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Q&A with Saba Qizilbash

Saba Qizilbash is the recipient of the first Campus Art Dubai Alumni Grant. The grant was launched by Campus Art Dubai with the aim of supporting the artistic practice of its growing alumni, and is supported by Art Dubai and Art Jameel.

Constructing New Landmasses. Studio Process. Courtesy of the artist.

1. Congratulations on being selected as the recipient of the Campus Art Dubai Alumni Grant. What encouraged you to apply for it and how do you personally feel about receiving this opportunity?

Let’s just say I haven’t stopped bragging about it from the day I was informed that I am the recipient of the first Campus Art Dubai Alumni Grant. I often come across call for entries and grant announcements that are open to South Asians living in their home countries. As much as I would like to qualify for them, I’m often told that I am not entitled as I live away from my country – hence presumed privileged with multiple opportunities. The Campus Art Dubai programme and grant is open to long term residents living in the UAE, which promotes inclusiveness.

2. How do you hope the grant will help you achieve the vision of your project?

My foremost aim was to be able to improve the facilities of my studio. I just bought an impressive Flat file cabinet that has remarkably increased space and improved preservation of my drawings. At a recent Studio visit, I was able to display my new works in a more professional manner with half the stress of physically handling delicate drawings. Thanks to this grant, I’m also looking forward to getting my work professionally documented- photographing graphite drawings is never an easy task and having a professional photograph them will make a huge difference in the quality.

3. Your intricate and delicate drawings take on the bold and complex theme of the politics of pre-partition and South Asian lands. How and when did this specific issue spark your interest?

In 2015, half way through the CAD programme, I began to struggle with imagery. The thoughts that were occupying my mind were not aligned with the images I was trying to create. I felt conflicted yet deeply tied to my photorealistic studio practice involving fabric installation paintings. I decided to paint and repaint a 6 ft by 4 ft canvas altering the images, weaving in my narrative. I continued to paint the same canvas over a period of 10 months. I even stripped the paint at one point starting all over again. I kept painting more and more shirts and fabric overlapping each other. By the time I decided I was done, I came to the conclusion that I was dealing with ‘memory, construction and erasure’ – for which I needed to change my medium. I stored my acrylic paints away and picked up a pencil. To me, graphite evoked nostalgia, gave me physical control as I began to construct with sharp and blended marks those same shirts, except this time on small intimate surfaces. It was the drawing of the shirts, which I did over a period of many months that led me to the landscape. I began to think about all the possible spaces and landscapes these drawings of discarded shirts could inhabit.

Around that time, I created a sound piece titled How to walk from Dubai to Lahore as part of the CAD Radio project to be shared at Art Dubai. I imagined a post-apocalyptic scenario where air travel and communication would be restricted to land travel. I figured I needed to know the route if I needed to walk my way back home. As I charted my route from Dubai, passing through Iran into Lahore, I became curious about other walkable routes. As my research intensified over the next few months, I began to understand that when I walk/create routes passing through contentious borders, neighbourhoods and land, I increase my understanding both historically and cartographically. As a Pakistani, my relationship with India and Bangladesh is complex and multilayered. My daughters are Indian and yet have never lived in India. Knowing a way back home (there are many) became important to me.

4. There is a real sense of poetry and thoughtfulness in the manner you portray the lands of your ancestors, which makes the whole viewing experience an emotionally charged one. One wonders if you are perhaps nostalgic of your country’s past?

The past, present and future all merge in my drawings in creating a personal interpretation and understanding of the ‘real’ identity of the land. So much of what is unfolding in Pakistan has to do with how it was created. I draw these places in an attempt to understand them from multiple perfectives and altitude.

5. Because your drawings exude a historical element, research plays an important role in the work you produce. Do you collect archival imagery? If so, could you share with us some of the fascinating images you came across?

Geo-political history is the driving force of my current research. I spend a long time, often weeks, collecting images of landmarks, historical sites, government buildings, highways, bridges, gateways, checkpoints and then begin the actual weaving of images. I do not have direct access to many of these images and travelling to these locations is not always an option. I collect most of my images from amateur travel blogs where I’m always certain to find large files. At times the images can be extremely morbid in nature – especially as I inch close to the border towns. Sometimes I’m just stumped at the lack of infrastructure, considering the importance or potential of the location of the town.

Transborder Train, 152.4cm x 38cm. Graphite and wash on watercolour board. Courtesy of the artist.

6. You also fascinatingly followed a former, pre-1940s railway route that connected towns in modern day India and Pakistan. Tell us more about this experience and its manifestation in your work.

Trans-Border Train, 15 inches x 60 inches 2017, Graphite on paper is the mapping of land that follows the Thar Express – a pre-partition train route between Karachi (Pk) and Jodhpur (India). It was discontinued in 1965 after the Indo-pak war. Fortunately for the divided families, it was restarted in 2006. The train departs from Karachi (Sindh, Pk) and stops at the border station called Zero Point. From there the passengers clear customs and cross into India. They take the Thar Express Link all the way to Jodhpur. I am completely fascinated with the rare courtesies that are extended at the railway checkpoints. From the camel-riding Border Police Force that accompanies the train till Munabao station, to the changing landscape as the train passes through desert towards hills – this is the only other operational railway route between the two countries, apart from the Lahore – Delhi route. In my drawing, I moved certain buildings around for the convenience of the passengers. I brought the Pak-Mission to Jodhpur so that Indian passengers do not have to travel to New Delhi to apply for a visa. I also moved the Indian Mission to Karachi for the same reason.

7. In terms of your detailed technique, could you give us an insight into how you prepare to execute a large-scale landscape drawing?

Before I begin collecting the images, I work out a rough sketch of how the overall drawing will flow. As always, the end result is never the same. I then digitally overlap images adding a pond here, a bridge there. Once I’m satisfied with the larger sketch, I begin drawing it out on the larger surfaces.

8. Moving beyond the focus on South Asian landscape, you have previously stated: “The window in my studio in Dubai acts as a metaphorical watchtower from where I observe the surrounding regions of interest.” Could you elaborate on how you recorded the changing landscape of Dubai?

My daily circuit involves passing over the new canal in SAFA. Whether I take the E11 or Wasl Road, I still pass by/cross under/go over a new detour every few weeks. Not once have I ever seen the flow of traffic blocked or lead to a dead-end due to construction. This kind of flow, with the help of infrastructural possibilities feeds into the imagery of my drawings. However, the watchtower, unlike a lighthouse, only serves the purpose of vigilance and not permanent residence. And by surrounding regions of interest, my periphery includes nations, mountain ranges, seas and the ocean.

9. Finally, what message do you aim to deliver through your multilayered drawings that deal with the past, present, and possibly the future?

The message, I suppose, is also multi-layered. It has to do with preservation and perseverance. On finding new possibilities based on what exists between collective memory and recorded history. To excavate the land and unearth old routes that existed before new lines were drawn on the basis of hasty deadlines and misconstrued ideas of national identity and security.

Cultures, 2016. Graphite, acrylic and epoxy on acetate, 5” diameter each. Courtesy of the artist.

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