In 2002, my family and I moved to Oman from London. Here, under a peaceful sky I was able to start painting again. The calm pace of life and proximity to mountains, water and open spaces nourished me. My work began to develop and I was able to exhibit in public for the first time in group shows thanks to the Omani Society for Fine Arts (2004-2006).
So many years and shows later, this exhibition is a form of gratitude to the people and the place. Works such as ‘Constellations’ and ‘Shifting Sands’ relate directly to nature. Other paintings reflect ideas about cycles of life and transformation, ultimately they are all connected through the common threads of emotion and colour.
At challenging times this year, I found myself looking more closely at nature again, as well as taking stock of many things. I am grateful for being curious about the world, for having confidence in my work and for the privilege of being able to celebrate nature. Lets think long term and protect our earth so future generations can enjoy its beauty.
Our connection to nature is one of my main inspirations. In addition I am interested in exploring our common humanity (what do we share as human beings?) feelings, ideas, language and stories. The only thing I know about a new painting beyond my intention, is the colour of the first mark. Often paintings transform overnight!
Some of these works are the result of visual experiences; ’Omani Sunset’ was inspired by a view of the sun setting over the water. It started out yellow and dark blue with bronze-green washes but the final canvas is mainly green with a hint of orange. The ‘Day Break with Bird Song’ series was based on watching the changing colours of the sky at dawn.
For me, abstract art is a way of honestly expressing myself through colour, texture, movement and light. I find it exciting that people often interpret the same painting in different ways, as they bring their own experiences and memory to the visual experience. My father had introduced me to the work of Mark Rothko many years ago, but at the time I couldn’t relate to it. It was only in 2007 that I started exploring the potential and possibilities of abstract art for myself. Howard Hodgkin, V.S. Gaitonde, Huguette Caland, Kazuo Shiraga, Chafic Abboud and Fabienne Verdier are some of the artists whose work I have been drawn to.
I often work on several paintings at one time using a multi-layered approach to build up texture and depth. Having experimented with different ways of applying and manipulating materials and tools (including using a hairdryer and fan) I now have a better idea of what can be achieved and how to achieve it. The techniques used in these works include printing, blotting, pouring, scratching, sponging, staining, splattering, glazing, excavating and using wax resist.
Inspired by the book, ‘Gossip from the Forest’, which explored connections between fairytales and forests (Maitland, 2013) I started thinking about the forest as a universal platform for magic, transformation, freedom and potential, and its duality as a place of refuge or exile, fear or hope.
Many of us have heard childhood stories in our different languages, in which the forest or jungle plays a vital role and I wanted to highlight the importance of the impact of nature on identity and culture. As I reflected on how to communicate my idea, four distinct stages came to mind; the initial paintings would focus on ‘Approaching’ the forest while the second stage, ‘Inhale/Exhale’ would explore a coming alive of the senses. The third stage would be an ‘Immersion’ in the experience while the final paintings would be my interpretation of ‘Being’ the forest.
During the process, I considered what the forest could offer as a place of solitude and introspection. Thinking of ways in which I could navigate this imaginary space gave me an opportunity to reflect on my work practice and goals. By wanting to connect the viewer to their environment, I inadvertently found a way to empower myself. I came to the conclusion that it was in my hands to either be my stepping stone or my stumbling block. Comparing the first and the last paintings, I feel there has been a sense of discovery and of taking away a camouflage, while peering through the foliage, I found myself.
The diversity of the final series was surprising. The four distinct stages required different ways of working; at times I needed to use more glazes and transparency, at others more texture and movement. I found the process of hiding and revealing layers more essential for the ‘Immersion’ paintings, as I started breaking down the composition, while the ‘Being’ ones required a more dynamic application of paint. Trying to engage the viewer through the paintings using elements such as texture, colour, shape, light and contrast, I realised that these are some of the ways in which we naturally make visual sense of our world.
Whether we know the forest from our dreams or nightmares, its stories have had a part in making us who we are today. It is worth considering especially now, that If we lose our forests, we may lose ourselves.
"In her latest series of works, Khan takes a novel approach to the concept of nature as a gateway to self-actualisation in a spiritual quest that traces its journey through a series of abstract imagery. The artist treats her subject with extreme care and with each work, creates a sanctuary of solitude and introspection; a representation of nature that is wild, free and unencumbered by rational thought. Citing the realm of fantasy as inspiration, Khan creates portals of transmutation through texture and colour, endowing her canvases with the energies of profound ancient groves of healing as well as the playful unfolding of a children's tales."
- Canvas Gallery
Being creative has always been my way of processing, interpreting and reconstructing my world. 'Antidote', my current series, explores how my work practice can restore a sense of self in times of vulnerability and change.
My connection to nature is an important part of my identity and self-expression. In the early layers, I recorded my emotions with urgency on the canvas, using turbulent images such as ripped skies, earthquakes and crumbling walls. Initially my concern was finding ways of keeping the colour vibrant and I focused on using the gesso, masking tape and wax as a means of doing this. As the series progressed, my attention shifted from using colour and texture and I became more interested in developing some areas of quiet.
Working simultaneously with many layers on both larger scale canvases and smaller oils on paper encouraged me to be experimental. I reintroduced hand drawn elements inspired by nature in the mixed media collages and will develop some of these ideas further. From being a means to an end, to help me catch my breath and rebalance, the Antidote series has become something to build on and an end in itself.
This series was inspired by botanical illustrations from the medical folio ‘Khwass-Al-Ashjar’, one of the earliest Islamic manuscripts translated from the Greek ‘De Materia Medica’ by Dioscorides. I had studied this and other 13th century Arab Manuscripts such as ‘Kalila wa Dimna’ at SOAS, London University.
Happening across the image from the folio recently, I was interested in the liveliness of the plant drawn with its flowers and roots, the curve of the text and the healing nature of the work. The contrast of darker colours against a paler background and stylisation of the forms also appealed to me.
I decided to visually interpret the essence of different flowers and plants, using essential oils such as Vetiver, Lavender Bergamot and Peppermint as a starting point. Similar to the different flavours in food, I began to notice different layers in the fragrances, ones that were more immediate and others that crept in. Initially, I relied on the fragrance to determine my colour choices. After a point however, the paintings started to develop on their own and as I progressed through the series, my visual response to the same fragrance also changed.
In terms of technique, I found myself holding the brush at an arm’s length and working much more from the wrist. Reading up on the origins of oils later was interesting as many were described in terms of taste, eg bergamot was described as having a Citrus like aroma and spicy undertone and made me more aware of the connections between our senses.
Initially I was interested in exploring the condition of an individual residing in a given context and what my interpretation of a ‘human-in-residence’ might be. I soon realised that I had happened upon a meaningful opportunity for personal transformation on and off the canvas. There were some ‘demons-in-residence’ I could consciously tackle; things to let go of and things to invite in.
Prepared for an emotional battle on the painting’s surface, I started with washes of the colours I felt represented the areas I wanted to work on; dark green, dark orange, dark purple, dark brown and dark red. These could loosely represent states such as grief, anger, resentment, inflexibility, judgement and guilt. Reflecting on these traits in my creative practice allowed me to be more honest about them, in itself a step to self-understanding.
As I worked, I became much more aware about how shifting colour relationships can change the overall impact of the work- it is much more than just light and dark- and related this to how shifting one’s perspective in a situation can transform one’s perception of it. Letting the early 'negative' layers come through again at a later stage of the painting was important, as accepting myself in all my colours, is a necessary first step to personal growth. In this series I found myself using more glazes, brushes and diffusers to spread the paint thinly.
Some of the paintings were challenging to finish as they required a certain kind of self-knowledge. To show what I felt was ‘Love’ or ‘Self-Acceptance’, I had to reflect deeply on what I thought these words meant. Movement was another important part of the process. I found myself using different gestures for different feelings and explored the resistance and pressure of shapes and colours more consciously.
Although the paintings are now complete, I am still an ongoing work in progress and a more fitting term, as I continue my personal journey might be “Human-in-Waiting”. As I write these words, as you read them I will be something different. The act of transformation then, is never complete, every painting I finish, every one that I start, changes me.
An exploration of music was the starting point for this series. I wanted to see how nature-inspired compositions from different cultures could reflect a common human thread. Interested in exploring both the familiar and unfamiliar, I chose traditional South Asian, European and Japanese music concerned with nature and spring.
In the earlier paintings, I worked more consciously with the beat and length of the notes. I felt that my multi-layered technique could reflect the complexity of sounds and that the pitch could give me guidance about colour. Later, I was influenced by specific images, which I associated with springtime. As the series progressed I used a freer approach and let the paintings take over earlier.
Although I continued to use earlier techniques such as staining, applying and removing colour, there was some innovation; my use of gesso was more varied and I manipulated washes on the surface with greater deliberation. I had decided not to research the musical traditions but there were some interesting results. One painting consisted mainly of blues and purples and it transpired that that the music behind it, was composed specifically for the evening. Also some of the colours in the South Asian pieces seemed to relate much more to deep earth and water as opposed to growth above the ground.
The process of mark-making was influenced by the type of music I was listening to and personal experience, memory and association also had a part to play. Working with unfamiliar sounds required a different kind of effort and this was the most valuable point for me; stretching out of a musical comfort zone required me to be more open-minded.
It is not easy to identify a common human thread or unifying cross-cultural factor, but I feel the series is tied together by a sense of movement and a common feeling that an event or experience has taken place. People will bring their own interpretations to what they see, as I did. Paintings inspired by music about the natural world have ultimately become visual songs.
Painting is the part of me that dreams, and accessing that part equilibrates my practical nature. This series reflects an internal topography I have started scratching the surface of, a no-man’s land in time and space.
The personal connection I feel towards nature has been a consistent theme in my work. I have been increasingly concerned with people choosing to find differences instead of celebrating the similarities which make us human. This body of work highlights the fact that we are all ultimately connected to the natural world and made of the same elements and minerals. I had expressed my initial ideas through the poem, Earth in My Bones, ‘Breathing minerals and chalk dust, I am rubble, I am silt’.
At first I was drawn to images of stones, crystals and rock strata. However, as I worked, I found these visuals limiting and needed to source a more internalised and personal response. As I reconsidered my approach and stopped trying to impose imagery from the landscape, the paintings began to emerge from the canvas by themselves.
Challenges during this process included managing both varied and limited palettes, working with washed out and bold stains, and orchestrating complex compositions. As layers were scratched away, the sleeping colours I had laid down earlier came into play. Texture integrated movement, created grittiness and established structure. Geometric shapes echoed nature’s basic building blocks and split levels established a sense of sky and ground.
There is a reference in the poem to standing ‘right beside you In my bones, just renting space”. Our time here is limited, and looking beyond ourselvesis the first step to nurturing the world.
Nature and colour have always been defining elements of my world view; whether energetic or calm, subtle or flamboyant, the natural world commands my attention. The process of layering, staining and mark-making allows me to connect with the earth, to leave behind all that I know with my mind and dream anew.
Increasingly I have been preoccupied with the loss of people's connection with the earth and with one another. A denial of these relationships and histories limits our self-understanding and our capacity to be true to the best of our humanity.
The Mughal Emperor Akbar established the brick structure of the Lahore Fort about five hundred years ago. Once a thriving palace-complex testament to the rise and fall of different empires, it was richly decorated with natural and geometric forms. Visiting the structure today, it is the absence of life that strikes one now. This series is my personal response to finding pockets of beauty amongst the exposed brickwork and fading colours; it is a reflection of hope in the midst of neglect and an interpretation of what I saw where my shadow fell.
I used my earlier approach of staining and reclaiming layers in a very focused manner, with compositions tightly structured beneath the washes. Layers were built up with oil and gesso, deliberately disguised and subsequently transformed. By repeating this process, in every canvas, I paralleled and recreated the loss of the decorative and material elements in the Fort, the loss of a little more history.
Although there are glimpses of the powerful colours associated with my last solo exhibition (A Moment of Grace, 2010) the current work negotiates a more finely balanced palette; the finished pieces invite the viewer to have a closer look and enjoy a subtler aesthetic experience. By transforming the neglect I saw into something positive, I felt a sense of personal empowerment. Similarly, I would hope that by choosing to assimilate their past, people will be able to lay claim to a future worth having.
This collection is an acknowledgement of Mercy; within its parameters fall incomprehensible questions and heart-bursting celebration. Light cannot banish the dark, there is no easy victory, but one can always choose which way to turn.
A fierce resolution to not give up hope fuels my current work. Faced with a personal family tragedy in 2007, I started painting again after a break of a year and a half and found my work had changed significantly. The move towards complete abstraction has not been arbitrary; the vocabulary of layered stains, unfettered washes, texture and mark-making gives honest expression to thoughts I cannot speak.
Nature and colour continue to be defining elements of my world view. Water, forest and stones are indicated both explicitly and implicitly. It would be simplistic to label the pieces positive or negative depending on colour schemes, they are products in part of self-examination, exploration, incomprehension and gratitude, they are concrete proofs of my belief in life.