Trained in the centuries-old art of miniature painting, Hiba Schahbaz’s works blend traditional miniature practice with Western art history and contemporary realization. Self-portraiture is at the core of her work, depicting stylized, nude portraits of herself within intimate scenes of magical realism. Her works become celebrations of the female form and the female gaze, and her pieces construct spaces that blend metaphor with imagination. Schahbaz’s current body of work literally expands traditional miniature painting into large-scale works on paper that often engulf an entire wall. Adapting this style of painting beyond its historical application, she recontextualizes the art form from a new perspective. Schahbaz’s own figure becomes a life-size embodiment for depictions of women in classical Western art history -- women painted by artists such as Dürer, Picasso, Cranach, Giorgione, and Odalisque. These works directly confront and challenge the narratives and representations of femininity, female identity, and the female experience developed and told by men. Posing as these female characters from art history, Schahbaz claims their form with her own identity and creates a space where the woman is central to the image and environment. In these scenes, the space around her is abstracted and unreal -- washes of color, wisps of smoke, a fantastically curving tree trunk, or waves of undulating shades of pink and red background her form. The space belongs to her and is in direct response to her body.
Schahbaz’s smaller, traditionally sized miniature works evoke similar themes of female empowerment and self-possession. These figures are ornamented and embellished in small scenes that are more developed into specific landscapes or spaces, but also are abstracted in how the environments are fleshed out. These magically realized scenes read as metaphorical insights into the figure’s mind and emotional state. It is again her body that activates the surrounding elements. Using the painting techniques of Indo-Persian miniature, Schahbaz transcends the historical, cultural, and political boundaries, and uses her own body as a tool to explore issues of sexuality, independence, power, and censorship.
Hiba Schahbaz is a Brooklyn-based artist born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan. She earned her BFA in Miniature Painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore in 2003 and received an MFA in Painting from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY in 2012. Schahbaz has shown work in numerous exhibitions in the United States and abroad, including recent solo shows at Thierry Goldberg Gallery (2015, NY), Union Arts Center (2017, NY), and Feminist Incubator Space: Project for Empty Space (2017, NJ). This past summer, Schahbaz participated in The Wassaic Project Editions Program at The Wassaic Project, where she previously held an Artist Fellowship in 2014. She is the recipient of The Ruth Katzman Scholarship from The League Residency at VYT (2015, 2016), The Alfred Z. Solomon Residency at The Tang Museum & Skidmore College (2015), and an artist grant from the Vermont Studio Center (2013). She has participated in multiple artist talks and lectures at the Project For Empty Space (2017, NJ), Steven Kashner Gallery (2017, NY), and the Center for Book Arts (2016, NY) to name a few. Schahbaz will be included in the group exhibition Crafted Strangers at The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design (NC) this year.
Can you tell me about your background in painting? How did your interest in miniature painting develop, and how have you arrived at your current body of work and practice?
I’ve been painting for all my life. When I was in school, I would sit in front of a mirror and draw myself. By the time I left for college, I was painting on my bedroom walls and door. When I would come home, my dad would have white washed my walls and I would start painting them again. I received formal training as a miniaturist at the National College of Arts in Lahore. I initially went to art school with the intention of being an oil painter, but miniature painting captivated me. It was a perfect fit and I ended up painting miniatures for the next fifteen years, never looking back, until recently.
A couple of years after grad school, the scale of my work began expanding. Now I am painting on a human scale and the women in my paintings are life size. But the way I work is still deeply rooted in miniature painting. The imagery and philosophy of miniature painting are ingrained in me. For example, I’m still working with opaque watercolor on handmade paper and I use a lot of transparent tea washes. There’s a certain amount of transparency to the work and an attention to detail, even with the expanded scale. But teaching myself how to paint human scale feels like learning how to paint anew.
What has that process been like?
South Asian miniature is very stylized. It’s not a realistic form of figure painting. Though the painting is supposed to represent reality, it’s not rooted in realism. As miniature is a part of Islamic art, artists avoid realism so as not to compete with God’s creations. In traditional miniatures, there are no shadows, no perspective, and human anatomy is curvy and without bones. A lot of these characteristics have translated into my larger work.
My recent works feel very different. The process of painting on a human scale is less meditative. It’s been a challenging and liberating process and I’m painting much looser. I’ve deliberately tried to let go of control and not plan my paintings, letting them evolve naturally. The subject of my work has remained the same, however. I’ve been painting self portraits for as long as I can remember.
How are you engaging with this traditional painting style and approaching subject matter as well as marrying it with the contemporary moment?
When we train as miniaturists, we copy old master paintings and we do it for years. This teaches us painting techniques, how to make paper and brushes and paints, everything. Once you know the techniques you can choose your subject. I’ve always drawn myself, possibly because of a lack of nude models in Pakistan. I would lock myself in my room with a mirror and just draw myself and it kind of became what I did. That translated into the subject of my miniature work.
Pakistani art often depicts female figures and portraiture, but because it was so frowned upon for a Muslim woman to paint herself naked, I would not paint my face, or I would paint the back view of figures. If anyone asked if it was me, I would just say no. I think every artist has their own obsession, an image that they paint repetitively. For me, it’s the female body.
In using your own body, I’m curious about the narratives that are then applied to these scenes. How are you thinking about self-portraiture, fantasy, and reality?
When I arrived in New York, I had relatively no background in art history until I began visiting museums in the city and seeing renowned artwork in person. I think seeing a lot of these masterpieces made me start mentally connecting Western and Eastern art. I started putting myself into those paintings and introducing parts of those paintings into my work. One piece, for instance, is based on Picasso’s Nude with Joined Hands at MoMA.
I repeated Ingres’ Odalisque many times because I became obsessed with painting her. The first time I posed as her, I sprained my neck trying to look backwards. I sprained it really badly, and realized that very few men have painted women as they truly are. Their subjects look realistic, the skin looks like skin, but it’s just a stylized version of the male imagination. I had assumed that this man was such a great painter, this woman must have looked exactly like that and had all those extra vertebrae… that’s kind of where it started.
I decided that although men have always painted women, these masterpieces had very little to do with the women. They were usually just about the man who painted her. So I think that made me start repainting them from a female perspective.
Thinking about Western art history, how are you approaching the female nude and sexuality within your work? Your work could be read as erotic, but I don’t think it is erotic -- you’re instead challenging the viewer to rethink that. It’s a woman’s space.
These paintings are depicting a woman's space; a sacred and safe space where a woman can express herself. The figures in the painting are not nudes because they’re not necessarily sexual. I think clothes and objects give paintings a sense of definite time and place. And I want my works to transcend time and place. I want them to live in the now forever. When I was younger, I didn't have any interest in painting Pakistani clothes, which are culturally specific to the subcontinent. I felt this would make my work inaccessible to a wider audience, whereas the naked body is the same across cultures. I feel the body communicates most strongly when it’s naked.
For me art is not as much about reality as it is about inner life. I take my thoughts, feelings, and desires and make them into art. I also prefer to let the work speak for itself. It’s really important that the viewer takes their own meaning from my paintings. I want my paintings to be like a mirror. I also want to create an intimacy between the viewer and the subject in a way that’s not voyeuristic. In my recent large paintings most of the women are looking directly at the viewer. This allows the audience to immediately enter into the work and be a part of it.
Sometimes I get obsessed with certain colors. My latest obsessions have been pink and red. Everything had to be pink! Now I’m consciously trying to break out of it. In the larger compositions, the actual composition isn’t really planned. I usually put all the figures in first and their environment just grows around them. It’s very different than in my miniature works. In my miniatures, I would plan my paintings and I knew exactly where things would be, but a lot of working large was also just about trying to let go of that control. I’m going with it and seeing where it takes me.
Can you talk about your process creating these, both materially and compositionally? You mentioned that when you were training in miniatures you were making your own paper and brushes...is that still a part of your practice?
I would paint miniature paintings on wasli which is a traditional handmade paper. It consists of layers of paper adhered together with flour paste and burnished with a shell to make the surface really smooth. I also made my own paints for these which were like opaque watercolors. Traditional brushes are made from squirrel hair. I don’t make my own brushes anymore, but I still gravitate towards using finer brushes. I think the largest brush I use for the large paintings is a size 10 or 12. I can’t seem to control anything larger than that.
When I paint miniatures, I plan the drawing on tracing paper and then transfer it to wasli. I do this so that the surface remains smooth and perfect. I can then paint on it with a fine brush. The larger works are a little different. The painting surface consist of many sheets of handmade paper joined together to make a large sheet. These paintings are also more spontaneous than the miniatures in regards to the application of color and development of landscapes.
Can you talk more about your material choices -- beyond tea, I also see that you’re using watercolor and gold leaf?
Gold leafing is another element which comes from my miniature practice and I use it in many of my large paintings. Back in the 15th century, miniaturists worked in royal workshops and their paintings were commissioned by kings, so they used very expensive pigments including lapis, gold and silver in their works. I’ve always used a lot of natural materials in my work, such as turmeric, tea, tempera, and gold.
Thinking about color and materials, how are you approaching color and how does it enter into the work?
There are three techniques in miniature painting. The first is sia kalam, black and white, which is a very transparent and delicate way of working. The second is neem rang, which is transparent tea washes. The third is gad rang, or opaque watercolor. Color is challenging and new for me. I’ve spent a lot of my artistic career painting with transparent single tones. I think my use of color is mostly emotional and spontaneous. Almost all my recent works in the studio are painted in reds and pinks and warm tones.
Miniature paintings are grounded in reality, yet they also incorporate elements of fantasy and unreal landscapes into the work. How do you approach that?
Miniature painting was a book art and used to document history as well as illustrate literary texts and illuminated manuscripts. But the actual painting style was not realistic. It was a representation of reality. For me, art comes from the world of the imagination. I’m not a realist and day to day concerns are very abstracted for me. In my work, I’m not interested in what a body or a tree looks like realistically. I’m more interested in what it feels like or in how I feel when I’m painting it. I enjoy looking at realism, but I’m not interested in painting what already exists. My painting style is rooted in miniature painting in which figures and landscapes are very stylized and perspective is distorted and everything is overly ornamental.
Was there ever a moment where you tried to move away from the nude?
My paintings are a reflection of my inner life. Although I’ve never stopped painting my body, I went for many years without painting my face. My thesis show in college consisted of nude figures without faces. Until recently I would leave faces blank or turn bodies away from the viewer. I thought of it as plausible deniability. I wasn’t ready to admit that the paintings were self portraits.
About a year after I moved to Brooklyn I decided to start painting my face. I painted dozens of portraits in profile within a few months. My immigration to the US has given me the emotional and mental space to work without fear of judgement or persecution. Living in a country where women have rights has helped relieve my fears and given me a voice. It took another couple of years before the figures in my paintings turned to face the viewer. So my work is changing alongside me. We’re changing together.