Human emotions are universal yet elusive; varied yet so fascinating. Extremely difficult to detect, express and recognize, it is indeed praiseworthy when someone does it for you and does it so beautifully. Using motley of colours, shapes and forms, Raja Ashraf wishes to convey the intangibility of emotions and capture the physicality of a felt sensation. Art allows her to tell her story whilst prompting the viewers to tell theirs.
Vis-à-vis Raja Ashraf, Emaho Magazine learns more about the artist, her inspirations, her focus on women subjects and lot more.
Formerly from Pakistan, you studied in Wellesley College, Massachusetts and now reside in California. How did the shifting cultural practice and widening global exposure affect your art and practice?
All of my art is based on my experiences and my life in Islamabad, Wellesley, Boston and California. Living in these very diverse places introduced me to a host of new people, points of views, and landscapes that have been critical to any progress I have made as an artist. Being with people whose view points were so disparate from those I was brought up with has made me examine my beliefs more deeply, and I think a lot of my art is about that exploration. I have been fortunate to always work in areas where learning about peoples’ lives and views was an important part of the job. It helped me recognize how much I love hearing other peoples’ stories, and how finding the commonalities that connect diverse people is something that really speaks to me.
Your drawings and paintings reflects influences from the traditional designs of the Indian subcontinent while at the same time absorbing modern western art notions.Personally,as a diaspora artist where do you derive your artistic and cultural inspiration from?
My artistic inspiration comes from peoples’ stories, but also from the colors and patterns found everywhere in Pakistan and in California. Growing up in Islamabad, I didn’t have a lot of creative outlets in school, but inspiration was everywhere. In fact, when I discovered Mehndi I insisted on making elaborate designs on my friends every chance I got, hoping that our school uniforms would hide the patterns. Mughal art has been a great inspiration for me – the storytelling, incredible details, luminosity, and expressions amaze me. In recent years, it’s been the work of Nathan Oliveira that has really moved me. He dealt a lot with themes of loneliness in his work, and I think a lot about “alone-ness” and look to his work for inspiration.
Your portfolio consists of illustrations, paintings and custom letters. How did the idea of creating custom letters come about?
I have my brother and his beautiful daughter, Ayana, to thank for that. My brother wanted a piece for his newborn daughter and that’s always a lot of pressure! I wanted the work to be something she would grow up with and also appropriate for a child’s room. After going through an entire notebook with possible ideas, it hit me. Her name is what she has forever. I stenciled out her name and decorated it with the flowery patterns that I associate with home.
With the exception of “Villain”, you seem to exclusively focus on women as subjects in your art. Is that a conscious choice towards a reappropriation of the feminine form?
I feel terrible that the only male image is called villain! Don’t read anything into that- I actually have a few really nice pieces of men, but they are no longer in my possession! They sold early on and I never got a chance to properly photograph them. You should be seeing more male figures in my work soon. I do like to focus on women, and a lot of my paintings come from images of women that I capture when I am alone with them. With the exception of my time at Wellesley, I feel like there has always been a big distinction in the ‘appropriate’ ways a woman is expected to hold herself in public and private. And I have found this to be true in Pakistan and in the U.S. The images I love to create are of women stripped of their public persona and just being themselves. Our whole body changes when we are alone- or think we are alone- and I want to capture that moment and that feeling.
Titles like “Reema” ,”Rani” “Aunty”, “Nabila”, “Carol” suggest that you seem to know these women. What inspires you to draw them?
I get asked about Nabila and Carol the most. Nabila is my mother, and I love this painting because it is my mom after a really long, hard day of looking after her grandkids. It’s a moment of happy reflection to me. Carol is my closest friend. I took the photo on which this painting was based during our last day together in Boston, right before I moved to California. She has a beautiful, quiet intensity that I wanted to try and capture.
You may have noticed a series of women with their eyes closed- and it’s not modesty I want to capture but “alone-ness”. We are the voyeurs here. They are unaware of our presence and are just being, not posing.
Your art wishes to convey the intangibility of emotions, colour perception, virtues and capture the physicality of a felt sensation. How do you wish to convey the inexplicable through lines and forms?
I have always felt like the way paint is layered and the curved line of the body can communicate so much about the mood of piece. My hope is to remind viewers of a feeling using these tools.
While your pen is sharp, controlled and decorative with a focus on simple lines and penchant for minimalism, your brush is smudgy, loose, and less decorative adhering to the traditional distribution of space and composition. Do you see these diverging tendencies as a split in your artistic energies to exalt both decorative as well as figural art?
Funnily enough it’s the sharp controlled lines that were incredibly natural, easy and organic for me to make. The paintings that are so loose in style take a lot more examination. I do think these diverging tendencies- to be a little tightly wound and also loose and smudgy- speak to my different energy. Painting is always energetic, fervent. I am up all night and can’t sleep because I can’t stop trying to ‘solve’ the painting. I have gone to work with paint on my face and in my hair some days! But the drawings are calming, relaxing for me to make. Creating those “sharp, controlled” patterns is the closest to meditation that I can probably get. I am an extroverted introvert, so I am sure that part of me is playing out in my artwork.
There is a magnificent painting of India with a motley band of colours rising up like smoke while denser swirls and ringlets lay diagonally on the other end. How do you conceive of India as a political, geographical and cultural entity?
My work deals with cultural experiences. I made this piece at 6 am on the morning after I got back from India (Mumbai and Goa) for the first time. I hadn’t been back to Pakistan in a couple years, and being in India and blending in was a unique and comforting experience. No one asked me where I was from, and I didn’t feel like a foreigner despite being one! The lusciousness of Goa certainly wasn’t lost on me either!
Is there a particular artist that deeply influences your art?
There are so many who inspire me. My favorite painters are Nathan Oliveira, Chittrovanu Mazumdar, and John Singer Sargent. I am really inspired by children’s book illustrators such as Ian Falconer, Erin Stead, and Jerry Pinkney. And I have to add that every couple years I re-read Vikram Seth’s “An Equal Music” because his protagonist’s passion for music is how I feel about making art. A few years ago I had the chance to meet Vikram Seth, and he signed my copy of “An Equal Music” and asked for one of the illustrations I made on the pages! Believe it or not that’s my pep talk to myself when I am in an art slump. I remind myself that my favorite author in the world owns a drawing (a doodle really) that I made.
For the past 6 years, you have worked with large layered acrylic paintings and recently moved on to smaller illustrative works in ink and gouache on paper. How would you trace your development as an artist from your first artistic endeavour at five to now? What more do you seek from yourself as an artist?
I started doing larger format paintings in 2005 and continue to paint alongside the smaller pieces. These smaller pieces are works that I have been working towards for most of my drawing life. It’s only recently that I have focused on making them into more complete works.
A lot has changed since I started drawing at 5 (thank goodness!), but I think the greatest shift was after college. I had a professor (Sheila Gallagher) who really pushed me to demand more from my work, to work harder and to never be afraid to white wash a ‘good’ painting for something potentially greater. It surprises a lot of my customers that I am so quick to paint over pieces, but it’s an act of faith! What do I seek from myself as an artist? To just keep working. I never want to say ‘I used to paint’
What do you think of Emaho’s venture to usher a nationwide creative revolution?
I think it’s great endeavor, and I am excited to watch Emaho’s evolution in the upcoming years!
Written and interviewed by: Habiba Insaf
Art work by: Raja Ashraf