ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Sanié Bokhari as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Sanié Bokhari (she/her) is a mixed media artist born in Lahore, Pakistan. She holds a Bachelor’s in Painting from the National College of Arts, Lahore and an MFA in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2018. She was the recipient of the President’s Scholarship at RISD, and was selected to work with the contemporary art curator at the RISD Museum. She has exhibited her work in numerous shows in Pakistan and the US, including Canvas Gallery in Karachi, Harper’s Gallery in Los Angeles & Aicon Gallery in NYC. Her residencies include Vermont Studio Center, NARS Foundation, PLOP residency, Vasl Residency and Field Residency. Her work is included in various publications including The OG Magazine, G5A: imprint, Mumbai and Art seen magazine. Her work has been acquired by notable collections including the Nion McEvoy Foundation, the private collections of Dr. Fadi Braiteh and OJ Prakash, director of Levy Gorvy Hong Kong.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Sanié Bokhari: My work aims to reveal the persistence of patriarchal standards globally through an exploration of cultural differences in gender across oceans. My compositions depict the disorientation and transformation of ethnic diaspora by using the figurative symbolism in Mughal miniature painting as a lens to view the cross-generational experiences of South Asian women.
The work is meant to make the viewer contemplate gender through multiple lenses, thus questioning their current understanding. I strive to deconstruct the idea of the exclusivity of Western feminism and its impacts around the world, specifically with regards to the South. To achieve that end, I invoke spirituality, using religious symbolism, figuration and traditional techniques to subvert patriarchal norms and invite uninhibited female subjectivity. The female, in every instance, is firmly and powerfully rooted in her body, evoking an otherworldly parallel where the universe finally allows the woman to regain control.
The main themes of my drawings, paintings and sculptures is to understand and process the experience of a transnational woman, marked by the history of colonial rule, while grappling with the inherent prejudice and stereotyping that exists in American culture.
AE: What was the process of finding your aesthetic voice and visual style within the medium and techniques of drawing? How has your style evolved since?
SB: The culture I grew up in is extremely vibrant–full of lush colors with hues of reds, oranges, and gold. From weddings, to traditional festivals, and to our home decor–the color palette is bold and rich. As I was growing up in Lahore however, the city became rapidly populated; whenever I visited, the roads seemed narrower, and the population outburst was out of control. Parks were quickly being replaced by skyscrapers and the air was full of thick smog. My aesthetic voice followed this change; I developed an inclination towards the medium of graphite to make large-scale drawings. My color palette followed the grays and blacks of a city being engulfed in smog.
Painting is and always will be at the heart of my practice, and after graduating with an MFA in painting from the U.S., I felt deeply disconnected from my roots and distant from the art forms that originated in my culture. I went back to Pakistan to pursue a deeper understanding of Mughal Miniature painting from Bashir Ahmed; a maestro with nearly four decades of experience behind him. As my work called me back to NY, I could only finish the drawing part of the coursework and took that knowledge back with me to my studio in New york. I began experimenting with the traditional techniques and overlapping these with my own style, which eventually became a new means of production.
AE: Growing up in Lahore and completing your BFA at the National College of Arts in 2014, you moved to the U.S. to pursue an MFA at RISD and currently live in New York. How has moving between societies and cultural contexts influenced your practice? Discuss some of the feminist thought that you incorporate in your work.
SB: I went to an all-girls school in Pakistan. Learning about reproductive health was taboo; the chapter in my high-school biology book on reproduction and understanding the female body was glued shut. Being a woman felt scary and having sexual desires felt blasphemous. All I had was hearsay and assumptions, and to top it all off my parents were constantly worried about me ending up alone. From as long as I could remember, society made me feel as if my ultimate purpose in life was to get married–I saw many of my friends giving into the compulsion of their parents and having babies in their 20s. I couldn’t relate and couldn’t give into the pressure. My practice began exploring this dissonance deeply, and overtime my values evolved; allowing the viewer to understand the female character as the protagonist rather than a monolithic being.
AE: Talk to us about your sculptural work, how does it intersect with your painting and drawing practice?
SB: Sculpture has always been a part of my practice. I’ll always continue to evolve my two dimensional work into the third dimension and vice versa. I love working with materials like wood, metal, ceramic and resin. Access to wood, aluminum, steel, plexi, etc. workshops in Pakistan felt restricted to me, due to the male dominance of these areas. Simply entering these workshops served to challenge the domination of any material or space.
I realized how liberating it was for a painting that involved a physical third dimension, to get it off the wall, maybe off the floor and sometimes completely free standing.
I love being able to play with materials, open to teaching myself new mediums to create work using surrealist artistic language to reimagine a world for south asian women with agency, independence and self-determination.
AE: Do you see your work as created for a particular audience, and why?
The pursuit of being an artist or a professional in the artworld means you’re making work for the consumption of others. The work wants to be shown. In my practice, I am interested in making work that is grounded in specificity but that hopefully resonates universally. I use elements that are inevitably drawn from my own culture, family traditions, and experiences and try to translate them to a form that speaks to people from all cultural backgrounds. I believe I found myself in a cosmopolitan city like New York, because I was genuinely curious about my connection with other people through painting. I want to keep pushing the boundaries, and see where it takes me. My work could resonate with a certain audience at one time period and a completely different set of people could unexpectedly resonate with my work at another time.
AE: What or who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
SB: I found some of my earliest influences in music, specifically punk-rock. I was listening to bands like the Talking Heads, Green Day, Patti Smith, Sum 41 etc and if I wasn’t completely unable to express myself in anything other than painting, I would most certainly be a musician.
Visual art became important to me when I started seeing my mother sketching, she would mostly draw horses as her father and brother were both professional polo players. I found that medium closer to home. She exposed me to paintings by Sadequain, Zubeida Agha, Gulgee, Zahoor Ikhlaq, Chugtai, etc. which was a whole different world for me. I knew I needed to be a part of that.
As I moved to the US, I was fortunate enough to add more vocabulary to my visual language. I was deeply moved and impressed by Kerry James Marshall, specifically when I saw his retrospective at The New Museum. The show hit me hard; his unequivocal pursuit of black beauty, his figures occupying the paintings with a sense of authority and belonging, and all the while having an extraordinary painterly mastery. One of the most unforgettable moments in the New York art world, in my opinion.
I also have a strong love for Sigmar Polke, I love his use of a wide array of different mediums where there isn’t one defined style. I believe in constant evolution and the lack of formulaic expression in my own practice, which is why Polke’s approach to artmaking has always left me in awe.
AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2023?
SB: This year, I’m attending the Macedonia Institute for an art residency in upstate New York in May, Moosey residency in Norwich, UK in October and a solo show at Kapow gallery in late October!
SANIÉ BOKHARI ONLINE: