After the success of her summer exhibition in London (‘Antidote’), Oman-based abstract artist Sara Riaz Khan is now working on her next series inspired by the link between forests and fairytales. Nature plays a vital role in her work and her life, as does emotion – which, fascinatingly, she sees as colour. We do some fun rapid fires with the artist as well as deeper discussions about her inspirations and projects.
Did you see yourself as an abstract artist when you were studying Islamic art and architecture at SOAS?
I have always responded to colour but abstract art didn’t resonate with me when I was a student. I was more interested in visiting (and later I did get to see) places like the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo and the Alhambra. Becoming an abstract artist was a process I went through much later.
“Wherever I am, nature is what I notice the most. Images of trees always emerge in my informal sketching and my abstract work is full of suggestions of landscape, water, life and growth”
How has nature influenced your art work?
Texture, light, depth, pattern, shape, structure, layers, light and colour – these are aspects of the natural world, and many of these are also elements of art, so there is an immediate connection. Wherever I am, nature is what I notice the most. Images of trees always emerge in my informal sketching and my abstract work is full of suggestions of landscape, water, life and growth. My creativity is driven by ideas relating to nature, emotion, connection and transformation.
You said your art is like colour therapy for yourself and you see emotion as colour, tell us what colour you associate with the following emotions:
Today, these are the colours that spring to mind:
Happiness – Lime green
Anger – Aubergine-brown
Excitement – Deep green
Motherhood – Pomegranate red
Calm – Pale pink
Celebration – Turquoise
Loss – Olive green
Love – Orange pink
You work with a lot of layers. How do you build and excavate?
There is an element of planning that goes into it as I lay down ‘sleeping’ colours in areas, which can be excavated later. So if I establish a structure of turquoise colour in Layer 3, I can scratch back to it perhaps in Layer 10. Usually early layers are more dilute washes and often completely disappear, but the painting would not move forward without them. Palette knives and the application of gesso help me create texture. I also use layering in my digital collages.
“I couldn’t find the human thread I was looking for, but realised that what we do have in common is the capacity to have and share a creative event”
Why did you need greater confidence in yourself for your exhibition ‘Songs of Spring’?
I learnt how to play the guitar many years ago, but my knowledge of music is superficial at best. For ‘Songs of Spring’ I was listening to nature-inspired music from different cultures, looking for a common human thread that I could show in my paintings. Apart from a few visual references such as monsoon rain (Raag Malhar) and Japanese cherry blossoms, I had to depend entirely on my intuition, interpretation of the music through gesture and on my emotions. I couldn’t find the human thread I was looking for, but realised that what we do have in common is the capacity to have and share a creative event.
When do you know that your painting is finished?
When it stops asking for another mark. I usually bring paintings out of the studio to see them on their own when I feel I am close, after a few days I can be sure.
Describe the art crowd in one word in each of these cities:
You have a book coming out in December, can you tell us a little about it?
Design Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas (Harbord & Khan) is an interdisciplinary, educational resource for teachers and students (Grades 6-10) and will be available for both the International Baccalaureate and American curriculums. My co-author and I taught Design together at an IB school in Muscat and felt that exploring content through values like honour and trust would engage students. One of our interviewees, architect and cultural producer Abeer Sekaily from Jordan, won an award for her shelter for disaster relief. Other people who have contributed are the Astronomer Royal, Alberto Alessi, Dr. Jane Goodall and a NASA astronaut and our student samples include contributions from Pakistan.
“My co-author and I taught Design together at an IB school in Muscat and felt that exploring content through values like honour and trust would engage students”
Describe a day in your life in Muscat.
I am travelling for exhibitions and events more than I used to while I was teaching, so have to make good use of my time working at home. I try and start with some yoga, a quick breakfast and usually spend the morning collaborating with my co-author in Australia. The rest of the day could include painting, digital work, mixed media collages, reading interviews, making notes etc. I often work on several paintings at a time so there is always something to be done!
“LIVING IN OMAN GAVE ME THE PEACE OF MIND TO INITIALLY COMMIT TO MY PAINTING WHEN I WAS ALSO TEACHING”
What has been your favourite city to exhibit at and why?
That’s a difficult question! I would say Muscat when I exhibited the series inspired by the Lahore Fort, ‘There is Beauty, Yet’ (2014) at the Bait Muzna gallery. Living in Oman gave me the peace of mind to initially commit to my painting when I was also teaching. I was happy to share the exhibition with the community and family and friends from around the world were able to attend.
“I was inspired by a book about the link between fairytales and the forest”
What is your next exhibition going to be about?
In my series ‘The Forest as A Dream’ I am exploring the emotional and cultural importance of nature in our lives. I was inspired by a book about the link between fairytales and the forest. By losing our forests, we will lose ourselves so I wanted to focus on that. The exhibition will open at Canvas Gallery (Karachi), 19th November.