized impressions of the female form in all its glorious beauty. We got the chance to discuss how the artist approaches conceptualizing her work, how she ultimately learned to separate her own artistic intention from other people’s extreme reactions, her background in miniaturist painting, and her overarching artistic purpose and message.

Where are you from originally, and what drew you towards pursuing the visual arts as a career?  

I’m originally from Karachi in Pakistan; that’s where I was born, raised and educated in my formative years. I’ve been drawing and painting since I was a girl. It has always been a part of my expression, it’s what I did naturally, so I guess it organically ended up becoming my career – to be honest, I don’t really know how to do anything else. Also, both of my parents were quite creative – my dad worked in television as a set designer when I was growing up, and my mother had also studied painting – however, she ended up becoming a teacher. 

How did attending The National College of Arts in Lahore allow you to further develop your artistry?

Throughout my time there, I trained as an Indo-Persian miniature painter. In a technical sense, this style of painting belongs to a variety of broader book art. The original miniature paintings derived from historical documents, as within these artworks, the kings would canonize the narratives of their lives, wars, and court scenes. Over time, the painters traveled from Persia to India; there was generally a lot of movement with regards to the artists of the time – they rarely stayed in one place for long, being that the nature of their work demanded they go wherever their patrons were. So, it was a very traditional art form and it was predominantly utilized for its significant historical purpose.

I’d say you really need to have a love for miniature painting to study it. It’s very process-oriented and requires a lot of discipline as you learn to make your own paper, your own paint, and brushes – then you move on to learning about the stylizations and learning how to paint really fine; it’s a painstaking process which requires patient energy and a meditative approach.

You moved from Pakistan to New York in 2010; I can imagine this had a great impact on your artistic identity. As you continue to evolve as an artist, how do you approach conceptualizing your pieces?

When I moved to New York, it took me a few years to get past my own personal barriers and eventually be able to paint what I wanted without worrying about how it would be perceived, or who would object to it, or even having to think about hiding it. So, it took a little while to do that. It was a very multi-faceted process in the sense that I had to change, and the work had to change, and we both had to change together – it’s been a journey and it’s ongoing.

Through this process of intense change, I’m learning that I have to live in the light. I can’t hide who I am or what I need to express because ultimately that blocks me from living my truth. It goes without saying that the concept of truth is particular to each of us and so much of putting that out there is just accepting it, accepting ourselves – and doing that by relinquishing as much fear as possible; I think that that process in itself has its own rewards.

Being a South-Asian woman coming from a Muslim society – not to mention, choosing to center my work around self-portraiture – came with its own set of challenges. However, I feel once I made the decision to live in the light, a lot of former challenges no longer affected me in the way that they used to. Saying this, when somebody reacts to my work in an extremely negative or hurtful way, it does still have the potential to throw my week off, but I no longer question who I am or what I need to say. I just follow my art.

The central focus of much of your artworks is the female form – is there any specific reason for this, or is it simply what comes most naturally to you when creating?

Painting women comes very naturally to me and a central concept for my artworks is self-portraiture. I am a South-Asian woman hailing from a traditional, predominantly Muslim society. Within my work, I experiment with concepts attached to my multifaceted identity, in conjunction with what that means to me in a contemporary space, in the society we live in today and also in the spaces that I’ve entered when evolving as an artist and moving from Pakistan to New York.

Every step that I take as an artist is a step towards freedom, and I find I’m not very concerned with meeting the expectations of the market or the art world. Coming from a life where I tried to manipulate myself to fit into boxes I didn’t fit into, I feel I can’t do that to myself again. I try not to let my fears that held me back from making and sharing my work in the past affect my present. When I’m working on my paintings, as I’m going through the process and conceptualization, that part is mine, and I try to protect that as much as I can.

On social media, you frequently post process videos where you can be seen painting in rooms bathed in natural light. I guess biologically we come to understand color through our experiences with refractions of light from a very young age – how important is the space you create in to you? Do you seek out specific places to create specific artworks?

I love sitting in the sun and having a sunlit studio makes a huge difference to my mood. It gives me a feeling of well-being. My studio life has evolved into me becoming a daytime painter. In deep winter, that means starting to paint at sunrise because otherwise, I run out of hours – I’m just lucky that sunrise is a particularly beautiful time of day all year round. When the day shifts into night, my perception of colors also shifts quite naturally and I’m not able to see my work in the same way. Light shifts throughout the year and there are these times of the day when there’s a lot of beautiful light coming into my space. I’m very grateful for those moments and I like to share them with everyone.

You primarily paint with water-based pigments, however, you also paint with the natural dyes derived from tea – when did you start doing this and how has the technique helped to develop your artistic style?

The tea came from an old miniature painting technique: as students, we learned how to paint with color, how to paint in black and white, and how to paint with tea mixed with color pigment – but on a much smaller scale. When my paintings got larger, I instinctively began painting the figures with black tea and never even considered using watercolor. I think my desire to paint with tea came from my memories of home because in Pakistan we drink a lot of tea – as you do in London. I love the smell of tea and I feel so connected to it; it reminds me of home. It’s very fitting that the color is so perfect for painting with.

What would you say is your artistic purpose? Some artists paint simply for emotional catharsis, others to convey political messages – is there any predominant message that you’re trying to convey with your work?

I feel like it’s definitely a more natural form of expression, I’ve never considered myself a political artist. I know that I’m considered a feminist artist, and sometimes also a political artist simply because I come from a particular part of the world and with that comes a lens with regards to the history of art attached to Pakistan. However, I make paintings as a form of personal expression. I make them because I need to.

I started making cut-out gardens full of flowers simply for my studio, not intending to exhibit them… I felt that with all the negativity and sadness in the world, I needed to create a space for myself and the people who come to visit me that was beautiful and calming and serene. I see this as something that I simply needed to do to feel safe, and so I created it in my studio, which feels like an extension of myself.

You’ve just closed a showing of your work in an exhibition called “The Women” at the Chandran Gallery in San Francisco. What made you want to collaborate with this gallery at this point in your artistic career?

I had an amazing experience working with the Chandran Gallery in San Fransisco. They have a beautiful exhibition space where they invite artists to make large scale installations of their work. Their space was so perfect for my cutouts, which I create for my studio as there is a lot of natural light there and strong feminine energy. I had been shying away from exhibiting these cutouts in a gallery space and this felt like the perfect time and space to do to. Because I live with the paintings for so long in my studio, it can sometimes be disconnecting to see them in a different space, but at Chandran, all the paintings came to life. It was perfect.

Your work has been shown all over the world, is there any specific place you’d love to hold an exhibition in the future?

I’ve haven’t thought much about this before. I’d say mainly because living in New York, there are so many galleries and this feels like the center of the art world. I tend to show with people that I feel drawn to regardless of geography. If I feel a connection with a dealer, I am much more likely to show with them. I’ll probably have my next show in New York, as I haven’t shown here in a while. I like meeting new people and getting a feel for them and their space before we collaborate, more so than wanting to travel to unknown places, only because I think that people can be unknown places too. For example, the exhibition I just had in San Fransisco was at a woman-owned gallery, run by women, and the owner had designed the space herself. I have to say it’s one of the most beautiful gallery spaces I’ve ever shown, not to mention its strong female energy was very powerful and nourishing.

Lastly, having accomplished everything you’ve already achieved within your career, if you could give any advice to your younger self – what would it be and why?

To my younger self, I would say trust yourself, listen to your inner voice, and be strong and fearless. ‘If you build it, they will come’ so keep moving forward, keep growing, and don’t be afraid to dream. I feel that for young artists, including me, there can be a lot of pressure and persevering feels, like an impossible task. In addition to this, the subject of my paintings was challenging and not acceptable for the part of the world I come from, so there was constant pressure to change paths and I ended up internalizing a lot of that. At a time, I almost felt like I wasn’t good enough and that I didn’t fit in. For those times, I would simply tell a younger me to not listen to what anyone else has to say and to just trust myself wholeheartedly. Once you learn to trust yourself, you can’t go backward, only forwards.

Head down to see Hiba’s work at Londons’ Unit Gallery here!
Follow her artistic journey online here!
By Tahirah Thomas