Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Interview - Saba Hasan

What vision do nails, words, fabric, leaves, plaster, memories and glue meshed together paint? Gopika Nath interviews abstract artist Saba Hasan, revealing the persona and politics enmeshed in her process.

GOPIKA NATH: A rapid change in India’s economic development has altered the physical and cultural landscape of our cities, but you choose not to dwell on these facets.

SABA HASAN: I am certainly aware of conflict. It doesn’t matter if it’s specific to any place. My interest is the mind, the heart - factors which are there irrespective of the location.

GN: The mind and the heart are located within physical and cultural dimensions, they always have a context.

SH: My material indicates cultural elements. I use everyday materials like jute, rope, plaster, nails or even the Urdu text. When I use a nail as opposed to a colour I am calling your attention to an alternate utterance, carrying the voice of the material itself. The experience of a nail could suggest pain, violence or construction. I love abstraction because I have the freedom to give the viewer the space to interpret my work in their own way.

GN: Who among the abstract painters have inspired you?

SH: Somnath Hore, Mark Rothko and perhaps J. Swaminathan. All three are restrained, they never over-state.

I love Rothko’s obsession with death. When I first saw his work I got goose-bumps. I felt that passage you make from our world into the other mysterious but magnetic world.

Somenath Hore, says so much with so little; reaches such depth with great simplicity and this is something I feel I have achieved.

Swaminathan brings in ordinary elements, using material that is not that different from what I use. It makes his work very powerful.

GN: Your canvasses have a heavy impasto quality using unusual materials. Can you elaborate on this and your choice of materials?

SH: I was painting monuments. The idea was not to paint walls but construct a space for reflection. I began with burning, then using plaster. The logistics of working with plaster led me to cement. I could create cracks. I wanted to bring tension onto the surface. I found some rusty nails – they seemed to have a voice. The different materials are like alphabets. It’s also about how I use them, whether I hammer the nail in or I put one beside the other as if it’s a path taking you somewhere – like when you die you go from one world to another

GN: Could you elaborate on the violence in your gestures as you work?

SH: Initially perhaps there was burning and then slashing of the canvas and then the hammering of nails. But every slash gets stitched - everything gets healed. There is an attempt to heal and find a certain resolution. This is important for me.

I really don’t believe in violence or destructive acts but in the universal Sufi thought sulh-i-kul [peace with all].

It begins with burning, then there is resolution – there is calm – may be its abstractionist– but that does not mean it is art for arts sake. I want to take a position.

GN: Is the process cathartic?

SH: Yes,

GN: Do the elements of violence and protest arise from your being a Muslim and the way the world views this today?

SH: As one of the elements, yes. I am not a believer of any formal religion and I have a split relationship with Islam.

You look at the painting and you think there is a protest, there is conflict, resistance. There are wrongs in this world, I do protest. There is also survival and a sense of calm.

People look at the work and confront deep tragedies or fears and yet they feel the work also lifts them out of that abyss.

GN: How do you deal with a process that is fragmented? [Working on multiple canvasses simultaneously]

SH: Its not as if you have one thought and another – art is my whole life and experience – not that today I am thinking that the wall is crumbling and on the next canvas I think how beautiful the flowers are; because I think about them simultaneously. One canvas has a thousand thoughts and feelings. I distil my entire life’s experiences in my work.

GN: How much time does each canvas take to complete?

SH: 6 months to 2 yrs and a life-time.

GN: Can you explain what you undergo in the process?

SH: I experience complete exhaustion – sometimes I can’t move for days after. I put my entire being into it and get drained. While I’m working my mind is not cluttered with any thoughts – certainly not about a socio-political, objective reality. I do not bother about all that; it’s my heart that’s at work. I only let emotions affect the way I work.

My expression is visceral. It could be a reaction to my mother not being well, a tragedy or some minor disturbance. It’s not that I think about these things, I just let my heart do the work. It’s more about the emotion than the cerebral

GN: The inclusion of Urdu text, you’ve said is “your personal resistance to the global wave which builds upon the cultural image of a backward, narrow minded Muslim jumping into action while wielding weapons of terror”. Are you speaking here as a Muslim?

SH: Urdu is my mother tongue; what I heard as a child and learnt the sound of. I use it for its visual beauty, rich linguistic fibre, nuanced and complex poetry and because it is an Indian language. I use words of contemporary writers, poets, family and friends as reflections of the world as we live it. I provide glimpses from our daily life, concerns of people in Kashmir, Delhi, Bangalore, tribes of Madhya Pradesh, extracts from real conversations, interviews and my letters; all collated to reflect the shared Indian experience, our basic philosophical oneness.

GN: You have said “that Art and life are for me simultaneously about the personal as well as about cultural contact, about experiencing the other.” You are married into a Hindu family, how has your art has been informed by this experience?

SH: My husband and I are not religious people. We don’t practice either of our faiths. We rebelled against tradition long before we got married. Socially however, it is interesting, because during partition, my parents chose to stay in India. They were active participants in the freedom movement. They did not believe in another nation based on religion.

Amit’s father and grandparents were from the North-west frontier. They had to forcibly leave and take refuge in Delhi; they witnessed the real trauma of partition.

When we got married, our families found healing way beyond political divides. This reaffirmed my faith in humanity and the power of love.

GN: In letters from Baton Rouge [2006] you said – “My generation has been long grappling with issues of ego, identity and heterogeneity of cultures” How do you express such issues visually?

SH: I am currently working on a project revolving around the burqa ban in Europe which just deals with the symbol of oppression, not the actual oppression; infringing upon a woman’s right to choose. I find it particularly offensive that for centuries women were coerced to hide behind the veil and today they are being coerced not to wear one. Neither the fundamentalist nor the democratic mind has learned to respect individual choice.

I have however, been most troubled by death, natural or as a result of wars. I am always confronting that point in my work. I wonder if suicide is the ultimate art performance and a grave the ultimate installation.

GN: At the end of your day, after many hours working through a rather intense and rigorous process, what do you feel?

SH: Physically I feel completely exhausted; mentally however, I am usually on a high. I am quite obsessive. The mind can’t stop ticking even after long hours in the studio.

GN: Do you have greater clarity about issues, you started out with?

SH: Clarity comes only when I immerse myself in the work. I don’t believe in thinking the entire project through, but leave room for discoveries while at work.

In addition to the studio hours, I read a lot, discuss ideas, jot my thoughts down, or just play with materials - be it plaster, paper, leaves or even sound.

Living next to the Notre Dame in Paris, I recorded the bells ringing every half hour. I’ve also recorded the ocean waves near my house in Goa and sounds in a grave yard.

GN: You have said that “Ultimately it is only we who can infuse our lives or art with new meaning”. What does art mean to you? What new meaning have you in particular tried to imbue your art with, and how and why?

SH: Art is my experience; a visceral, emotive response to the world in a somewhat dream-state with a sense of timelessness.

Each work is a complex thought construct residing in a universe beyond the palpable. This happens if I immerse myself so deeply, that my art is like meditation. At this point I feel I have successfully communicated the intended.

I depend a lot on accidents and keep an open mind to the outcome. Abstraction is best suited for this freedom and open mindedness. It allows me to deal with the complexity of my intention and frees me to develop my own signs of communication. My viewer too is a participant, in that he is free to interpret this vision with his own twist of experience.

Art is as powerful as the knowledge and instincts of the artist and the mind of the viewer.