"The Best Art In The World"
De Buck Gallery New York, NY
September 3rd - October 10th 2020
By DONOVAN IRVEN October 8, 2020
The art of Hiba Schahbaz is focused on what she wants to be. Her intimate self-portraits, featured in the new collection called Dreaming on display at De Buck Gallery until October 10, are a departure from her work as a miniaturist. They are self-explorations, the result of personal as well as artistic growth, and are avenues toward a powerful meditative experience.
The oracle at Delphi provides philosophy with an imperative that has proven perennial since at least Plato – “Know Thyself.” The self-portraits in Dreaming certainly take this maxim to heart. The large canvases and oil paint diverge sharply from the training Schahbaz received at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. But their subject matter of the self, herself, is one that reemerges from childhood, cultivated in secret, between herself and a mirror, before she even understood that a nude self-portrait might not be well received in a conservative religious household.
Schahbaz outlined her roots for me, telling of how she learned to draw originally from Archie comics. It is fascinating how, worlds apart, children like myself and Schahbaz are coming to art and teaching themselves technique from looking at and drawing from comics. After all these years, the skill cultivated through art school, there is still something of that flatness in Schahbaz’s work, a feature that transferred seamlessly from comics to miniatures, two artforms that, again, seem worlds apart.
I would find, talking with Schahbaz, that part of the process of self-discovery is learning to reconcile and harmonize all the different and sometimes conflicting worlds we find ourselves inhabiting. Sometimes, we are tempted to treat the notion of “authenticity” as an attempt to find your “true self.” It is as if there is some kernel of the true and eternal “you” hiding deep down in the soul or psyche, and the quest for authenticity means only to excavate this essential character from the layers of false selves that have sedimented over it. This way of thinking about authenticity is wrongheaded.
Rather, authenticity, particularly as the existential philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir theorized it, is concerned with the balance between the objective facts of our lives and the possibilities that might be pursued through our free choices. We are all of us born in a specific place at a particular time to families and in bodies that are not chosen, raised in certain material conditions and offered opportunities through those conditions that are shaped, restricted, and curated by forces external to us. But we must also choose our path through these conditions and freely engage them in projects that help to determine and reconfigure the values that we encounter, adapt, and by which we live.
The story of self-discovery unfolding in Schahbaz’s work reflects this kind of harmonization. It is the result of a long negotiation between traditions, which are synthesized and made new in the work of an individual artist.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Schahbaz came to recognize the sometimes-patriarchal constraints that shaped her life. The questions that formed in her mind concerned women’s search for themselves. In Pakistani society, as well as in the United States, women are often reduced to their roles and, in particular, to their roles as caregivers. According to Beauvoir, such expectations define women as “Others” whose value derives solely from the supporting roles they play to men within a patriarchal order. These roles are assigned. Here is how you, as a woman, should be and don’t stray off the path! There was no strong concept of “being yourself.” From an early age, the emphasis lay on conforming to an expected social role.
But Schahbaz, as everyone eventually does, had the realization that she was a person – meaning, she was not a woman only and was not reducible to those roles assigned to “women” as caregivers. Simply asserting, “I am a person,” is a basically meaningless gesture without the attending questions, “What does that mean? Who can I be?” and, crucially, “What can I want?” Art becomes a reflection of these driving questions. Art, for Schahbaz, comes from literally reflecting.
As a teenager in front of the bathroom mirror, pen and paper in hand, reflected back to herself, Schahbaz began her first efforts at self-portraiture. Instead of staying up past her bedtime with an iPad or Nintendo Switch, she kept a roll of paper and a pen under her pillow and stayed up with a flashlight under the covers drawing landscapes late into the night.
There were practical concerns that drove her experiments in self-portraiture as well. As she grew older and her interest in art became more mature, she began to take formal lessons in drawing and other techniques. There were no nude models in Pakistan, however. And so, self-reflection became entwined with the practical needs of her own education. She could be her own model.
It is tempting to interpret such acts as stemming from a rebellious nature. This move would play into a feminist interpretation of Schahbaz’s self-portraiture as a rejection of traditional Muslim femininity that stresses modesty and that, in Europe and the United States, is often reduced to caricatures of women wearing burkas or hijabs. But reading too much rebelliousness into Schahbaz’s interventions does not explain the love of Persian miniature painting she discovered and cultivated in Lahore.
The work on display in Dreaming is much larger, usually at least 60 by 84 inches. The change in dimension marks a new stage of Schahbaz’s development, in some ways a move away from her training in traditional miniatures. The meditative nature of laboring over a miniature drew Schahbaz to the form. There is a lot of work that goes into miniatures, because almost all of the components of such works are made by hand. The paints are watercolors that traditionally used mineral pigments that stay vibrant, perhaps except for the silver most often used to depict water, which can degrade to a rough blackened color if not kept in the proper conditions. The paper is likewise handmade. The paper is almost never white but is traditionally dyed by soaking in teas made of herbs or flowers. The result is a paper that is usually yellowish, gold, and often is flecked with silver or gold pigments as well. This effect can be seen in “Protection,” “Strength,” and “The Dream,” which are recent works by Schahbaz that use tea on earth-stained paper.
In addition to the paper coloration, these three works also carry over the watercolor paints that are typical of miniature painting into a larger dimension. Painting a watercolor miniature, especially one with the bold colors found in the Persian tradition, requires deliberate brushwork and leaves a flat surface that is devoid of the textures found in contemporary works using oil and acrylic that can revel in thickly applied paint. Schahbaz’s work retains this kind of flatness, offering paintings with smooth surfaces meticulously worked over.
Mixing the mineral-pigment watercolors for miniatures is an ongoing experiment. Schahbaz’s recalls how she would make a batch, use it up, and work from an approximate recipe. This meant that her colors were not exactly reproduced. The result for her new works in oil-based paints is a willingness to experiment, to mix different shades from ready-made tubes into new combinations that give her reds and pinks their unique affect.
These colors are also a departure from the traditional style. Typically, the palettes of miniatures tend toward cool colors, with a lot of blues and greens overlaying the metallic gold- and silver-tones that make up the background. Schahbaz deploys warm colors – deep reds, purples, and pinks – to generate both startling backgrounds for her nudes and provide a high level of contrast for the white blossoms that dance around her figures, which are often reclined in the manner of famous nudes from the High Renaissance, French Neoclassicism, or Realism. These appear as nods to Giorgione, Inges, and Manet, respectively.
Here is where we can clearly see the attempts to synthesize her aesthetic training and influences into a portrait that is not of who she is in some deep hidden-self sense, but rather to project who she might become, who she can be and what she can want, into a work of art. After all, as Schahbaz stressed to me in conversation, whatever you focus on becomes your life. Emphasis tends to take over, to become the predominant theme of your projects.
There is, in the end, a feminist element in Schahbaz’s work, but it is complicated and does not offer a ready-made interpretation to people in the United States who might desire a clear didactic lesson from an encounter with these portraits. In Pakistan, the personal kind of feminism Schahbaz lived was one that sought to reclaim public beauty for the female form as a mode of personal expression. As she took over her own fashion choices, dressing up became a means to express her own preferences and images of beauty rather than to conform to an idea of beauty imposed on her or donned as a courtesy meant to flatter discerning hosts. Coming to the U.S., wearing a dress was seen as some sort of faux pas. The styles she had adopted as a means of self-expression carried a different connotation in her new context. The question was raised about whether or not Schahbaz could be “sold as an artist” in a pretty dress and not in paint splattered jeans. When I spoke with Schahbaz through FaceTime, she was wearing a sundress, and her dresses have taken on a shade of rebelliousness in the context of her immigration to the U.S.
It is complicated. I remember working at a Whole Foods outside of Philadelphia as I completed my master’s degree. The cash registers were run mostly by Muslim women who had come up through the Nation of Islam or other Black Muslim communities in the city. Almost all of them wore a wide range of head scarves, which they folded in a variety of ways, and they viewed these head coverings as expressions of their own style, individuality, and beauty. But context matters. As a minority group within the U.S., taking ownership of the head covering made a different statement than it might in a country where the covering is either mandatory, or if not forced, where the social pressures to be covered are more intense. Schahbaz recalls that she always had a head scarf with her, just in case, and she still carries a shawl as a matter of habit to this day.
Part of reflecting on the portraits in Dreaming is to reflect on our own experiences and positions and recognize that they might not be everyone’s, even when our desire to universalize our own patterns of thought comes with the intention of realizing a just society. The end of this reflection is to complexify, not to reduce, oversimplify, nor offer a pat, easy answer.
On this score, Schahbaz’s attraction to the meditative practices of miniature painting is converted to the larger format. When I asked her for some reading recommendations, among the list she provided was Rumi. Perhaps, this is not so surprising. There is something quasi-mystical about the image of an artist hunched under a light, performing painstaking work in miniature with a tiny brush, lovingly rendering a landscape and figures in materials they’ve made themselves. The whole scene is intensely monk-like and scholarly.
There is a line from Rumi where he writes, “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” The almost mystic quest for beauty runs throughout Schahbaz’s new paintings. She has learned, over time, to love herself. Not the self that is, that is static, not a dead self, but the self she might become. There is a strange echo of Nietzsche’s admonishment to “become what you are,” so long as what you are becoming can be recognized as beautiful.
This beauty is not captured by realism. Viewers who are expecting realistically rendered portraits will be disappointed. The compositions embrace the flattened perspective of traditional miniatures, harkening back still to the particular history of Schahbaz and her early inspiration in comics. The figures, resplendent and in repose, are the ideas of who the artist might be.
Like all self-consciousness, the reflection is an image, not of a person as they are in themselves, but of an aspect of themselves that comes into view when it is taken as the object of its own experience – the affective-self transformed into the object of its own consciousness. As such, it is the concept of itself both in partial view of its own being and as a projection of its own possibility. It is a dream, but a dream that draws its breath from reality, from what is.
It is a pleasure being invited to share in Schahbaz’s dreaming. It is a chance to reflect, and in reflection, reconfigure our own possibilities and strike that precarious balance between the facts of our lives and the possibilities opened by the transcendence of those facts. To transcend what is toward what might be is an act of beauty, of love both for the self and for the other. Here, we might see the good in one another if we are not too quick to judge. The self-portraits on offer are hopeful and hope, in these times, is brave. Those are themes worth reflecting on. Among those questions posed by Schahbaz, perhaps better than “who am I” is “who are we?” WM
Filo Sofi Arts Disclosures is a series of philosophical reflections on art and its place in the world. It has grown out of owner Gabrielle Aruta's progressive mission to bring art and philosophy together in thoughtful public engagement.
Donovan Irven is a philosopher, essayist, and writer of fiction currently serving as the Director of Philosophical Praxis for Filo Sofi Arts. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @donovanirven.view all articles from this author