By Sonya Rehman
Artist Usman Saeed uses Model, Mehreen Syed, as a Canvas.
Currently teaching at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, artist Usman Saeed is no stranger to the local art scene. His father, Saeed Akhtar, is one of the most prominent painters that the country has to offer.
However, this by no means implies that Saeed was ‘born into’ fame and prominence, because the young artist has on his own, managed to chisel a career in local art that is unique – where art forms such as painting and photography are fused to create work that is intricately dreamy, transforming a portrait, a photograph, into an ethereal work of art.
With a BA in Miniature Painting from NCA in 1999, Saeed completed an MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art, in London.
Since 2000, when the artist hosted his first solo show in the city (titled ‘The Eternal’ – which featured body art photography), Saeed embarked upon a career in Fashion Photography for the local fashion scene for a few years till 2004, where his work began appearing in a host of local publications.
“For a practitioner interested in striking a balance between genres, an undergrad art college stereotypically becomes the hotbed for the aforementioned concern to evolve” states Saeed when asked about the inspiration behind working with two, distinct mediums. “With a diverse presence of music, theatre and fashion, NCA provided me with the ever-swapping impetus: painting as tradition and photography as modernity.”
Regarding what comes first: the idea to photograph a particular subject, or the theme of the visualized work, Saeed states philosophically: “The seed or its fruit – my work aims to keep the driving forces of both subjectivity and objectivity in a consistent substitution.”
From 2004 till now, there has been, roughly, an eight-year gap since Saeed’s work was published in a Pakistani publication. But this year, the artist uses the svelte and gorgeous Mehreen Syed as his muse.
The muse, Syed, is no stranger to Pakistan’s fashion industry. With almost ten years of experience behind her as a model, she has come a long way. Currently, Syed is one of the most sought after names to work with in the local fashion scene.
From high-fashion shoots to local and foreign ramp shows, awards, and much recently, her being chosen to represent L’Oreal within Pakistan as the company’s Spokesperson, Syed dons another feather in her fashion beret: that of a CEO.
Standing as the International Fashion Academy of Pakistan’s CEO, the go-getting model, with enviable cheekbones, has established an institution which sets out to provide in-depth courses to individuals looking at refining their skills in Photo-shoot Direction, Runway Coaching, Speech Enhancement, etc in Pakistan.
Speaking about her experience working with Saeed (who she considers to be an “amazing painter”) the model gushes about the young painter’s father; “I’m such a big, diehard FAN of his! I’m crazy about Saeed Akhtar and Iqbal Hussain’s work! I’ve been following their work and their history for years, have you seen the gorgeous horses Saeed Akhtar paints? I was shivering when I met him.”
Last year, Hilary Alexander, the famed British Fashion Journalist for The Telegraph attended a local fashion week in the country, interviewing Pakistani designers and models, in addition to covering the event for a foreign audience.
Alexander’s presence at Fashion Week was a big deal. Why? Because finally, foreign media was taking interest (in a big way) in Pakistani fashion. Infact, in her interview with Syed, Alexander had started off by stating, rather astoundingly, that she found it “rather strange” that fashion existed in Pakistan. “Because in the West we have, perhaps the wrong notion about Pakistan. I didn’t expect to find so many models here,” Alexander had said.
Mentioning that Pakistani culture “is very conservative,” Syed had stated in her interview with The Telegraph that it was only her mother who stood by her in Syed’s decision to become a model while the rest of her family members, particularly her brother and uncles, hated her for wanting to make a livelihood in the Pakistani fashion industry.
With her father’s passing when Syed was only three, her mother began working – as a Lawyer -and supporting her five children: four girls and one son. The successful model attributes her mother’s love, hardwork and consistent sacrifice, as a single mother, to where Syed stands today.
Starting out her career at the age of sixteen, Syed mentions that it was Ather and Shahzad, her “mentors,” who took her in – grooming and supporting her when “all doors shut on my face, repeatedly.”
She “fought” for her career. “I was very young when I was studying a Bachelors degree at Home Economics [in Lahore], but at the same time I needed to financially support my family, so I began working at PIA as an air hostess. My typical routine at the time would be college in the morning, flights in the evening, and shoots on Sunday with Ather Shahzad.”
The model is vocal about the hardships she faced initially. Local photographers repeatedly told her she had “no potential,” while at the same time she was consistently referred to as “ugly” (that too on her face).
“Initially people would also say I couldn’t walk ramps very well at all. They’d say: she’s tall but she can’t walk,” Syed laughs, “So I began putting book after book on my head and walking and practicing.”
“No one wanted to work with me,” she says lightheartedly, “And then one day I broke down and cried infront of Shahzad.”
With her back pushed against the wall, Syed states how painstakingly Ather and Shahzad groomed her from scratch – from her dress sense, to her hair, to her overall ‘look.’ She laughs when she tells me, “One could say before Ather and Shahzad I was a complete paindu.”
But those days are long gone – because whether on the red carpet or at an event, the model is always impeccably dressed, her hair and make-up, flawless.