INTERVIEW: HELLO!Pakistan interviews artist Soraya Sikander on her new work

SORAYA SIKANDER calls herself a fine artist trained in Western classical figurative drawing, working on a new visual language. A critically acclaimed painter, she has exhibited widely and showcased her work at major museums and galleries in London, Dubai, Dhaka, Singapore, Karachi and Lahore – her artworks are with major collectors. Soraya has spent several years training in fine arts at Beaconhouse National University (BNU), the Slade Summer School and now at the London Atelier of Representational Art (LARA), focusing on drawing and sculpture. She recently held a TEDx talk on ‘Conditioning in Art’ and has been offered honorary MFAs, artist residencies, fair exhibits and commissions. Hello! Pakistan catches up with this young painter in London to discuss her latest art project.

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What is your oeuvre and where do you see yourself going? My body of work mainly comprises of tonal paintings. The use of light is immediate, direct and apparent in nearly all my artworks. There are strong shapes as well as texture in my landscapes and florals from the series ‘In, at and around’ for which I am best known. However the new work is a complete departure from the previous. It is all about returning to the principles of what constitutes a perfect drawing, that is: Shape, tone and edge. In edges you have three kinds: sharp edge, soft edge, and lost edge – apparent in works of 19th century academic trained artists. Master this, and you have mastered fine arts. That is where I am going.

Tell us why you choose to straddle two worlds to develop your artistic practice? The kind of work that I am now producing could only have been realised in a country with an atelier history; Italy, U.K and U.S have great atelier academies where you get to work on classical drawings for hours, observing a model and chasing the gesture of the pose. That is the academic reason. When I put my work out in an exhibition I travel to wherever the show is and then back. Being a professional artist brings plenty of travel into your life, it is part and parcel. A general rule that I have when working, is to take several short breaks. You come back and see your work in progress and spot something that wasn’t there before or should’ve been there. If you remain in one spot for too long, a point comes when you stop seeing tones and everything begins to look flat. To train the eye, you must allow yourself to go back and forth.

What have you studied so far in London and what brought you back to the city? The London Atelier of Representational Art (LARA) brought me back to the city. It is a rather unique and interesting art academy where you meet other professional artists and practitioners from a diverse background, work from live models who adopt a certain pose that you draw for 4 weeks building the work from straight lines, measuring and studying proportions, then making your work as close to reality as possible. It is very similar to sculpting, where first you block in a shape, then you chisel and refine. Another striking feature is the constant use of mirrors to reverse and check the drawing you are making. A black mirror is a drawing essential. In the beginning you work on a Bargue drawing – a two-dimensional realistic sketch. Next, you move on to a 3D cast in pencil and later charcoal. This is called Sight-Size. Where your subject is drawn or painted in the size that you see it from a specific distance. This drawing can take several weeks. It is common to be working on the same drawing for a few months.

What excites you most about your study at the London Atelier of Representational Art (LARA)? To be the first Pakistani artist trained in a tradition that traces back to 17th century and has been over hundreds of years passed down through studio practice from tutor to pupils. Between the 18th and 19th century this was the standard and recognised way of training painters and sculptors. Some of the world’s greatest artists were trained in this method. It has now experienced a revival. Many people who want to seriously pursue a career as an artist are turning to representational art. Without a sound training in atelier drawing, the artist will have to produce gimmicky stuff to hide their ignorance. This kind of art may be racy and loaded in shock value, however it is a matter of time before people realise the emperor has no clothes.

You are currently focusing on old masters’ style drawing. Tell us more. To work in old masters’ style, to make representational art, there are some guidelines: Stand at a distance from your subject, go back and forth, squint, use mirrors to see image in reverse, measure proportions with a stick, hold your mechanical pencil towards the end, keep it sharp, draw from your shoulder. The whole point of this approach to drawing is to train the eyes and for your hand to match on paper what you see in front of you. The end results are extremely rewarding as your work appears more lifelike, more three-dimensional, and the process is enjoyable as you control, adjust and alter your work through the several stages of development. This type of drawing has stood the test of time. Keywords: accuracy, precision.

Does this kind of opportunity only present itself in the West? While the human body has been the fulcrum of art practice throughout the history of art, to what extent can an artist go in Pakistan? In Pakistan (and in most art schools worldwide) there is life drawing, with a group of students seated or standing around a model and a tutor ‘teaching’ what he or she thinks makes a good drawing. The ultimately outcome is a mixture of that tutor’s subjectivity and students illustration. The problem with this essentially is that the tutor becomes the eyes of the student, hence creating heavy reliance. In atelier there are several tutors over the week and they encourage you to look and train you to ‘see’ and correct what looks awkward or ‘jumps out’. It is simply a way of providing feedback, hence negating the possibility of any kind of dependence on what you or the tutor thinks they see. It is a documentation of what is really there.

How do you feel while working with a live model? I enjoy the experience; however I do feel for them! It is freezing here most of the time and the minute they get a long break, they immediately run off for tea! Working with a live model is much more rewarding than working with a photo. There is an entire human being there, – it’s beautiful and interesting to watch them and look for diagonals across the pose – the gesture they adopt marks the beginning of a drawing. If you do not ‘chase the gesture’ so to speak, no amount of decoration, shading, nothing can save your drawing. The first few weeks are always the most crucial in a drawing’s development.

Why do you think it is important to turn to this subject at this stage of your art practice? Simply put, any serious painter pushes themselves to achieve more, aim higher, raise the bar, and to compete with their own selves. I think I wanted to challenge myself. It’s what I do. Also, I was beginning to get too comfortable producing work that I became ‘known’ for and not inconveniencing myself in the slightest. At any stage, whatever kind of art once produces, it is important to keep going back to the fundamentals, and then push your work forward.

Where will you be exhibiting in the near future? I am quite enjoying reeling in the success that was the ‘In, at and around’ series. I have been contacted by galleries, offered   MFAs, and artist residency projects and a public commission for a fair. I am always open to offers and opportunities. Presently I am in my studio and new work is in progress.