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HB: I first saw your work in the 1996 Whitney Biennial and again in "Out of India" at the Queens Museum. Wandering around the show, one of the issues that has struck me about you work, because it deals with the miniature tradition, and other contemporary work coming out of the third world, particularly India, is that the distinction between tradition and the avant-grade is profoundly problematized, confused in your work. Those terms don't work in opposition to one another. I was reminded of a comment by Francis Bacon, that he never wanted to invent a new technique. He thought people who invented new techniques were in fact limiting their scope. Bacon wanted to reinvent an earlier technique, something that had been handed down. I wonder if we should begin by thinking about that, since that is something that happens in your work – the reinventing of a technique, the reevaluation of tradition to the extent that tradition is no longer opposed to modernity.
SS: Although I didn't set out with the aim to subvert, let alone reinvent, a tradition, those boundaries became blurred simply through my engagement with miniature painting, through the act of making them. I was aware that I was indulging an anachronistic practice, labor intensive, limited in the scope of its impact. But I was interested in an art form whose present was of the past. Making miniatures was clearly a valid activity. In fact, it was taken for granted. It is not a popular aesthetic nor is it a traditional form clamoring for revival. I was interested in the form's cultural and historical dimensions, not simply as they relate to visual pleasure but at a more fundamental level. I was curious as to why miniature painting exists. That is where I started. But it was only after I started, not before, that the questions posed by a form that exists in the present yet is not "contemporary" began. So the decision to engage with miniature painting was independent of the intent to blur boundaries between tradition and the avant-garde. That happened after the work existed.
HB: I like the idea that you didn't really want to reinvent tradition, although, at a certain level, I think that is what has happened. But more important, I think this notion of not setting out to reinvent tradition addresses the fact that the way we talk about the old and the new-using such terms as traditional, avant-garde, modernity, contemporary – is a significant par of colonialism. What I find interesting in your work, as well as in "Out of India" is that you get a whole range of visual, cultural material, a range of contradictions and juxtapositions – some traditional, some modern, some reinvented, others unabashedly harkening back to earlier forms. As an artist from South Asia you must find as great a freedom in the past as you do in the present.
SS: Certainly. There are numerous
schools of miniature painting, and there have always been multiple
visual discourses existing simultaneously. Although it is not a
'contemporary" aesthetic, miniature painting is anything but
fixed. The fact that course in miniature painting were a departmental
offering at art school indicated that is was still a place of
experimentation. My training was, however, more of an apprenticeship.
Everything had an extra layer. There was baggage. It was rooted.
Initially I was intimidated. Miniature painting seemed restrictive.
But obviously it has not been
SS: I should clarify something I said
earlier. My training wasn't an apprenticeship in the strictest sense.
What made it an apprenticeship was the student-to-teacher ration. At
the time there was myself and another woman enrolled in the course.
So there was enormous accessibility, not to mention the fact that my
instructor lived in the studio. He was a difficult person. Actually,
he was a complex but controlling person who saw himself as the savior
of miniature painting. I had my doubts initially. This was echoed by
friends and faculty who thought miniature painting would retard my
creativity because it's all about copying. The consensus was that
miniature painting was a stylized and faded genre that had more to do
with craft and technique than genuine expression. But, clearly, we
have some relationship to the form even if it is just nostalgia. I
was curious as to what submission to miniature painting entailed. I
was interested in saying, "Yes. I want to copy. It doesn't
matter." There was, however, never a doubt that I could get
beyond that. The instructor was defensive and wanted to test how
serious we were, and, at the same time, I didn't want him to feel
patronized, so I did what was asked of me. I have an anecdote that
touches upon the point you were making about perceptions in the
differences in schooling. When I arrived here in Chicago, I told
someone that in school we had to catch squirrels whose fur was to be
used for brushes (which is true). They told the story to someone else
who stopped me the other day and said, "I heard you had to catch
squirrels. How barbaric." I didn't know if they even knew why we
had to catch squirrels. But my point isn't about catching squirrels
but to what extent I should edit the information about my experiences
because it gets constructed differently. I either reinforce
stereotypes of South Asia as an exotic and primitive third world
land, or further the expectation that I am a cultural informer,
responsible for providing viewers with all the information. That is
something I cant' do. I haven't been to Pakistan in five years, since
I've lived here. There are others practicing miniature painting for
different reasons and in different styles, so what I am doing doesn't
speak to the culture at large.
SS: [laughs] Just to let you know, I no
longer make my own brushes. Actually, it was never about making
brushes. It was a test of our integrity and a way for the instructor
to assert authority, not over me but through me as a way of
generating tension within the department. I wanted to be in synch
with my instructor, to make him happy. I subjected myself to what was
clearly a patriarchal system for the sake of learning the rules as
they still exist. But again, miniature painting was a place of
experimentation. It was not as though he was teaching what was done
during the Mogul period. He was also in a gray area. What appears to
be the orthodox transmission of knowledge was in fact an already
warped set of rules. But here the distinction between orthodox
(staying within the form) and experimentation (something from outside
the form) gets confused.
SS: I remember the first day. One of
the faculty asked why I was there. "Are you trying to make East
meet West?" Needless to say, I was offended. I was there because
of my own curiosity. I have always traveled. I have lived in Africa.
I certainly wasn't there because I wanted to learn another practice
and take it back home, if that is what he meant. I was there because
I wanted to grow. I came with a traditional practice, but I wanted to
learn others, not that I expected someone was going to teach me how a
specific technique was going to enhance what I had already learned.
In graduate school you are free to do whatever. But in retrospect,
graduate school is about building a network. Getting feedback from
colleagues and visiting artists was an n important part of that
growth. But in practical terms, it meant that I was scattered. I
remember taking photo 101 with the undergrads because I had never
done it. This scattered approach did not help me in critiques, where
everyone kept asking, "What is your work about?" They found
it too culturally specific and reflective of what art was back at
home, forgetting the fact that I did that because that is where I am
from. Yes, I brought my practice with me, but I was always dismayed
at how everything that one did was bound to their place of origin.
The feedback never went beyond who I am. That is understandable but
SS: That goes back to the issues of
different visual materials existing simultaneously. When one is
drawing from multiple references, some from within a tradition,
others from lived experience, it becomes as question of balancing the
cultural and the personal. How to be between, how to mix recognizable
cultural references and idiosyncratic references. How to come up with
a vocabulary that, while referencing and maintaining an integrity to
tradition, also betrays my own experience and at the same time
reveals the act of appropriation, alteration, and addition. For
example, I am from a Muslim background, but I have a fascination with
Hindu mythology, which of course wasn't
HB: That is something I'm struggling within my writing. How to accommodate cultural influences, information, and experiences at the point of doing it, of actually writing.
SS: Another example would be the
griffin. It is a figure from classical Greek mythology. Under
Alexander the Great, the Hellenic world extended to the Punjab,
making the griffin a remnant from an earlier period of colonization.
But it has become a standard figure in Punjabi. It is called the
Chillava. It is somebody who is coming and going so fast you can't
pin down who they are. I tried to pin it down with a headdress, a
veil. The Chillava has multiple identities, and it reflects the sort
of rhetoric or categories that I am confronted with. Are you Muslim,
Pakistani, artist, painter, Asian, Asian-American, or what? But it is
not my agenda to say that I belong to any of these categories. To
borrow one of your key words, I am interest in hybridity. This is all
new to me, particularly being labeled a minority, even though my
experience is obviously substantially different from that of my
African-American friends. But the search for affinities has been
great since I am still developing as an artist.
SS: Free of being prescribed while using a very prescribed and structured form. I like that tension. Miniature painting comes with a set of rules. It's not at a conceptual level that those rules are played out. It's in the act. It's the materiality, the seductiveness of the surface, the investment, the submission, the hours that are put in to create translucence. In this end, they are very meditative and meaningful gestures, like ritual. In this sense, miniature painting is more about subverting modernity that subverting tradition.
HB: If I follow your line of thought, is it really a subversion of modernity? Because there are iconic modernist moments here and there. I think the beauty is that you allow it all to float and to set up its own tension. With respect to modernity and the miniature tradition, it seems you subvert both and neither. How do the wall works figure in this? Could you discuss scale and gender in your work?
SS: By shifting scale from the miniature to the mural, I had hoped to make more confrontational work. But neither this transition not the work as a whole is an overt commentary on issues of gender. (It is not a question of small equals precious equals feminine and, vice versa, large equals strength equals masculine. Engendering the work in this manner is too simplistic.) In a broader sense, I am more interested in the hierarchy surrounding the investment of labor, and process speaks to this perhaps more than scale. When I make tissue drawings, for instance, time is of the essence. I try to keep them spontaneous, gestural. There is a rigor behind them, but they are much more open, democratic. They are not fussy or fetishistic. For example, my mother was visiting and she was horrified when she saw these drawings. "Is this your new work? I can do that." I much prefer that response then "Oh my God, you did that by hand?" the tissue drawings are not about the exclusivity associated with skill. They are the opposite, and my mother, ironically, had the proper response. I said, "Why don't you make some?" and she did. It was almost taboo. With these drawings, there is no beginning or end. It is a mark-making process, a journal or diary. There is a level that is premeditated. But it is never a decision to go make work with the goal of unearthing an original set of experiences. Here are in fact moments when a slower, more controlled pace sets in. it becomes a series of steps. Step one leads to step ten – structure, the buildup of materials, investment, hours of finishing. And in the end, you could lose the piece. There are moments when I look at my work and I wonder, what made me do it so obsessively? It could have been what it is now ten stages ago. That is part of the conditioning. One of the criteria for evaluation in the apprenticeship was beauty of execution. But I was never interested in living up to past standards of excellence in miniature painting. There was a certain level of proficiency I was interested in. But after that, I told myself, OK, I've done that. What you said about two time frames or planes is absolutely correct. I put in all this time, and then I subtract it through a violation of that space. I do gestures that I have no control over. And it's the simultaneous existences of two forms of exploration within a single space that charges the work. You might find yourself asking, "Where did all the details go? Where did the face go?" because a dot sits on it.
HB: I see what you mean when you talk
about the democratic process of the work. In a way it's a regulated
democracy, a premeditated democracy in which you, as the artist, hold
the cards. I greatly appreciate your emphasis on the practice itself,
especially the idea that the tissue drawings are a form of thinking
as drawing. But when you think of the work's relationship to the
audience, not it terms of process but content, what do you think your
work requires for its understanding, some knowledge? There are many
threads of experience that inform your practice. What do you think an
audience is getting? You've suggested that many people are
intimidated by the iconography; they say, "This is from India.
What is this about?" immediately exoticism. We don't want an
orientalism. We don't want all these referential questions put into
your work - have you seen Hesse? Etc. What kind of intercultural
knowledge is required? Where must I stand to be able to pick up the
great premeditated subtleties manifest in the work? What must I know?
Must I be a cosmopolitan? A nationalist? An antinationalist? What
must I be as a citizen spectator?
SS: But to return to your initial
question regarding your role as a citizen spectator, I think my work
is about observation. More about raising questions that providing
answers. I remember coming upon your book Location of Culture. It was
something of a revelation. In grad school, the fact that I had read
it became a dilemma. It exposed what I had feared all along. Without
a context, many people thought my work was simply about technique and
that "postcolonial discourse" would serve as a conceptual
crutch. A flattering crutch, but no thank you. I was shocked to learn
of people's inability to see "the conceptual" in other
forms, ones outside the rather recent, narrow parameters established
by practices of the 1960s, I find miniature painting a very
SS: In that sense every little mark is important. Not to say they all have specific meaning attached to them. But I'm more open to meaning being constructed not simply within the piece but also through a larger set of relationships that surround the work. I think a lot about fluidity, about icons when they exist in different combinations. How does a vocabulary evolve? How do you process things around you? If the work is about anything, it's about lived experience and how to claim that experience. Although I have been painting for twelve years, that has become a conscious concern only in the last four or five.
HB: Which represents your time in the
SS: [laughs] I think it is that fact that I live here. But it doesn't matter where I practice. I do, however, appreciate the interaction I have had with various artists over the past couple of years. I have worked on some wonderful collaborations, notably project Row Houses in Houston. These have been very rewarding. The kind of community involvement helps me overcome some of the conflict I have with the placement of my work in museums and private collections. The artist as the lone genius in the studio bothers me at times. The search for validation can be difficult. Obviously, I feel quite comfortable with miniature painting. It comes naturally, which is not to say I'll be doing them for the rest of my life.
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