Soraya Sikander By Asjad Nazir
It is no surprise that travel has shaped the work of leading contemporary fine artist Soraya Sikander. Born in Karachi, she grew up in different locations including Europe, Hong Kong and Singapore, and currently divides her time between Ras Al Khaimah and Pakistan. This exposure to different cultures has been reflected in eye-catching works of art including landscapes, cities, place and the sea, which have received acclaim at international exhibitions.
With a growing demand for her work from high profile collectors, galleries and art fans flocking to see her creations, Soraya is one of the rising stars in the world of art. Eastern Eye caught up with Soraya to find out more about her work, artistic journey, inspirations, creative process, challenges she faces and more.
What first connected you to art?
From a young age I saw the works of old masters at international museums and knew this was my calling.
Pakistan also has a history of great painters. I trained in fine arts from the age of 16 and took up art professionally at GCE, foundation, college, and university. I went to very famous art universities, sketched laboriously, worked at Unicorn Gallery, met established painters and spoke to scholars and curators. I read books on art history and drew until I reached a high level of skill. To this day, I continue to perfect my craft. It was an inner calling, something I had to do, a compulsion. Something I was drawn to! It came naturally to me.
What made you decide to become a professional artist?
I believe I was destined to be this. Painting always drew me to it. Art brought certain clarity – it was my voice. I knew how to compose pictures. I could sketch and had my own ideas. I responded to the visuals around me, making new images of known places, as seen through the mind’s eye. I would sketch and my work started getting attention. After university I was offered my first exhibition in 2009 in a group show, which received a lot of acclaim from the critics. The next year was my debut solo show, which sold out within a few hours of its opening.
That must have been a turning point for you?
Yes, I decided I wanted to turn this into a full-time profession, and there has been no looking back ever since. Art for me, is a way to understand our fascinating world and everything in it; large masses of land, areas, streets, known locations, unknown horizons, the sea, flowers in a bush, being at home with some flowers in a vase, everyday scenes that make our world. The visuals and the memories we associate with them. How we understand things. Art gives meaning to the everyday.
How would you describe your artwork?
I am known for something new that I invented, called ‘Calligraphic Landscapes’. This is an entirely new concept, theme and approach. My calligraphy landscapes are contemporary landscapes, they are simplified. When I paint a picture, for me, I see it first as simply light and shade, and then form takes over. There are shapes with a design quality to it, my work is mostly tonal. In terms of art movements, I do not adhere to any particular one. Traditionally, landscape paintings are almost always classified as either semi-abstract, impressionistic or semi-realist. As far as my practice goes, I think the work may perhaps best be described as unclassifiable – and that is the beauty of contemporary art, it is new, with no existing actual references in art history.
As far as past-work goes, I experimented a lot. In 2010 I looked at the woodblock prints of Japanese Manga masters like Hokusai, Hiroshige, and inspired by the style, I painted my own unique indoor pictures of flowers in ink. Between 2011-2012 the brushstrokes were much thicker, and the landscapes I made of old Clifton Karachi were heavily textured. After 2012, I went to Slade Summer School (UCL) and the work became louder and bolder.
Now, after being at an atelier (old masters studio school) where they train you in classical tradition, my work is more tonal. This is what my new series is about; light and shade, contrast, half tones, highlights and dramatic sceneries.
What is your creative process like?
For each show, I produce fresh work at new locations, responding to every impulse. I work in oil on canvas. I trained old masters style, so I build pictures, layer by layer, and use the highest quality pigments, oil paints mixed with turpentine and linseed. With time I have started to go very, very fine. The work is becoming much clearer, the content is simpler, the treatment and style more definite. My landscapes are always painted plein-aire. I never work from photos.
I hardly even make any preliminary sketches when I am outdoors. It is the very urgency to capture a fleeting moment and the light before it changes. Landscape painting is one of the most challenging forms of art. There is nothing tame or settled about a landscape or the sea. It is far simpler to paint people.
Has it been a challenge pursuing art in a country like Pakistan?
Contrary to popular belief, Pakistan has a thriving art industry and a rich art legacy. Being a woman painter here in no way limits me. The only challenge the country’s art world faces is the lack of institutional/government support, which will lead to major gaps in our art history heritage.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced?
The subjects I choose bring with them everyday challenges. In nature there is nothing tame or settled about the natural world. You cannot control it. It is an unpredictable, larger-than-life force that can at times be violent. There is nothing polite about a landscape and it is almost never predictable. The sea is a violent, almost threatening force.
What is the secret to following your passion?
Listen to your inner voice,
Who are your art heroes?
I enjoy studying the artworks of the following painters: Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Kurt Jackson, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, John Martin, Turner and Whistler. I feel each of the named artists did something new, invented a new style, experimented with medium, took art further.
Your Top 5 inspirations?
Many locations are embedded in my memory. I live in Ras Al Khaimah and find painting here very rewarding as it has a stunning beach, mountains, and island. The city has heart, it’s evolving constantly, and observing, capturing and documenting that process is fascinating for me! Other specific places that have appeared in my work are: Karachi Clifton beach, Jebel Jais Mountains of Ras Al Khaimah, Hampstead Heath London, Wassenaar the city, Singapore Botanical Gardens – to name a few.
Aside from painting what other areas of art interest you?
Drawing is the backbone of a strong composition. I see sculpture is an extension of painting, something physical.
Where do you draw your inspirations from today?
I am from Karachi, which is a city known for instability, violence and corruption. I have responded to this particularly through my calligraphy landscape paintings. A landscape is vast and it covers a large expanse – we are part of a landscape. Some of the darker, more tonal works are my interpretation of the city of Karachi. They have a certain haunting and poetic quality to them, and explore a personal narrative. They are my interpretation of living in a volatile city. I respond and cope with the challenges of my environment by turning to painting; through my art I tell stories.
I paint flowers as a self-preservation thing.
I use my work to start a dialogue and also at the same time, send a message. I thought the symbols of flowers were most effective. It is non-preachy, subtle and has a universal poetic quality to it. Flowers acted as a positive reinforcement to get the audience’s attention, and at the same time offered sanity in the midst of crisis. And most importantly, since most art is deeply personal, coming from a personal space, for me, painting flowers in the midst of chaos and destruction was a self-preservation thing. It’s how I expressed and interpreted the environment around me. I paint the landscapes of Pakistan but these are seen from an inner eye. And the Calligraphic landscapes – these are the city of Karachi – as seen from the mind’s eye. They have a dark poetic, hauntingly beautiful quality to them. This is the context, mixed with my subjectivity.
What do you believe is a key element in creating a good painting?
All art is subjective and deeply personal. A successful work of art can act as a portal; a gateway, between one realm and another. It can transport you to unknown spaces. To the spheres and beyond!
What is the coolest piece of creative advice you ever received?
(Laughs) Squint your eyes, now see!
Tell us something not many people know about you?
I have never painted a seascape or a landscape indoors. I always go outdoors to paint. I started my career with painting sketches of people, before moving on to making studies of floral patterns and organic forms. I am deeply inspired by the designs I find in flowers and shells. There’s geometry there. To understand light and shade better, I study roses and lilies. Before I start painting I work with different lighting to dramatise shadows and create strong contrasts in my work. I don’t paint as often as I should. Often I am inundated with queries for my work and it’s all sold out; it takes me a while to conserve for a big solo. Oh, and I cannot repeat my artworks. They’re inspired and no two works are the same. Each is new, with its own unique voice and style.
Why do you love art?
It is a powerful medium to convey a visual image and draw attention to simple details. Art has fluidity and always outlives its creator. For each person, a picture conveys a different meaning, and with time, its message either changes or becomes more relevant. Art can bring people together, start dialogue, promote a social change or on a personal level activate something within the human psyche, much larger. It humanises us. Through art I am exploring a personal subjectivity. It’s a personal narrative.