Artist Wardha Shabbir On Connecting The Dots In Her Beloved City

By Sonya Rehman

Since she was a child, Wardha Shabbir would often watch her mother meticulously tend to their garden which was often full of pretty foliage, including a vegetable patch and also a mango, guava and pomegranate tree.

In her free time, Shabbir’s mother would draw little “motifs with very fine lines.” Her mother’s sensitivity to the world around her, from the gentle care of each plant she touched, to the three children she raised, had a profound effect on Shabbir. Her mother’s process – introspective, sensitive, empathetic and observant – conditioned Shabbir to approach life and art in a similar fashion.

Born in 1987, in Lahore, the 34-year-old mentions that she knew she was going to be an artist all her life. While she excelled in school, she was equally good at art and won a number of art competitions. Today, the young artist has many accolades to her name, has exhibited her work on numerous local and international platforms, and was also among the finalists for the Jameel Prize 5, Victoria and Albert Museum (V & A), London, in 2018, and was also nominated for the Sovereign Art Prize in both 2019 and 2020.

Wardha Shabbir. Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

Inspired by her mother, it is little wonder then that the artist’s work focuses on foliage, weaving magical, intricate pathways, trees and most importantly, the nurturing role of women in society. “The foliage is a new language for me,” she says, “Like alphabets, I’ve made a new language for myself that I’m coding and decoding at the same time.”

Speaking with Forbes Life, Shabbir talks about the meditative process of her art, how it brings her closest to her core self, and how Lahore stands as the perfect muse for her work.

SR: What drew you to miniature art? How did this particular art form resonate with you as an artist?

WS: When I did miniature painting for the first time in college [at the National College of Arts], I got so fascinated with the process; everything was so sensible and sensitive about miniature painting. I connected with it immediately.

Miniature art gelled with my personality so well, the discipline of the craft, how to breathe as you paint, and so on. It was a way of life which suited me very well. Also, the idea of the dot resonated with me since I was very interested in organic geometry – how your mind, body and soul becomes one when you link one dot with another dot and so on. Each dot forms the pixels of an image and that’s how an image comes to life. Working with dots is such a skillful practice which allows you to go so deep…it doesn’t just give you an understanding of what the artwork is about, but it also gives you a greater understanding of your own self.

‘From One Edge To Another’ by Wardha Shabbir. Photo: Wardha Shabbir

SR: You once mentioned that Lahore’s light plays a huge part in your work and that it’s so “embedded” within you that you can’t help but bring it to your canvas each time…

WS: I don’t know how to describe the theme of my work because it’s also about my life, including the lives of people around me and the environment I’m living in. My work is mainly inspired by the city of Lahore because I’ve lived in Lahore all my life. I’ve seen this city in so many different time zones, but it just never gets boring…every day I find something new to look at. Also, the language I’ve chosen in my art has come naturally to me in the form of foliage and trees. Each tree in my work for instance, represents someone I’ve encountered in my life. Each tree is a lived, assumed experience.

SR: And the role of women?

WS: Now that I’m 34-years-old, I’ve become more confident in being a woman and have begun looking at women’s lives a lot; how they’re living, struggling and surviving in Pakistani society. How a woman represents a tree, a strong pillar that nurtures others to grow. The flora and fauna in my work is inspired from that.

Also, the shapes of my paintings – those linear pathways – are pathways of a person (or myself), that I’m weaving myself through. On the other hand, the stark colors that I use represent Lahore. If you look at the light of Lahore, it’s a very unique chrome yellow. Everything is so bright in Lahore’s light. It changes everything…the skin tones we have, the accents we develop because of the temperature around us, everything sums up and becomes something.

SR: What do you want people to experience when they view your work? What are you trying to convey to them? 

WS: My work is about sharing my experiences in the same manner that I’ve experienced them. I want to hold my viewers hands and lead them into my world. I want to create experiences and interactivity around my paintings.

SR: You once said that your work, at times, puts you in a state of trance. Who is Wardha at that moment in time?

WS: When I go into the very details of my work, I try to mirror what I’ve imagined into my paintings, so on some level, I really have to lose myself somewhere. My whole body becomes a tool of my imagination. There’s no Wardha at that point in time – my hands, my arms, my paints, my canvas, everything becomes my tool. That specific state, when it’s being channeled, that’s a trance, but I think the feeling is more powerful and the word cannot do justice to the process. Maybe nirvana is a better word. Or just peace. It brings you closer to yourself. The more I understand my imagery better, the closer I get to understanding my own self better.

SR: How have the past two years, since the pandemic, shaped who you are?

WS: I think it evolved my work a lot. My son was born during that time too. Even though it would get very depressing at times, I got a lot of time to focus on my art. My compositions were mainly focused on what I could see outside of my window. There was a lot of depression and suppression – my entire family, including myself, contracted Covid – but I took it all out into my paintings. As a result, I produced a lot of work which was very detailed.

SR: What are you currently working on?

WS: I’m working on a few international projects, one in London and another one in Europe (scheduled next year). I’m also working on an interactive, public art project which I’m mapping out in my studio these days. I think I’m going to work with light, the outdoors and temperature – I really want my work to become a 3D experience. I want to give viewers the opportunity to stand within my work.


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