In conversation with Sophiya Khwaja

Ilona Yusuf, Blue Chip, June 11, 2013

Talking to Sophiya Khwaja immediately reminds one that she trained as a classical dancer. This fluidity of motion, evident in her physical movements, characterises the early compositions from her years at NCA and at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she mastered in printmaking as a Fulbright scholar.


Sophiya’s early work, from the thesis work done at NCA through to the end of her time at Rhode Island, is defined by flowing figures, lines and stitching. Many of the themes are almost idealistic, and the lines as well as the figures are connected to one another. In retrospect, she remarks, “Two years ago, I had a lot of time and I would spend it sketching. Myself, other people, individual features, or different body parts which I would then join together. While I was sketching I wasn’t thinking of a setting or a composition but of a form. In one of the prints that depicts a mushroom cloud I was thinking of war, of bombs, and so on.” Bodies, small and large, cling to one another, fall away from each other, hands reach out to grasp each other, all of them linked in some way. “I relate this concept to the idea that as a classical dancer, one tries to depict time or animals or expressions through gestures, using one’s own form and movements without any props: like fitting figures into a form, so that the figures themselves make the form.”


Working in New York, Sophiya had the opportunity and the space to work with a large format, so that the prints dating from this period are very large, over two by four feet each. “I made about four plates per year, and I did experiments with them that I hadn’t done previously. For instance, I’d leave the plate lying on the floor and allow people to walk over it, or I would hammer it. Then I would erase that and begin all over again, building layer on layer. The wonderful thing about copperplate etching is that even when one erases and begins again, a little bit of the previous work remains, like a memory, and this gives depth and texture to the work.”


Copperplate etching is a process which she approached with trepidation. Having worked with zinc plates at NCA, as copperplate etching is not taught locally, she was unfamiliar with the process and shied away from it. “When I arrived, I had to submit my assignments within one month and was afraid to learn a new process. But during a month-long break I had time to experiment. And after that I never looked back.” Asked about the difference between the two, she says, “It’s like that between a match and a zippo lighter. Zinc is treated with nitric acid and leaves harsh jagged edges, and the plate itself has its own tone; whereas copper plate gives you seven, eight and even nine tones of plate. And if you are using aquatint or sugar lift you can get great effects.” In layman’s terms, this means that the resulting print has great depth and variations in shade.


It was during this period that the great South Asia quake took place, inspiring Sophiya to make a book recording the event, which began when, online with her fiancé, he suddenly typed in to tell her that a massive quake was going on. The prints, on black paper in off white to yellow tones, incorporate email messages and typing. The effect is almost seismic, with the yellow almost scribbled sun, and severed lines and figures giving the impression of a world that has been upended and is no longer defined by the laws of gravity. Although the book doesn’t quite meet the rules of book binding or making, the prints themselves are arresting. This is currently on display at the National Gallery as part of an exhibition called Beyond the Frame, featuring the work of young artists from various art institutions.


Returning to Pakistan, she married and settled in Karachi, where the reality of daily life in Pakistan struck home fast. “I had to deal with things that I never knew about before. Bills, handling money, getting a job, social obligations, and then the stresses of water and electricity shortages and being robbed.” This last, a traumatic incident in which the robbers made the artist cook dinner while they divested the newlyweds of their valuables, incited the couple to return to Islamabad, where Sophiya began to teach at NCA. “Driving forty minutes each way every day, I would roll down my window and see the little patch of sky with the sun that appeared almost in eclipse through the smog, hear the noises of the city: honking, angry hear someone shouting at you and even if you don’t want to hear you can’t help it, and you realise that even the last little piece of people’s hope is fading away. On a hot night if you went out you would feel the heat and see the lights of the city.”


These experiences have taken the idealistic quality out of her work and given it an edgy, raw feeling. Also, a new depth. The still figurative work is full of angles and stresses, hemmed in by squares, cubes and rectangles. Women gesticulate at one another, bounce off circles or, placed inside them, fall through the ever present city grid. The Destruction of Advancement is particularly telling of the local psyche: while the figure at the bottom right blows blue bubbles, the one at the top right angrily hammers a screw into those that have floated up. In most of the works, people appear to have no control over their surroundings, but instead are trapped, angry beings.


With no press on which to make her prints, the artist turned to mixed media, and has found it exciting and full of challenges. “Whereas in my old work I would fit the figures into a form, in my new work I concentrate on setting them in a context. It takes me hours to work out the grid pattern, which represents the city, measuring it into one inch squares. The squares are extendable only by quarter, half or three quarter inch increments, to give it harmony. You can’t have irregular variations. In grad school, I did an experimental litho with squares with rounded corners which looked like a city skyline, and this was the starting point for the new work.”


“I knew printmaking has its limitations, and in this series, besides wanting to be technically perfect, I discovered that I could go crazy, adding relief and sculptural elements by building up layers of paper, and using newspaper clippings and photo transfers. Each element is integral to the design and the message; for instance, the clippings say something about daily life. The placement of colours is something which is not easily attainable in printmaking, and I use it here with calculated economy. The circle, which is a continuous form throughout my work, and which I consider the most versatile shape, has several connotations: here it represents how everyone lives in their own bubble.” I remark that it also appears like a vortex in some of the collages, and ask her which printmakers she finds inspiring. I expect to hear names from modern art, but she mentions William Blake, saying, “The structure of some of my compositions is inspired by his engravings. Also, he uses complicated names which are relevant to the text but not stand alone. Dreaming About Electricity in the Third World takes its structural inspiration from his Whirlwind of Lovers, while Vacuum Away the Dust is inspired by The Ancient of Days.” This latter was one of the last prints made before her return to Pakistan and was the turning point for the change in her approach to work. Perched on a chair, her head connected to the pipe of a vacuum cleaner, the subject peers downwards at a host of characters that are being sucked into it. Commenting on the predominance of the female figure in her work, Sophie says that there is no statement in the fact that she always uses the female figure; it is just that she is more familiar and comfortable with it.


Having completed the eighteen pieces to be shown at the Museum of Art in North Dakota, Sophiya feels that her work is now likely to change, and in her future work her concentration on the figure may diminish or disappear altogether.


Encouraged to draw and paint by her mother, who is a talented photographer, Sophiya grew up with the idea of the importance of having a career, ideas instilled by her grandmothers, both of whom were professional women, and by her mother, who despite being a housewife realised the necessity of having a job. Both her parents were instrumental in encouraging her throughout her formative years to do what she most enjoyed, which included classical dance, and when she applied to art college they suggested that she should do fine arts. Sophiya, however, applied to study architecture at the NCA, with the assumption that fine art would never bring her money or a proper career, but she soon realised that the subject “bored me beyond belief. There would be endless discussions about the dimensions of a brick, or the measurement of a door jamb, and it all went completely over my head”. Fortunately, since the course at NCA is broken up into month long blocks, and the initial two years are a foundation course in which one is introduced to all the disciplines, she quickly understood that fine art, with its emphasis on drawing skills, was her forte. But she was not keen to be a printmaker, and “when the time for the printmaking segment approached, I constantly complained to my mother about how boring it would be.” Her mother’s reply was, “Give it a chance, you might even decide to specialise in it. And my reply was ‘never!’ Part of the reason for my complaints was that I felt that many of the students on the previous printmaking course seemed to be using the medium as a crutch to conceal a lack of major talent.” But once she was on the course, she was told by her teacher Anwar Saeed, who conducted her second year jury, and for whom she has great respect, that she should take up printmaking as her major. Taking this advice, she added a double minor in miniature painting, which, like printmaking, is very technique based. In hindsight, she says, she thoroughly enjoyed this period, because of the quality of the teaching faculty and because her closest friends were on the same course.


Her next educational experience was at the Rhode Island School of Design, where, she says, “Everything was available, in the way of faculty, materials, studio space, and time, and I was plain-sailing. I was idealistic, philosophical and passionate about printmaking. I tend not to talk so much about NCA, partly because when I was there I realised my vocation much later in the programme. In a way, it was the foundation for things to come, whereas when I arrived in New York I was already certain about what I wanted to do.”


Currently an Assistant Professor at NCA in Rawalpindi, where she describes the atmosphere as charged and vibrant, with an enthusiastic faculty, the artist enjoys the interaction with her students, and is also involved with helping others amongst the growing artist community in the capital with work in mediums, such as printmaking, with which they are not familiar. As many a teacher has said, one not only teaches but also learns from one’s students.


Her series of mixed media work, some of which is shown here and will be exhibited at Nomad Gallery at the end of the year, will be on display at the Museum of North Dakota from May. Museum exhibitions in the US are awarded to artists of standing or exceptional talent, and although the work at such venues is not for sale, the resulting exposure and prestige are highly esteemed.


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