Dreaming with the Enlightened: A Conversation with Hiba Schahbaz (NSFW)

While many celebrated writers speak of the danger of meeting one’s idols, heroes or girl crushes IRL and cite the disappointment that often follows, the experience of meeting Brooklyn-based artist Hiba Schahbaz couldn’t have been more contradictory of that warning. One cannot help but feel mesmerized by her paintings and wonder about the artistic mind that is responsible for images that provoke feelings of suffering, self love and profound beauty all at once.  I had the pleasure of visiting Hiba in her natural habitat. We spent a few lazy Sunday mornings together in her lofty Bushwick studio where our conversation shifted from discussing the latest teas she’s imported from Karachi to paint with, to where to find garters with decent hold, to how to survive a keto diet, to the struggles of finding our voices between a South Asian upbringing which promotes censorship and the New York culture which encourages over sharing and self revealing.

Our first meeting was on a dry Spring morning. Time seemed to stop altogether in her studio. Noon sunlight stretched over the larger than life musings of female bodies painted in hues of yellow, golds, and pinks. I remarked on the immediate sense of comfort and security in the space. “Well, that’s because there are so many women in this room” she replied casually. This is the splendor of meeting Hiba in the flesh. It becomes immediately obvious that her visions, her studio, the very aura of the women perched all around us with their watchful glances, are all but a glimpse of the colorful and rich world within the artist herself. Her gaze reveals a sense of stillness, her eyelashes float out delicately and she speaks softly, with a measured and purposeful pace. Unlike nearly everyone I know in this city, there is no sense of rushing or urgency with Hiba. She creates space around her and moves through the world with a grace and caliber of inner strength that I’ve only seen in individuals who have found some nature of enlightenment. Hiba moved here from her native Pakistan in 2010 and never looked back. She studied at Pratt Institute and her work has been featured in exhibitions in New York and internationally.

What follows is an enriching conversation with Hiba about art, beauty, self acceptance and empowerment.

Q&A

LF: Your paintings are so profound in the different moods and worlds that they depict. Where do your visions come from?

HS: They definitely come from an inner space. My work is very intuitive and emotionally driven, the canvas is like a mirror for my feelings and painting is the only language I can express them in. I don’t know how to convey these thoughts in any other way. In high school I would keep a dream sketchbook by my bedside (the same way that people keep dream journals) and sometimes my work would be influenced by my dreams but these days I would say that the source is generally my streams of consciousness. I also believe in the collective subconscious and the idea that we’re all connected such that our energies and ideas influence each other in ways we’re not always aware of. For example, during one of my open studio events, an indigenous American artist excitedly told me that one of my paintings precisely told a particular story from indigenous history. We had never met before and I had no awareness of the historical scene she described to me. There’s so much noise about plagiarism in the art world these days. The truth is that artists are always “stealing” from Art History. Every idea, painting and notion has been borrowed or done before in some form or is contextualised from some part of Art History.

LF: Your technique has radically progressed from faceless miniature paintings to these larger than life canvases. You use tea and inanimate objects like a Swiffer brush to achieve the textures and strokes. Can you tell me more about how you found your unique style?

HS: I only began to paint faces on my work a few years ago. I was trained in miniature painting where you’re not supposed to paint realistically for religious reasons. This includes stylizing bodies and faces, distorting perspective and imaginary landscapes. When I look back, I can see the transformation of my work over time as I gradually moved away from this tradition. My early paintings started with my subjects having their backs turned to the viewer, to painting faces in profile to the front facing paintings you see today.

LF: We live in a digital world where the “selfie” has become associated with sentiments of vanity and self-absorption, however self portraiture has a very long and elaborate history in art. What does the self portrait mean to you and why do you go back to this form over and over?

HS: My portraits have been documenting an inward journey.  I think painting has been a way for me to connect with and accept my physical self. I’ve been accused of narcissism in my work but the reality is that I grew up in a culture where women don’t have a voice and self expression is strongly discouraged. These portraits give me permission to express myself. Sometimes, self portraiture is synonymous with suffering. The very first self portrait I painted after moving to New York was my face in profile and my mouth tied shut by a red scarf.

LF: We live in a heavily political climate – some might say that as women of color, we are always negotiating a strongly politicized world. How does politics, especially in the Trump era, enter your art?

HS: I don’t really paint with a political objective and I don’t consider myself a political artist or activist. I paint the female body in a very open way and this way of painting is more an expression of my stylistic vision that has developed organically over time rather than in response to any one political event. I find that many women connect to my work and are appreciative of its representation, especially brown women who feel their bodies are under-represented in Art History. Even today, in so many museums it’s the same masterpiece of white Eurocentric female beauty that you see over and over again.

LF: I’m always intrigued to learn about rituals or forms of relaxation that inspiring artists like yourself have to keep you grounded or replenished. Can you share any particular acts of self-care that you practice?

HS: I used to be much better with self-care. At the moment I try to do simple things like drinking hot water with lemon each morning and treating myself to a monthly facial. I’m a classic workaholic and I get so immersed in painting that often I won’t realize I’m overworked until I get to a stage where I physically have to stop and get out of the city. On these occasions I spontaneously end up at a beach somewhere. Once, I went to Mexico so wound up, that I got my diving certification in four days and went deep sea diving. Sometimes when you’re very personally connected to your work, it’s hard to distance yourself, so you just have to break away and throw yourself into something completely different to unwind.

LF: Tell me more about the day to day working life as an artist and the community you find yourself surrounded by.

HS: As I spend pretty much all day in my studio, I naturally only ever connect with other artists, curators, writers and collectors. My closest friends here are artists, some of whom I studied with many years ago at Pratt. I rarely have the opportunity to meet people from other professional backgrounds. While the New York art community is a very active and exciting one, being a full time artist can be an isolating experience as you spend most of your time in the studio. I guess all artists work differently… I have some artist friends who are at the studio for a couple of hours a day, then they need to shift and do something more structured or intellectual to maintain their sanity. Personally, I’m very much a studio artist and lose myself in the world I am creating.

LF: What advice would you give your younger self?

HS: Believe in yourself. You are limitless. Love yourself as much as you love others and don’t build walls. Learn a few languages.

LF: In crossing all of these physical and artistic borders, what/where/who is home for you?

HS: Home is wherever I feel peaceful and loved and I can make art.

LF: Which other artists are you influenced by today?

HS: I am influenced by so many artists, it’s hard to name them all. I love the beautiful works of Frida Kahlo. I also love the beautiful paintings of Chris Ofili, Francesco Clemente, Cecily Brown, Kara Walker, and the sculptures of my very skilled friend Carl D’alvia I mostly read museum catalogues, art books and artist interviews in an effort to educate myself about Western art. An art writer whose work I love to read is Jerry Saltz – I love the simplicity and honesty in his writing. He has taught me a lot. I also love watching documentaries about artists. I wish I was reading more fiction because it’s a great way to excite the imagination but I’m mostly too involved with painting to do much else.

LF: Your studio radiates warmth and is somewhat of a sanctuary to not only you, but to other femmes. Can you tell me about what this space means to you beyond your painting? How about the physical space you have created in your home?

HS: My studio is definitely my sanctuary, my place of creation and expression. A safe space for me to express myself.  I’d like to think it’s a safe place for women to express and discover themselves. I’m very moved by women who reach out for studio visits, they are not always art people but want to experience my paintings first hand. I used to be a very private person and guard my space (and time) so that very few people could enter it.  In a way, making these paintings has changed me. Being open to the world outside of myself has opened up my work. All the emotions and letters I receive from women sharing their lives with me has been a gift and I feel their feelings have been seeping into my work. In a way, I don’t feel like I am alone painting myself in a room anymore, I feel like I am painting all of us and for all us. Having the emotional support of women is a very powerful thing.

LF: What’s next for Hiba Schahbaz?

HS: The process of painting large is still very new to me and I’m very excited about developing it further. I’m interested in creating a space through larger than life paintings, and cut-outs, maybe exploring installation. I don’t have a definitive plan, I’m follow the paintings.

My paintings will be on view in Miami this December with PULSE Art Fair as part of their Pulse Projects through which they highlight artists. I’m also exhibiting at the same fair with Project for Empty Space.

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