Prominent Pakistani artist Ali Kazim is currently focused on his next exhibition, scheduled for 2021 at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford in the UK, and comments that he has not felt any significant changes in his work since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he acknowledges that the art world will be severely affected as economies struggle to survive or collapse as a result of this virus that continues to affect the world in various aspects of life.
Kazim, 46, was born and raised in Pakistan. He graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan (2002) and then earned his Master of Fine Arts from Slade College of Fine Arts in London, UK (2011). He now lives and works as a multidisciplinary artist in Lahore, where he is also a teaching assistant at the National College of Arts.
Although Kazim has worked with various genres and techniques, he has been noted for his portraits, in which he portrays real people in surreal settings with powerful colorful backgrounds.
Kazim's work has been exhibited at the most renowned fairs and exhibitions around the world, such as the Frieze art fair in New York in 2019. His works were also collected by the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the Asia Pacific Museum, the British Museum, the Queensland Art Gallery in Australia, among others.
In an interview with Global Voices, Ali Kazim talks about his fascination with the human body, his inspiration for landscapes, his current work, and everything we should know about art in Pakistan. Here excerpts from the interview:
I've noticed that you have a certain fascination with the human body since you started drawing the human figure in 2002. How has this influenced what art means to you?
I think the human body is such a fascinating form. It is complex both in its physicality and as a thematic concern. The body, which is core to performing everyday functions, keeps doing its tasks even most of the time without our conscious knowledge, while it goes through various emotional and spiritual stresses. The figurative works I've produced perhaps are glimpses of those moments it goes through.
Ali Kazim: I think the human body has a fascinating shape, as it is complex both in its physical and thematic form. The body, which is the core of all the functions we carry out, continues to perform its tasks, most of the time without our conscious awareness, as we go through various emotional and spiritual trances. The figurative works I do barely reveal all those moments we go through.
Is there a relationship between your work on the history of the landscape and the human body in terms of the technique you use (painting or drawing) and the meaning of your work?
I wanted to make some portraits or images based on human figures. I wanted to start with my own explanations, but at that point I didn't really know where to start until I came across a replica of the Priest King (a small, white, lo- fired steatite statue from the Indus Valley civilization) at Lahore museum.
That is probably the earliest example of a portrait that has survived in this part of the world. It gave me a reason to make sketches of it and then a portrait of the Priest King. I developed a new body of work from there. I wanted to create tales by placing one or two elements next to the portraits, whether it was a prayer cap, a parrot, or a shaving razor.
I fell in love with the watercolor wash technique. I was gradually discovering the possibilities of constructing the images by adding thin layers of colored washes, removing extra pigment from the surface and rendering it with tiny brushes. I guess in that way the formal aspects of the work became important for me.
In early 2013 I started visiting the excavated Harrapan sites near my hometown. The Ruins series landscapes are based on the mounds of the Indus Valley civilization. I think they are in a way collective portraits of the people who may have lived there. I was more interested in these sorts of historical connections.
AK: I wanted to make some portraits or images that were based on the human figure. I wanted to start with my own explanations, but actually, I didn't even know where to start until I found a replica of the work of The King Priest (small soapstone-carved white statue of Indus Valley culture) in the Lahore museum.
It is probably one of the earliest examples of a portrait, and one that has endured on this side of the world. This motivated me to start drawing sketches and later make the portrait of the King Priest. This is how I developed a new line of work: my intention was to create narratives through one or two elements depicted next to the portraits, such as a prayer cap, a parakeet or a razor.
I loved the technique of watercolor washing, as I gradually discovered all the possibilities in which images can be built by adding thin layers of color, removing excess pigment from the surface, as well as its representation with small brush strokes. I think that was how the formal aspects of my work became important to me.
In early 2013 I started going to the site of the excavations of Harappa, that are close to my hometown. What's more, the Las Ruinas series is inspired by the mounds of the Indus Valley civilization. I think they are somehow collective portraits of people who may have lived there. I was more interested in those kinds of historical connections.
You have been very active internationally: you have exhibited your work in the most important cities in the world; The Metropolitan Museum even acquired your work. How did the Arts community in Lahore and Pakistan receive your work?
AK: It’s such an honor that some prestigious institutions around the world have acquired my work over a period of time. I've been actively exhibiting in Pakistan since the beginning of my career. I was invited to make a large human hair sculpture / drawing for the first edition of the Karachi Biennale in 2017.
The project was appreciated well; I received the jury’s prize at the very first biennale of Pakistan. Then the next year for the inaugural edition of the Lahore Biennale I made a large installation called “Untitled (Ruins of the lovers temple)” in a public garden with five thousand life-size terracotta hearts.
Towards the end of the biennale, people were allowed to pluck hearts from the walls of the ruins. I later traced this and was surprised to see how people showed so much care for the fragile terracotta hearts they picked up from the site or gifted it to their loved ones. The project is living its new life.
My recent large-scale watercolor drawing “The Conference of the Birds” was exhibited last year in the Karachi Biennale and this year I did two projects for the Lahore Biennale, including a large installation of 3,000 unbaked clay birds at an abandoned brick factory. The installation lasted until the rain fell. The process of the clay birds turning to earth was very beautiful and poetic.
AK: It has been a great honor for me that some of the most prestigious institutions in the world have acquired my work for some time. I have been exhibiting my work in Pakistan continuously since I started my career. Also, I was invited to create a sculpture / drawing of a giant human hair for the first edition of the Karachi Biennale 2017.
The project was well received. The jury awarded me the award at the first Pakistan biennial. The following year, for the inaugural edition of the Lahore Biennial, I exhibited a large art installation that I called “Untitled (The Ruins of the Temple of Lovers).” It was made with 5000 terracotta hearts, in real size, and I exhibited it in a public park.
Almost by the end of the biennial, they let people rip hearts from the walls of the ruins. Some time later, I began to trace this event and was amazed to see how hard people cared for these fragile terracotta hearts or gave them away to their loved ones. Now the project is living a new life.
My most recent work was a large-scale watercolor painting called “The Bird Assembly.” It was exhibited at the 2019 Karachi Biennale. This year I also did two projects with the Lahore Biennial: a large display of 3,000 clay birds without a kiln in an abandoned brick-built factory. The work lasted until the rainy season began. The process of seeing how the mud birds became mud was beautiful and poetic.
What does art in Pakistan offer that the whole world should know and seek?
Apart from contemporary art, the region has more to offer. There are fascinating cave engravings from the Paleolithic age in the north of Pakistan. The magical terracotta artifacts from the Indus Valley Civilization are amazing. The Gandhara sculptures, which truly are remarkable in their appearance. It’s hard to take your eyes off the Fasting Buddha at Lahore Museum. These Gandharan sculptures in many ways are the first examples of the earliest form of globalization.
It is fascinating to see how a new genre of sculpture developed when the Indo-Greek styles emerged. Then the Mughal miniature paintings are a visual treat. The two main cities, Lahore and Karachi, have successfully held two editions of the biennales each year since 2017. That has started a new era, with local people getting a chance to see some amazing works from Pakistani and international artists. This year the Lahore Literary Festival’s dates overlapped with the Lahore Biennale towards the closing week.
AK: In addition to contemporary art, the region has a lot to offer. For example, there are some cave carvings in northern Pakistan that date back to the Paleolithic. The wonderful terracotta artifacts of the Indus Valley Civilization are spectacular. There are also the Gandhara sculptures, whose appearance is truly exquisite. The truth is that you can't miss seeing The Fasting Buddha, which is in the Lahore Museum. These Gandhara sculptures are, in some way, the first examples of the first forms of globalization.
It is fascinating to see how a new genre evolved when the Indo-Greek styles emerged, not to mention that Mughal miniature paintings are a real delight to behold. The two main cities, Lahore and Karachi, have been successful venues for the two biennial editions every year since 2017. This marks the beginning of a new era, where locals have the opportunity to see the most wonderful works of both Pakistani artists like international artists. In 2020, the dates of the Lahore Literary Festival coincided towards the closing week with the Lahore Biennial.
What artist or artists would you say have influenced your work?
AK: There are many artists I admire very much. I am completely in love with Doris Salcedo, Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Cornelia Parker, Robert Gobber, and Vija Celmins ’work. I have just realized that most of my favorite artists are female. Their work is much informed, emotionally charged and very intelligently made with loads of patience. I think everything is there. They have produced immaculate works over the period of time.
My works on paper technique owe much to the Bengal School’s watercolorists. I've learned a lot by observing their paintings that are in public collections in Lahore, and have also seen some in Delhi.
AK: There are many artists whom I admire very much. For example, I love the work of Doris Salcedo, Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Cornelia Parker, Robert Gobber, and Vija Celmins. I realize that most of my favorite artists are women. His work is very well informed, emotionally charged and done very intelligently and with great patience. I think they have everything, because over time they have produced perfect works.
I owe my work with paper technique, in large part, to the watercolor technique of the Bengal School. I learned a lot by looking at the works, which are already public collections in Lahore. I have also seen some in Delhi.
Art schools do not create / produce artists, but if that were true, what is the real expectation of these institutions regarding the artistic processes of each person?
AK: I think art schools provide an environment where one tests ideas and talks about them with the fellow striving young artists. Some of them will continue study practice; others will advance in related fields such as art writing, curation, galleries, art fabrication etc. They also can create their own circle of creative people while going to the school. Schools offer graduates the ability to showcase their best to the world and take chances. They get connected with the art world. These are important steps to practically enter the art world.
AK: I think art schools provide a place where you can test ideas and where you can talk about it with other aspiring artists. Some will continue their study practices; others will go to other areas, such as writing, art healing, galleries or artistic production. Schools offer their graduates the opportunity to display their best works to the world and to be risky. It connects them to the art world. These steps are very important to be able to enter this world.