By Sonya Rehman
Vivid, dramatic colours, a Maharani, a tiger, a fox, and Moroccan rose sellers – Shirin Sahba, an artist based in China, produces art that is dreamy and ethereal. Her series of paintings have a certain, enchanting quality about them – they appear as faraway stories, set in distant lands, faceless characters and animals on a journey, framed in brilliant, stunning hues of salmon pink, turquoise, variations of azure, orange, etc.
Sahba mentions that it was travel (she traveled to 25 countries with her parents before her sixteenth birthday), that primarily influenced her work. Soaking in different cultures as a teenager during her numerous trips, led the artist to bring to life her experiences of travel, translating and incorporating the essence of the countries that she visited onto canvas.
You seem to have had a pretty interesting childhood. Tell me a little about your background, your parents and most importantly, your travels.
I was born into a family of artists: my father is an architect and my mother a designer. They traveled and settled wherever my father had a project, so I had a chance to travel the world with them and experience many countries and cultures first-hand. I was born during the construction of one of his major projects: The Baha’i Lotus Temple in New Delhi. This temple is special because it is open to people of all religions and walks of life to come and pray in a single peaceful space, and from a young age this taught me the core value of accepting all peoples as being part of one human race. Having these opportunities to visit dozens of countries made for a colourful childhood filled with exposure to so many different people, art forms and landscapes.
When did you first start drawing and painting? Was art always something you were inclined to pursue?
My father still jokes that I was born with a brush in my hand, because since I was able to, I spent most of my free time painting and drawing. Early on, my parents encouraged me to pursue a career in art, and the moment I could, I applied to study painting and fine art. I was approached to have my first solo exhibition in a commercial gallery during my last year of university in Toronto, Canada.
How do you think your travels influenced your work?
Travel has opened my eyes to so many beautiful people and places. I have sought inspiration from within these diverse cultures, looking to discover the gems within their art, their customs, costume, architecture, literature and even music. This appreciation has allowed me to create paintings from the perspective of a world citizen.
You state (on your website): “I have often repeated the narrative of solitary characters traveling with no specific destination, allowing the journey itself to carry more importance.” What’s your inspiration behind this, why the journey – why not the characters?
What I mean by this statement is not to say that the journey is more important than the characters, but rather it is more important than the destination. We are so often fixated on where we are going, so much so that we forget to enjoy the process and the little moments in life in between that deserve to be treasured. It is not important to know where the characters of my paintings are going to; leaving the destination a mystery allows my audience to freely create and imagine stories that speak to their journeys. It is a little like listening to a song; a listener can interpret it according to one’s own story and perceptions of life.
Given the theme of your work – of allowing the journey to depict greater significance than the destination – tell me, what has your journey been like, both as an artist and as an individual, so far.
My artistic and personal journey is inseparable, and this is demonstrated in the development of my paintings. Eight years ago I began contemplating the short life of my grandfather who passed away in his 30s. He was a pilot who travelled all over the world, and died in a tragic car crash off a cliff in Denmark. I depicted him in a series wherein he has donned a pilot’s cap and goggles, riding his scooter all around the world. Shortly after I completed this series, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I began to paint her journey, brave and alone in different landscapes and seascapes. For me this represented her journey towards light, and I realized very quickly that this journey is one we all take, so I evolved it into becoming a universal story, one that we all share by just being born into this world.
Has it been difficult trying to make a name for yourself and your work in the international art scene? What are some of the difficulties that you’ve encountered along the way?
Honestly, I have never tried to make a name for myself. I simply have pursued doing what I love and have been incredibly lucky that people have been attracted to and supported my work. The difficult part is the creative struggle. Finding new ideas is a bit like mining; you mine in a dark cave of coal to find the diamond!
Do you paint on a whim, or do you have a fixed routine?
I love to paint whenever I feel inspired, but I do hold myself to a routine. It might seem counter-intuitive, but I find that creativity corresponds to pressure. One must work from inspiration, but you can’t wait for it to come to you; it has to be encouraged and coaxed, so I work on a strict schedule from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
What‘s your work process like? How long do you take to complete one painting – from start to finish?
It is an organic process really: I typically spend a few days thinking deeply on my next project, sometimes even traveling to get inspiration, and once I envision an idea, I begin painting. Everything is done strictly with brushes, and I don’t use any shortcuts. The time of completion is never static. It can depend on the size of the canvas, the subject, and how intricate the details are.
What kind of art stirs your imagination?
Ancient art really captures my imagination, and still today there is so much beauty to discover. I adore everything from tribal African art, miniature paintings of the East to old cinema, literature and music; anything uplifting and beautiful really!
For contemporary art, your work is very unique – what has the response been like so far, at your exhibitions, and online, via your website?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. People have been so kind to regularly reach out to me from every corner of the globe to inquire. I am always moved to hear when someone feels a deep connection to the work. I aspire to be as approachable as possible to people from all different backgrounds and nothing brings me greater encouragement than to connect with a global audience.
Would you be interested in showcasing your work in Pakistan, if given the opportunity?
Of course! That would be an honour.
The Friday Times