Hiba Schahbaz Retakes Ownership of the Female Figure

By Trina Calderón on October 16, 2018

Pakistani-born painter Hiba Schahbaz illuminates her own history through her lovely imagery of the feminine, and upon closer look, reveals her own face on all the women she paints. Educated at art school in Sindh, Pakistan and graduate study at Pratt Institute of Art, today Hiba works in her studio in Brooklyn, creating scenes for women to live in. She invites her viewers to understand how a woman exists today, through a lens that hints at the past. At first small, her paintings have evolved into large, life-size figures, lending themselves to installation and new ways of exhibition. The Garden, her latest solo exhibit, is showing at New Image Gallery in Los Angeles through October 27th. PRØHBTD visited her while she was installing and talked to her about her new larger-than-life work, painting in Brooklyn and the female protagonist in art.

You speak in an ancient language in a contemporary feminine voice. What does that mean for you?

I trained as a miniaturist, which is this really old form of painting. Miniature painting, by the time it reached the Indo-Persian subcontinent, already had Mongol influences and Celtic influences. It was really far back, with the idea from illuminated manuscripts. It all comes from text and making illustrations for text. It was prevalent in the England subcontinent [colonies] because a lot of people couldn't read as well. The pictures were really important, and it's such a traditional art form, just historical narratives. Then the Persians kept illustrating the Shahnameh, which is this epic poem. We were all trained miniaturists in that kind of flow where we're illustrating and documenting the present and history, and there's a lot of culture involved.

When I moved here, I tried to incorporate what I wanted to make and how I was feeling in today's world with what I had learned about my history and my tradition. Like what you've learned and how you've become yourself when you come from a place with a very rich history, and how you find your own voice within that, especially as you work.

Tell me about your origin story as an artist. Were you encouraged by your family?

I think it was just genetic. My father used to paint, and my mom knew how to paint. My dad went to the same art school I went to, but he stopped painting, and he worked in television as a set designer back in Pakistan. We had one TV channel. My mum gave up painting and became a librarian, but she would still color with us. And it wasn't encouraged as such. My parents wanted me to become a doctor. They didn't really want this unstable life for me. They did push hard against it, which is fine. I guess it's their job to make sure I can take care of myself. There was a bit of back and forth with that. I like to think that by now they've given up.

You went back and forth and then you were like, "I want to go to art school”?

Yeah. But there was no back and forth. Like I knew, and I went to the art school. That was the only school I applied to, and I got in despite the fact that my dad called his friends there and asked them to fail me.

He did?

Yeah. But the principal had just changed, and they have a very strict policy. They only take in five or six students from the area I'm in, and I think I came second in their drawing test so they were like, "We have to take her."

I lived a very typical Pakistani life throughout my 20s. I got married when I was 25 or 26. I was working there as an artist, but more as an educator. Just because I painted naked women, and you can't really show that. I had a studio in my house, and I would just work quietly. I would exhibit sometimes, but nothing like what you're seeing. Very small paintings. None of them had any faces.

Were there places that would let you show that work?

There were a few galleries, but I just didn't show a lot. Then I decided I wanted to leave, and I ended up in New York by chance. My husband chose the city because he went to NYU and my brother lives there. Him and my brother were best friends from childhood, so he had people here, and I didn't know anything about this country. I was just kind of like, "Yeah, whatever." It worked out.

The protagonist in your work is the woman, the female—but it's also you.

Yes. I think me painting my own face was the starting point for most of my work. Before, I didn't paint faces at all. I started painting them a few years ago. But I would still use myself as a reference, and I feel like earlier on, the paintings were more narrative. But as time went by, they became different because, when I moved to New York and I made my work more public, a lot of women reached out, and a lot of women visited the studio. Just artists, writers, chefs, people who just call, and they want to come by, and they just want to sit with the paintings.

I began realizing that the work started shifting a lot. It stopped just being about me and then a lot of the faces started. There was more variation in the painting. A lot of those things are happening right now. It's hard for me to identify exactly what they are because they're kind of in process. It's easier when you look back.

When I look back, I can remember not painting faces, and I remember the first self portrait I did was in profile, and I had this gag around my mouth, like a red gag. After that, I just painted profiles for a couple of years and then she turned to face the viewer. It is kind of this process of a few years, which I was just sort of doing, but when I look back, it was also a personal evolution from being much more subdued about my work and not really acknowledging it as much to a whole process of self acceptance and maybe a little more understanding.

Very much a parallel to being a woman in general?

Yeah, I agree. I think when you're younger, you’re always trying to be perfect and also just living up to everyone's expectations. It takes a while to realize, at least it took me a while to realize, that I'm a person, too. And that's okay. It's not something that should be frowned upon. That took a while.

In your works, many of the poses and scenes the females are in feel related to classic archetypes.

Are you inspired by any specifically?  

Well, I did a painting based on the Odalisque, the original [GrandeOdalisque, but she's a brown woman, and it's an old masterpiece by [Jean Auguste Dominique] Ingres. It's this epic painting, and it's this beautiful lady, and she's turning around, but she has this really long spine because she was painted with a really long spine. I was trying to sit as her, and I sprained my neck because it just was impossible to turn around completely and make eye contact.

All these male masters were painting these gorgeous women, and they were just painting them as however they want, and why was I always trying to paint realistically? Don't I have rights over the female body? I started repainting her obsessively, and I started going through all these masterpieces and trying to figure out who was painting what. And also, teaching myself a lot about art history in the process because most of the artistry I had was the history of miniature painting so American art, contemporary art, European art, it was not my forte. I had to learn it all, and in learning it all, I found all these women and started repainting them as brown women. I think that was very instinctive in a way because I'm a brown woman. But not all of them, some of them. Just trying to retake ownership of the female body, which has been painted throughout history by men.

One thing I struggled with when I moved here was that I felt like there's this fear of the women in the U.S. It struck me as odd because, I mean, I know I come from a different place, and we don't have rights over there, so who's going to be afraid of us anyway. I also felt like beauty was considered to be a weapon over here. Whereas, in the Eastern world, it's considered to be like, if a woman dresses up for you, for anyone, whether it's for another woman or a lunch or a man, it's a gift. She's doing it to respect you, and she's doing it to respect her surroundings. She's not doing it to get one up over you or to manipulate you.

These things were very new to me, and the more they were pushed at me, I felt one of the few privileges I had in the Eastern world—that it was okay to be a girl—was being taken from me. I think that became important in my paintings. I wanted them to be themselves, not just physically, but I wanted to have a space where women could be without being looked at in a particular way or being judged for whatever reason: being too sad, being too thin, being too ugly, being too pretty. It's always someone else's opinion, and what you're doing, whether you're having kids, whether you're cooking, it's one thing or the other. No one judges. It's always about us.


I wanted to create this space in my studio, which was very female centric and where it was a safe space for women, and I think that's when they became larger than life. I started gravitating more towards reds, pinks and colors I felt like I wanted to paint, as opposed to the more traditional colors that I felt I should paint with within the canon of art history.

Are you choosing to work with materials—not only because of the aesthetic and the visual meaning—but thematically and what it connects again to you and this tradition?

Yeah. I use paper, which is kind of the underdog of the art world because it's fragile. It's paper, not canvas.

Handmade paper.

It is. It's all handmade. It's exquisite paper. It's the best, and it's very durable, and I use watercolor on it, but I don't apply traditional watercolor.

You're using teas and more natural materials.

I use a lot of teas. We come from a colonized tea drinking culture. I've always drunk tea. Drinking tea is a big part of our lifestyle. I started painting with it, and that was a miniature technique in which tea was used, a small percentage. It just evolved that I started painting all my bodies with tea, and I feel much more connected to them. And every time I make a tea wash it's different, and I struggle with it a little.

It's like matching paint.

So you get it, right?

I do. But it makes it unique. It’s like having a hand-dyed piece of clothing.

Yes. I like it. I like the ritual of it. I like the smell of it. I like the cultural connection I have with it. For me, using a brown paint wouldn't have the same feeling, and most of making the painting is, I guess as any artist, a selfish act. I have to feel connected to the painting. It’s the sort of artist I am. I need to be connected to what I'm doing because, if I'm not, I can't make it, and I'll never finish it, and she'll just lie in the studio for years and years. The tea is important, and I've used a few different pigments and watercolors. For the tea, it's a constant. I think she anchors, like tea anchors me a little. I stopped drinking it.

You have?

Yes. I drink it every time I go home. I don't drink it here. I use all my tea in my art.

That's a cool relationship to have with it now.

Yes, and while you're making the wash, it's like being at home, and you're smelling the tea cooking in your kitchen. There is something nice to it. The paper is a bit fragile as far as art materials go, but it's also strong. I have used quite a few types of papers. Although, until recently, I only used one kind. I was only using very traditional paper for miniature painting, while I was doing miniatures. In fact, I don't think I painted anything other than miniatures until I was 30-something.

Your personal evolution transcended into your art, affecting how you see yourself in a bigger context.

I think so. It's all connected somehow. It's hard for me to see the patterns because I'm so close to it, but with time, I'm able to identify how me and the work have been changing together.

What does it mean, for you, to be Pakistani-American?

I have a Pakistani passport and an American passport. I feel very connected to my country as well because I grew up there, and I did choose to leave it. But I go home four times a year to see my parents and my family so I do remain very connected to it. The rest of the time I'm here. Initially when I moved here, it felt like a totally alien space, but I adapt really fast, and New York is an amazing city. Just the energy. There's a lot of motivated people. There's a lot of art. I mean, there's so much art!

For an artist, I think I'm really lucky. I didn't know any better, but I ended up in the right place, and it's very fulfilling in many ways to have that kind of energy around you to drive, to push you. I think when you are in this situation where you have 5,000 other artists working, you naturally strive to work, and you naturally strive to be good at what you do. There's just no room for anything else, and I think that was good for me. It's so multicultural, and I grew up in one country pretty much all my life, and it really helped me understand people and the world in general. Although now I think every place is like New York, and it's not.

Has there been any connection back to Pakistan for your artwork and for other artists seeing it and communicating with you about it?

Yes, and for the galleries, it's too much of a liability. People invite you to show, and they'll be like, "Why don't you bring your work, but bring something else? Big landscapes." That feels like a rejection, you know?

Yeah, don't ask if you don't want it or if you want me, but you don't actually want me. You want me to be someone else. In part, I'm kind of used to that because it's always been there ever since... because I've been drawing the body for so long, and it's a been a problem for so long. But it still hurts a little when you hear it.

It hurts me to hear it, as a woman and as someone who appreciates human culture. It is hard.

Yes. I feel connected to the work so I feel like it's a rejection of me, but I realize that it's not. It just doesn't fit into that place right now, and maybe sometime it will. I don't know, but not right now. I think New York has been great like that because I had never met such an accepting bunch of people in my life. New Yorkers, I think we're all a little crazy, which is why we all kind of accept each other's craziness and we push it forward. We're like, "Yeah, that's nuts. Do it. Paint that."

I think being in a city like that where there are so many cultures and there is such a high acceptance level has been good for me to do. It's allowed me to open up in a way that I never thought I would. I never thought I could have this conversation or that I'd be here.

I'm touched. Thank you. It's also special that you happen to be in the U.S. and making art during this women's movement.

That's true. Yes.

Has that impacted any of the choices you started making about some of your subjects? Has it inspired you?

It probably has. It's hard for me to find out exactly where. When I look at the work in retrospect, I'll probably see threads, and I'll probably be able to identify what was happening when I painted a certain painting, but right now, because the work is so fresh, it's really hard for me to see. But it's been interesting to just be a part of that and to live in a society in which the women are working so hard. You have to fight for your rights. No one is going to give them to you. There are a lot of places in the world where we are not even at that point where we can fight for those rights or we have the basic rights.

I think American women are so strong. They have taught me so much about being strong and that I can be strong in a totally different way from what I knew. That's been very interesting. I feel like that's been part of the evolution of me thinking about what I paint, me being able to paint it and me being able to put it out there, which I would never have done 10 years ago. I would've kept it secret. I think it's because of collective strength and support.

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