ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Saadia Batool as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Saadia Batool was born in 1998 in Quetta, Pakistan. She completed her high school education in her hometown. She was awarded a merit-based scholarship to attend the prestigious National College of Arts in Lahore, where she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2022. Batool’s artistic practice encompasses a diverse range of mediums, including sculpture, printmaking, collage, and the study and application of Mughal and Persian miniature with a focus on oil painting. Her work has been showcased in the Young Artists Exhibition at Alhamra Lahore in both 2019 and 2020.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Saadia Batool: My work is centered around investigating the ethnic history of the Hazara community through archives and collective memory in a migrating timeline. By delving into personal archives belonging to my family, as well as other families who have experienced displacement, I am able to recreate visual landscapes, narratives and contexts of that era in our history. I have witnessed the fleeting state of dispersed and fragmented memories among my nation and community. I engage in an act of recalling, redocumenting and revisioning the rich tapestry of stories that are often neglected or lost in more formal archival spaces. The visuals that I choose to depict are developed in layers with mixed media on canvas; creating textures, depth and nuance through layering. I develop multilayered visuals through photo transfer technique, translucent acrylic paints, inks and pigments, graphite, charcoal, markers, pencil colors and other drawing materials. My paintings primarily consist of layering by deliberately treating mediums to create luminous strata that preserve the visual identity of each layer, but also blend into a unified visual depiction.
AE: What role do archival images and photographs play within your paintings? Tell us about the phototransfer and layering techniques that you use within your painting.
SB: My interest mainly began with photographic archives. Winters were the season when my relatives would visit us from Afghanistan or Iran, and we would usually reminisce about memories through photographs. Although I had never lived these experiences myself, they started becoming part of my recollections as inaudible conversations and language fabricated through static photographs. The investigation into a long-lost era and its archive led me to look deeper into the location of the photographs, many of which were taken in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Uncovering routes towards roots has become a leading element and direction in my work. The kind of archival images I select from personal family photographs are not a representation of particular national or social achievements, but rather of people in their daily lives preserving culture, society and economy.
The purpose of photo transferring is primarily to preserve the authentic identity of the sources and archival materials I incorporate. Archival images are at the core, however there also remains a sense of loss since the entire image is not visible. Phototransfer, as a technique and tool, is the act of subtracting visual data from a photograph followed by adding on other layers to form an alternative visual. I use it as a tool and medium to depict the compounded layers of archival intricacies and historical materials that have furthermore had to travel by land, across time and via people.
AE: Talk about the people you depict in your paintings. Why do you choose to depict them and why is it important for you to represent them? Additionally, what are these patterns and motifs you include in your painting?
SB: Photographic archives have been central materials and references for my work. Each character that I depict is visually and thoughtfully studied, and later re-visioned and developed in the form of paintings and drawings. As I explore these archives, I see a hauntingly interrogative meaning that lies under the guise of memory, tucked away in safe boxes and old photo albums. The eyes magically stare at us in a Hazarajat landscape, or in a photographic studio donned in traditional attire, in a wedding ceremony, or on a mundane day at home where they decided to be remembered and where their memory was preserved. I believe they were ahead of their time, and the gratified gestures and postures were in a sense commemorating a human existence.
There were times when I simply looked at these photographs and imagined that individuals would start talking out of a crowd from an unfamiliar time zone. There would be a familiar story and a destiny of longings. I came to realize that there were similar archives and recurring narratives that existed in every time zone; this reality was experienced collectively by almost all my people. Moreover, as a minority group living among other major ethnic groups and communities, our cultural heritage, visionary past, arts and crafts have been neglected throughout our entire transitional and politicized landscape. I intend to depict the multiplicities of learned and lived narratives, as well as all the layers between.
The patterns and motifs are also an important factor in my paintings; they are inspired by cultural imagery found on wall tapestries and traditional dresses. The recurrent set of motifs are depicted to be floating in my paintings, referring to a journey beginning, ending, or perhaps hanging forever in a transitory space. Individuals did not merely migrate but brought along their archives in the form of language, food, aesthetics and craft.
AE: You just graduated from the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, Pakistan. Tell us about your recent body of work that you presented in your thesis exhibition. How do these paintings reflect a new direction within your practice?
SB: Graduation and the entire process of developing my thesis was a wonderful journey of experimentation. When you learn and unlearn certain things, there is no particular assignment, instead you choose to apply yourself and create a routine schedule for yourself. My thesis project developed gradually with experimentation from photographs, oral histories, drawings, and collages, to photo transfer and painting. The results of these experiments were spontaneous and required me to discard a lot of visuals, surfaces, mediums and treatment processes before I finalized a visual. Producing drawings has been such an important practice of mine that I see it as a kind of a foundational brick in the development of my thesis work and likely, for future works as well. Later during my thesis year, I experimented technically with different mediums from oils to water-based mediums, so as to understand their physical qualities.
Today, I explore and experiment with a wider range of mediums in my practice. Revealing and visually representing collective memories from my ethnic background strengthens the visual connections to my cultural heritage and history. In many ways I am sharing the journey from painting and drawing live to studying photographs and producing amalgamated narratives and representations. By representing the kinds of subjects, I feel a stronger bond to myself, my roots and my personal experiences.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
SB: My creative influences are directly linked to my recent experimentations and exploration of a wider range of mediums and creative techniques. I feel a stronger bond with my history and cultural heritage. The craft, skill, aesthetics and traditional choice of palette present in Hazaragi culture is truly a heritage that I gained access to from the photographic archives as well as contemporary embroidery and crafts that are practiced throughout my community in Quetta.
I grew up watching my mother, sister and cousins embroidering dresses, handkerchiefs and tapestries. I feel that my art and the aesthetics that are reflected consciously or unconsciously throughout the visual memories I create are directly influenced by these intimate experiences with family.
I am also deeply inspired by Bapsi Sidhwa, a Pakistani-American fiction writer. Her writing delves into complex dynamics of India-Pakistan partition, highlighting the experiences of the Parsee community in a colonial setting and within the religiously and culturally diverse Indian landscape. I incorporate her fictional perspectives and lived experiences from beautifully woven stories that I often reread, such as The Crow Eaters and Ice Candy. Personal stories that contain powerful, representative, and radical meanings align fully with my interests. The author’s humor is also what compels you to keep reading. South Asian stories, with all their vivid blends of spice, drama and politics, are always my preference.
During my time at the National College of Arts in Lahore, I had the opportunity to practice Mughal and Persian miniature painting for three months, which piqued my interest in this artform. We also had a seminar class where we studied their rich literary narratives and intricate details. While studying and practicing miniature painting, I also make paper-collages with Mughal miniature figures and elements, essentially re-visualizing its stories with a contemporary twist. This experimentation deeply inspired me to develop my own way of storytelling through existing narratives and archives.
AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2023-2024?
SB: I recently graduated and exhibited my thesis works at Zahoor Ul Akhlaq Gallery, Lahore. I am currently exhibiting in a group show at Tagheer Gallery, Lahore. I will be taking a short break before I begin preparing work for my upcoming solo show at the end of 2023.
SAADIA BATOOL ONLINE: