• MEET THE ARTIST

    GILLIAN SNEED INTERVIEWS MAIRA ABBASI

     

  • Gillian Sneed: You have traveled extensively, something that clearly factors within your art and work- the architectural works specifically. With such an endless and rich source of personal reference and subject (from the Abbasi palaces, to the Derawar fort in the heart of the mystical Cholistan desert) you could have easily spent a lifetime focused on this area. What led to the other series of works (like moon, tree and motion and movement)?

  • Maira Abbasi: Early on in my career my inspiration focused largely on the wealth of tangible remnants left behind by my grandfather and ancestors, I felt compelled to keep alive the grandeur of days of old through my work, but as time went on I felt that as an artist I wanted to belong to a larger community and world and reach beyond the geographical boundaries, broadening my horizons to include architecture which encompasses the ideology, rather than limit myself just to my own heritage. Thus, the Moroccan and Spanish architectural works became. After moving to the states, I reached beyond the purely architectural works to include the relationship of the humans to nature such as the correlation to The Moon and The Tree of Life. In essence it is an extension of the spirit of the elements found in the inherent culture and thought process found in Islamic Architecture. The Moon is very much an extension of the romanticized elements of Architecture such as filtered light, fountains mirrored hallways incense, the entrancing dance of the Turkish Dervish dancers and the metaphors found in poetry in Sufism. Many elements are correlated such as cultural events based on the Sighting of the moon ... superstitions all steeped in drama and mystery.

    The Tree of Life series like the Movement and Motion works are inspired by the stylized motifs found in Architectural infinite decorative patterns. For example; the Tree being life sustaining like the Fountains water being a source of life in desert regions. Much of my inspiration is derived from regions where Trees and Fountains are synonymous to survival itself. Calligraphy part of the Movement and Motion series is an homage to the highly stylized motifs of curved and straight lines which one does not have to decipher and read in order to feel the mesmerizing dance and intricacies. One has to reach out into the world beyond one's singularity and I have tried to do that through my work to pay an homage to various dynasties other than the Abbasid Caliphate.

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    Gillian Sneed: You work with a focus on the elements, different projects divided according to theme and topic, how does this work in terms of your creative process? Is a fluid moving between the categories according to which is inspiring the most at a given time, or are you very much working in periods (i.e., the collage works will be a focus of your creative work for a period and this will be your only focus)? Are any of the specific genres more difficult or complex creatively, and Do you have a favorite at all?

  • Maria Abbasi: My work can be compartmentalized into four major themes, Architecture, Moon, Tree of life and Movement and Motion series- the elements of each series have a specific correlation and are interrelated to a singular concept. They stem from a single inspiration that branches into the various galleries each one supported by the other. Architecture is seen to have all the elements in its highly decorative adornments that are found for instance in the paintings like "Movement and Motion", or "Calligraphic Medallion". The Moon and Tree of life series revolves around the romanticism and relationship found in the philosophy found in Middle Eastern Architecture be it the life sustaining water bodies such as Fountains for example Reflective Pool, water being life sustaining in desert regions, or the symbolism of growth, shelter, sustainable of Trees. Each one is entwined with the spirit of humans and their relationship to Nature and Architecture.  The Moon stands for the soulful ambiance of the bygone days, the silent Palaces and many cultural influences. Such as the sighting of the new moon, the Sufi poets. As I create the process is seamless since the vision is the same and segments of a larger whole. To create a captivating Art work void largely of the human element that embodies spirituality is an exciting challenge.The most complex series I find to work on are both the Architectural and Paper Collage works.  I would say my personal favorite is The Architectural works since they provide a theme which is so steeped in mystery, atmosphere and it is the perfect platform for me to incorporate all elements such as textures, dimensions, decorative elements and my signature of three-dimensional wood panels. Some of my personal favorites are "The Woman in The Window", "Oxidized Tree of Life", "Movement and Motion", "Emerald Courtyard", "Full Moon Gathering", "Lapis Tree of Life", and "Silent Room". Each one is created as though I have a personal relationship with them. Each one is a part of myself.

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    Gillian Sneed: How did each of the body of work begin, is it an organic process of very much a choreographed, strategic journey to create new genres and series?

    Mara Abbasi: The seed of each work is very much choreographed, planned and imagined initially to develop into an end product envisioned in my mind. The theme, subject matter, light, color palette is all planned ahead of the actual work. Once I start the creative process and the journey of each painting it is synonymous to life itself for me, I can plan but the road may take a surprising turn.

     

    Very much like Jazz I use the building blocks of my initial idea and vision and build upon it, meaning it's an organic process of development, which comes into play and the work unfolds and takes a life of its own. Though throughout I balance the vision of how I want the work to be seen and the natural impulsive creative process. The series of works are interrelated to an extent to the human element of emotions and ideas.

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    Gillian Sneed: As a female artist, with Eastern origins, influences and nuance, how is your artistic identity shaped or altered by also essentially being an "American artist" too? By this I mean, you have lived, created and exhibited in the US- your home- for many years, how is this married and changed (if at all) by your history and origins? Can you define your artistic identity?

    Maira Abbasi: Having not been born in USA I have definitely felt that I may lack the advantage of my counterparts born, educated and raised here have had the luxury of familiarity, though the world at large is no longer confounded by geographical limits thanks to the explosion of electronic media that brings to your doorstep visions and stories from across the four corners of the world.  

  • In a nutshell Breaking the glass ceiling has been a challenge ever since I immigrated almost two decades ago. The road to success is paved by hardships for many, and Art is mostly born out of pain, love, passion and a void that is always yearning to be fulfilled. There is a challenge to introduce a new idea or concept as a society we seldom want to be challenged to explore beyond comfort zones and set presidents.

     

     

  • 'I hold my audience to a very high standard since there is a unique blend of various cultures that all...

    MAIRA ABBASI'S GRANDFATHER; THE LATE NAWAB SIR SADIQ MUHAMMAD KHAN ABBASI V

    "I hold my audience to a very high standard since there is a unique blend of various cultures that all empty into the same vessel... I feel I have the benefit of a unique perspective of creating from actual experiences of the sights, sounds and richness of my heritage that dates back to 752c."  -MAIRA ABBASI 

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    Maira Abbasi: Originating from the East does bring with it an unknown world, yet it also offers an exotic element. As an Artist living and working in the US, I find it exciting to open the doors to this exotic world to my audience. Essentially my subject matter has not changed though it has evolved in the technique that I use. As I have assimilated so has my work to a degree and although I do believe in growth and progress and assimilation, I feel it is imperative to have anchors as is said KNOW THYSELF.

    As a Pakistani American Artist, I am privileged to have a unique platform rich in diversity and a patchwork. My work is very much steeped in my heritage of the grandeur of palaces of old mystical desert stories and haunting Forts.    

     

     

    Gillian Sneed: Your work is unlike any other, and like all truly impactful art- it doesn't fit into a box, or any category. Do you feel a pressure to comply with trends, be more commercial or marketable with your work, and how do you silence the "noise" as an artist from such pressures and continue to create unique works without influence?

    Maira Abbasi: Claude Monet... Vermeer... Cezanne... Gauguin... Monet... Seurat last but not least Van Gogh all faced rejection from society and their peers, many died improvised not having seen the impact their Art has on the world. Of course, having said that I by all means would never dare to presume I am comparing myself to the Gods of Impressionism. Art is in all honesty a constant struggle to fight the pressures of commercialism and not to give in to the tide and trends of the time, but as a creator I cannot be dishonest to myself and my vision, to seek the pleasure of the larger audience. The dichotomy is a constant challenge I create to serve my audience yet cannot put before them works not created from my heart and the depths of my soul. DNA embodies not just appearances but human behavior of one's self as well and I paint what I carry within. The ultimate prize is validation from my audience and the art community, remaining true and authentic to myself; inherit nature, history and identity.

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    Gillian Sneed: Your works go beyond painting and create worlds and a more sensory experience, many of them you invite the viewer to touch and feel. You are breaking boundaries and established norms with your work, yet it is also deeply rooted in tradition, and history. How do you prioritize legacy and history with being a contemporary artist, is one more important to you than the other and is this juxtaposition a conscious one or something intuitive?

    Maira Abbasi: The Greeks aphorism says it best "Know thy self". Are we all not in search of our roots and origins and in search of what defines us. More than ever the world we live in today appreciates the value of individuality and identity I find comfort in my heritage and origins. My Art can only be pure and truthful if It is created and anchored to my identity and it is the only way I can see it grow and develop into what I hope is timeless. In order to reinvent, assimilate and grow as a contemporary artist I have made an attempt to strike a balance between the old and new world , the past linked to the present the Yin and Yang. The need comes naturally to me to look beyond my past into the future as does the Tree of Life series symbolizes roots anchoring it firmly so that it may grow upwards with the promise of the future.In the current trends seen in the art world at times I do find that I may be taking a chance and the harder path but creativity comes from the depths of one's soul and I cannot create if I do not believe in the vision I want to transform from an idea to a reality. My work like life itself is a constant balance between the past and the future- a journey from what was to what is. The subject matter may be inclined to be old but it is my endeavor to execute it in a contemporary manner. We yearn to touch and be touched. It is a primeval instinct which is there from infancy, thus I have attempted to create in my paintings the textures and dimensional feel to enhance the experience of my audience from a purely visual to a multi-sensory experience.

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    Gillian Sneed: In such times as these, when artists are battling with a new and unprecedented structure and reality, exhibitions and art fairs cancelled and postponed, how do you create and plan ahead, has your daily reality and creativity changed, suffered or altered and in what way? 

    Maira Abbasi: The unique times that the world is going through is a once a lifetime occurrence, riddled with economic uncertainties, world over. The art fairs world over has been cancelled, gallery shows postponed, upheaval, chaos has no doubt brought all the present and future plans to a grinding halt. I have spent this time reaching out to online virtual platforms ... a lot of self-reflection and soul searching of putting life into perspective with the realization of how precious time is and how easily one can be robbed of it. It has been a period of fear, pain and suffering with monumental loss of life, the world in front of which I have felt my own professional loss of time and canceled shows pale in comparison. As a human being the loss of those who have lost their loved ones to this pandemic is far greater than the disappointment, I may have faced in personal goals not being achieved. My region at one point had the highest cases and deaths in the world, seeing the beautiful city of NYC so full of life and vibrancy, Broadway, galleries, suffer so much made me go through a period of such deep sorrow I could not create till I started to find solace in the colors, peace in my art, and immense gratitude for the gift of life. The period of hibernation has in some ways also provided a time of less distractions it has been surreal to say the least. At times one feels periods of impatience since we are so surrounded by uncertainty it is hard to plan future exhibitions or accept international shows since the impact on live audiences, travel has all been impacted. I like many others, have felt humbled and have had to adjust my personal and professional expectations greatly.  

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    Gillian Sneed: What are your plans and hopes for the future, connecting with your audience and having your work seen? 

    Maira Abbasi: As an artist like many others I offer a piece of my soul humbly before the viewer in the hope that it is acceptable and received well and connects with the world that exists around me. We all seek acceptance and approval from a young age as an artist I seek the same approval. My work may be far from perfection, but it is explicit to quote, Tai-T'Ung "Were I to await for perfection, my book would never be finished." 

     

    Your recent works have evolved into a more sculptural territory, combining three- dimensional elemental that invite the viewer to become a part of the work in what is connecting the work in a physical way. Do you envision your work transcending the medium of "painting" and becoming more sculptural or even installation? 

    As a student I very much was drawn to sculpture but while researching for my thesis, and towards my final year I got more intrigued by painting and executing it not merely as a two-dimensional art -but presenting it as a three-dimensional art form. It has been a journey in reverse from sculpture to painting. I look at art as the personification of a human being; in that the body is a three-dimensional vessel that holds the soul and spirit. In many ways my three-dimensional wood panels are the vessel and platform for my textures, color, subject matter and content. I have done installations in the past of three-dimensional Glass pyramids painted over with the various stages of human emotions, as well as an installation at the American Center Pakistan on World Earth Day where a sculpture with painted hands suffocated by plastic are trying to break free. This work was featured on the cover of WWL magazine. Also, amongst the sculpture projects was a Clay Urn exhibited in the sixth Pakistan National Exhibition, it drew a lot of attention in the Newspaper and caught the attention of the then President of the country. One of my interesting Art installations was at the residence of the American Ambassador to Pakistan, of a larger than life 20- foot parchment Mobile of the Declaration Of Independence.  

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    Gillian Sneed: How do you consciously challenge yourself, evolving and progressing your style and message? Are you more influenced by viewer response and feedback, or by gallery/industry direction- or do you try to block outside influence to focus on your own message only? 

    Maira Abbasi: Creation is at times a stubborn process for me, I link it with myself, beliefs and integrity whereby I stand by myself and am honest to my creative vision. This is not to disrespect my audience or peers, but rather a belief that an artist should not sway with the ever-changing winds of time and stay true to character and their creative impulse. However I greatly value the feedback of professionals and my audience and I am open to absorbing critique and advice which I retain and absorb, since I have never claimed to have perfected my art or vision and am a student for life, Art is an extension of myself room to grow, improve, change, assimilate, far from perfection yet trying to be true to myself, and not diluting my core to please the masses.   

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    Gillian Sneed: You have participated in art fairs where your work is shown in a highly saturated environment, with a great deal of artists' works who's differ greatly from yours, does this impact your focus, thoughts or practice at all, and how if at all do you change your vision when it is showcased alongside other more "commercial" artists ? 

     

    Maira Abbasi: The art shows that I have participated at were a treat for me under one roof one sees the tangible diversity and creativity of so many artists. We are all just as diverse in our art as we are as individuals. I am an audience as well as a participating artist at exhibitions, I would not presume to judge the quality of the works of any artist and deem them as commercial. My philosophy is very simple I adhere to and stand by my style of work with resolve, my work and I are one and the same, there may be an element of anxiousness since I realize I am going against the demand and trends of the time, but art is meant to be provoking, challenging and break barriers. I first and foremost paint from the heart for myself commercialism takes that gift to one's self away. At fairs I have often wondered that the work that is mirroring my inner self is so different it brings to the forefront of how different I really am and how much of a struggle it is to be accepted. we do live in a global village and work ought to transcend geographical boundaries. But we do live in a global village and work ought to transcend geographical boundaries.  

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    Gillian Sneed: Finally, what do you hope for the audience to feel upon seeing your work, what is the message and take away from your art? 

    Maira Abbasi: Music composed but not heard, a book written but not read, art created but not seen, the full circle is the age-old relationship between the creator and the audience has always existed throughout history ... My creative impulse and hunger is satisfied when I produce the work but ultimately it is validated when it is presented in-front of an audience. One cannot exist for me without the other. It is my hope that through my work I can ignite a social dialogue and bridge a gap between the diversity in the world. To present a work that brings joy and takes my audience onto a journey where they step into a world of wonder, beauty, soulfulness and bring a calm to the storm that rages in the world and within ourselves. I hope to bring to the forefront the unique beauty that exists in the language of Islamic Art and architecture and present it in a contemporary manner where age old subject matter assimilates into the modern age we live in today. Last but not least every idea, every thought is unique on its own individuality is the flavor and spice of life and even though my work may not embody the trends of today it is hoped that my audience can have a peek into an exotic world that has long since been silenced. As Andy Warhol said it best "the idea is not to live forever but to create something that will."