Artist Nida Bangash speaks about her Iranian roots and her miniature paintings
Nida Bangash’s general style and technique of miniature painting fits within the larger context of Subcontinental art. Her stylistic evolution has been proposed from a manner heavily dependent upon the example of manuscript illumination to large-scale works, likely products of a self-confident, mature artistic sensibility.
The following interview with The News on Sunday establishes Bangash as a woman of her time, conversant with current intellectual enquiry. Geographic and celestial boundaries expand dramatically in her work, ranging from painting, printmaking and performance to photography. Anxiety and optimism flourish together in a world of mutable boundaries as Bangash traverses cities and continents.
Born in Iran and brought up in Pakistan, Nida Bangash earned her BFA and MA Hons degrees from the National College of Arts, Lahore, where she also taught for a while before moving to Dallas, USA. Apart from studio practice she invests time in outreach art projects for refugee children.
The News on Sunday (TNS): Why did you decide to train as a miniature artist?
Nida Bangash (NB): I was born in Iran to an Iranian mother from Mashhad, and a Pakistani father. I must have been five years old when my father, a surgeon and a government employee, got posted back to Parachinar, Pakistan. I was in Grade 5 at school when we moved to Kohat where my schooling took place. A very refined teacher, Hassan Ali, who was a graduate of the National College of Arts, taught me drawing. He would make sure that I took part in art competitions at both national and international levels. Sir Hassan saw the spark in me and finally pushed me into joining the NCA. He would often say that there’s a place for me in this country although my father really wanted me to be a doctor. (I had already sat the entrance exams at the Aga Khan Medical University and at the NUST, and ended up making drawings on the entrance examination sheets). My name appeared on the waiting list of the NCA applicants, and I got enrolled in design. Later on, I found my way into the Department of Fine Arts via graphic design, and eventually majored in miniature painting because that’s where my heart was, and because I could see both Indian/Pakistani and Persian traditions coexist in this practice.
TNS: What were your artistic concerns as an undergrad?
NB: My entire NCA experience was informed by figuring out my dual nationality - being a Pakistani and an Iranian. When I came to Lahore, I got to experience Pakistani art in a much deeper way than I had in Parachinar or Kohat. However, I had always wanted to be known more as an Iranian than a Pakistani because I did not have any social circle here. The resources here were much more limited than what I had experienced in Iran, which I had regular access to during summer breaks.
When I came to Lahore, I began to see a new side of Pakistan that I was excited to explore. My BFA thesis titled, Eternal Decadence was based on the exploration of how the ‘war on terrorism’ manifested itself, and recurred time and time again. When I went to Persepolis (Takht-i-Jamsheed) near Shiraz, I realised how Alexander (so-called the Great) and his fright had completely devastated an entire civilisation and turned it into a heap of rubble. And then there was the war on Iraq, and we saw how it led to destruction.
TNS: Your master’s in visual arts thesis was based on a particular incident that shook your life. Could you share that with our readers?
NB: The reason why I decided to enroll in MA Hons in the visual arts programme was because I wanted to build upon the skill in miniature painting that I had acquired as a graduate, develop it further, and then get into the real world. I started to explore miniature painting, and during the process, went to Iran and learnt carpet weaving as part of the traditional art practice component of MA. For three months, one had to work under an ustad. Meanwhile, I was discovering illumination patterns in miniatures and how they could be translated into carpet weaving through a formal approach.
“I wanted people to experience loss, impermanence, and erasure – the idea of someone taking away from you something that is very precious to you, however small. Everyone, at some point or the other, has experienced loss in life,” says artist Nida Bangash
On August 13, four months before my graduation, the Taliban assassinated my father in Kohat. At that point, the only way I knew I could produce work was by pouring my emotions into it. The challenge was how to make it human, and how to make everybody relate to it because he was nobody else’s father, and the loss was nobody else’s loss. I wanted people to experience loss, impermanence, and erasure – the idea of someone taking away from you something that is very precious to you, however small. Everyone, at some point or the other, has experienced loss in life. I was angry and traumatised. My miniature making practice had taught me to contain and abridge emotions. I spent the next four months investigating how to condense my feelings of loss and anguish. I titled my annual degree show Sixty because my father was 60 when he passed away. The show had a painting and an installation – the red-stained carpet, the suspended chair that he was actually shot on. (He was working in his clinic when he was killed. The killers pretended to be his patients). I had to channel my emotions and deal with the trauma. I must say that I was lucky to have had that kind of a platform because emotionally I felt I was on a different plane compared to my siblings who had to deal with the situation differently.
TNS: Why do you think Sixty became a turning point in your career?
NB: The principal work called Sixty was born of a real experience. I was returning home after my father’s funeral in Alizai when I stopped by his clinic. Everything there was the way it had been – intense and graphic. There was a lot of blood – over, under and all around the chair, and on the desk. When he was put on the stretcher and rushed to the hospital, there was a trail of blood on the floor. I followed that trail to walk into the clinic. The image of it stayed on my mind, and was so strong that, when I came back, I wondered how I would process it. I had worked on carpets, so the first thing I did was to lay down the foundation. I drew out the entire carpet in a pattern that I repeated asymmetrically on a 3 x 4 feet wasli – the width of my father’s grave. It all came to me naturally.
I took balloons filled with red paint that I smashed against the wall in anger to see what happens. Again, the idea of containment came to my rescue. I painted bloodstains on the drawn carpet. Then I pixelated them, and made them disappear into nothingness. They disappear into the core structure, the grid of the carpet. I showed my father’s blood disappear into the core structure - the institution that let it happen. The whole incident became a screen, a title in the news that became a number: Dr Liaqat Ali Bangash passed away. And that’s it. Nothing moved from its place, and nothing was ever done about it.
TNS: How did you decide to address notions pertaining to identity in your work?
NB: If you look at my practice, every door pushes open another door. Nothing has ever paused for me. The idea of loss has stayed with me since. Take, for instance, the temporality and impermanence of home, as a structure. The ideas of loss, displacement and territoriality have always surfaced in my work in different ways.
When I moved to Islamabad, I was looking at the family photographs. That’s when I realised that they had not changed; only our lives had. We had to leave our home in Kohat to move to Islamabad. Some of these photographs feature in the series of works called Attested. When I got married and moved to Lahore, home was lost again. Then I went to Madagascar for four months and experienced both French and English colonisation. I felt like a coloniser myself; I could neither speak Malagasy, nor French. So, maneuvering my way around Madagascar was tough. That’s when it hit me that we are so English. I started to look into the very notion of loss deeply, wondering what we’d lost and where we are now.
I made a series called Attested that show silhouettes that are consumed and replaced by patterns. It’s a series based on family photographs. I was looking at passport photos of my father and my mother. The difference that I discovered was that my father grew a moustache as he matured while my mother who had a cute little ponytail later covered her head with a scarf. Both identity and gender politics played an important role in that series. The title of the work was: A Consumer’s Guide to a Healthy, Less-Toxic Lifestyle. I looked at them rather clinically because the passport photos are so clinical anyway. They are objectified – don’t look around; don’t move; don’t smile, and so forth. I erased all emotions from those pics. I studied them like they were still life objects.
TNS: A home/house has been a recurrent leitmotif in your work. Having lived a more or less nomadic life, what is your idea of home?
NB: While this was happening, I began to look at the Afghan war rugs, and realised how literally the Afghan artisans had copy/pasted guns, missiles, tanks and helicopters on the rugs. These icons of war were rendered in a literal way on the ornamental carpets, taken from the outside and given space in the rug. This reminded me again of the literal image of houses. As children, we all draw houses, which are a square with a triangle and a chimney. This idea of a perfect and ideal house has come from the outside – it was never in my mind; I’ve never lived in it whether in Iran or in Pakistan yet we all draw them.
Those houses gradually became part of my vocabulary when they found their way into the carpets I was painting coupled with the tree of life that I had seen and studied extensively in Persian rugs. That’s how homes walked into my work – icons of love and war. We draw them; we make them; we want them but they are not ours.
TNS: It appears that the crux of your video installation is gender-imbalance. Comment.
NB: Being a married woman with two daughters, I find it imperative to talk about home and the role of women, about the unattainability of certain ideas in a domestic setup and about how the power structures inside radiate outside into other institutions. The Bridge Called My Back – the video – in which I am lifting a structure on which another man sits, talks about the ‘invisible weights’ that I carry constantly on my back.
I was a student at SMU for two years working towards MFA degree while being a wife and a mother. That constant burden that a woman has to carry on her back, both indoors and outdoors, I saw a parallel for in a line that I could draw between the pair of structures inside the house and the same that continue outside the house.
Originally, it was supposed to be a five-channel video installation with five scenes. I am holding a table, which has a structure which in turn becomes a metaphor for the structure of architecture and that of a carpet. The fact that I am the one holding it with a white man, who is also balancing it and not just sitting idly on top of the table, is an act of labour. But I can’t just throw away my responsibilities and leave because I am the one who is bearing all the weight; he is only balancing it. Both are in a state of struggle but the entire weight is on my body.
TNS: Nature has always had an abiding presence in your work, reminding one of Uzbek suzannis and Turkmen textiles. What is the context behind this inspiration?
NB: My father was an avid gardener. We had a huge garden in front of our house with pomegranates, mangoes, guavas, and all kinds of fruit trees that belonged and did not belong there. It was a truly experimental garden. There was a huge peach tree there. Abba would aim at the sparrows with his catapult to shoo the birds away lest they ruin the fruit. He used to say medicine is linked to gardening, and gardening is linked to art.
He used to ask me to stand next to him to watch how he operated on his patients. I would tell him I don’t want to be insensitive to blood and bloodletting. Ironically enough, I saw my father’s blood, cleaned it, and became even more sensitive to it.
In Texas, I have an indoor garden and an outdoor garden with bougainvillea and jasmine that don’t quite belong there – they die out in frost! But they have a presence that I like to carry with me.
I guess every miniature painter has read Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red. It has a chapter titled I Am A Tree in which there’s a drawing of a tree that could never make it into a book. It was lost. It was just a drawing – no paint, no horizon, no clouds – that fell from the horseback being carried by the rider to a painter. It doesn’t have a story, and was never complete. It never got into a manuscript.
The book’s been wondering who does the story belong to. The drawing wonders it has no billowing clouds and no horizon line that gives it a hint of where it really belongs. “Am I meant to personify Alexander when he was dying; am I supposed to symbolise the strength and wisdom of a father giving love lessons to his son. Where were I when Leila and Majnun were expressing love.” At the end it says: I don’t want to be a tree; I want to be its meaning. That hit me on so many levels – the amazement of it, the constant flux of it, and the constant query: Where do I ideally belong. And then washing it all off and declaring: I don’t want to be a tree; I want to be its meaning. There’s a poetic bend to the narrative, Pamuk being a genius wordsmith.
We all carry our roots with us, plucked and unplucked, and that’s what helps us survive the odds.
TNS: Why did you decide to call your last show in Islamabad Confluence?
NB: The exhibition had works from 2007; beginning with the video Keep This Game Out Of Reach Of Adults that I made for MotiRoti. Ali Mehdi Zaidi commissioned it for the initiative called 360, which invited 20 artists from Pakistan, 20 from India and 20 from UK to make a one-minute video each. Ironically enough, the work is so relevant even today that it had to be part of the show. The show included War and Love Rugs series that I did here. Then there are works done in Australia in 2013 where I was part of a residency at the Australian National University in Canberra, such as the artist’s book with text by Orhan Pamuk. They had a wonderful letterpress printing department, and a very generous print artist who helped educate me.
There are nine trees in the book that I sourced from miniature painting. I detached them from their stories. The show was called Confluence because it brought together works from my previous MFA, and from a decade later – the latter strongly explore colonialism and the post-colonial theory. It’s a confluence of different genres – painting, photography, video – and a confluence of different times.
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad