Karachi-born Scheherezade Junejo graduated from National College of Arts, Lahore in 2010 with a BFA (Honours) Degree in Painting. Using her knowledge and study of human anatomy, Scheherezade attempts to highlight the duality in our psychosis, while simultaneously trying to de-objectify/re-objectify the nude form. Scheherezade has exhibited her work nationally and internationally since 2010 including the Moniker Art Fair at the Old Truman Brewery, London (2016), Mirrors of the Artosphere at Amsterdam Whitney Gallery, New York (2016) and Art Expressions at Capital Club, DIFC, Dubai (2016). She has also been featured in the 1st edition of Current Masters, a publication of contemporary artists by World Wide Art Books in 2015. The artist currently lives and works in Karachi.
Tell us a little about yourself and your practice. How did a career in the arts start for you?
I remember being a headstrong child growing up; if I was told to do something I couldn’t reason with, I would go all out to do the opposite. So when we were asked to make career choices the only thing I couldn’t reconcile with was settling for a 9 to 5 desk job. I had few strengths at the time, Art was one of my favourite subjects even though I was average at it. So with help of my high-school Art teacher, Ayesha Khan, I convinced my parents to let me apply to NCA (National College of Arts, Lahore). To my surprise I got accepted in the open merit program. NCA was quite a re-education: I was never top of my class, an average artist at best. It was only towards the end of my graduation, near thesis time that I felt the need to prove something.When I created my first figurative painting towards the end of college, I experienced a deep sense of accomplishment I had never felt before. Since then, I’ve been chasing that feeling like an addict and haven’t stopped till today.
What was your very first painting like?
My very first painting, the painting which put me on this path was a big gamble. Till then, I had never painted the human figure, I was always running from it because I wasn’t confident in my ability to do it justice. But once I started working on it I remember having the most fun I’ve ever had while painting anything. It was as if I was painting a self-portrait of my insecurities and flaws, like an exorcism of my fears. It was an image of a white body at rest with gnarled and unnatural feet painted in tones of red and orange. The result was the first great jury I had with my instructors who encouraged me to stick with the figure. That sense of approval, appreciation and validation are what started me on this route of experimenting with the human form.
Each artist has their own unique way of going about things – their own methods and routine to conceiving an art piece. What is your creative process like?
It starts when I envision an image. This usually happens with visual fodder, while watching documentaries or films. It happens during yoga sessions, when I am attempting to push my body further. It can also happen during those moments before falling asleep. An image usually comes up out of my subconsciousness and if it’s an impactful image it stays with me for a few days. When I’m ready to start working on it, I photograph my models in a set-up, exactly the way I envisioned it. After getting multiple photographs of the visual I start drawing on paper. The drawings are very carefully constructed, enlarged via measurement, negative spaces and marking of angles. Then the enlarged drawing is transferred via carbon sheets onto a large canvas. I don’t draw directly on canvas as corrections tend to warp the canvas surface. With the drawing complete, I start to paint the canvas, using 0-4 sized flat brushes. I use the photographs as my references to create the tones. So my method of working is not very spontaneous or experimental. It is highly calculated and surgical.
You are familiar with both the big art institutes in Pakistan- NCA and Indus Valley (IVSAA). What role, if any, have these institutes played in molding your practice?
I studied at NCA and went on to teach at IVSAA. NCA probably has a larger part in turning me into an artist as my social development into a painter (learning how to think, speak and create) occurred there. I often talk about NCA as being an asylum or sanctuary for different or weird individuals because it provides a safe environment to explore ones ideas without judgment and fear. It taught me how to be bold and fearless about my character, it taught me that shame is nothing but a social construct in our heads and it taught me how to empathise with people who share different views from myself, and see the world through their eyes and their reality. I firmly believe that if I had not attended NCA my visual language would not be what it is today. IVSAA was beneficial in a very different way, it taught me structure and discipline. Teaching is a great way to reinvent yourself and refresh your ideas. It has been quite inspiring to see the direction a students practice can take with guided instruction. Training students forced me to find the value in practices that were far different from my own.
In my opinion it is hard enough to be an artist and that too a female artist who then paints the nude female form while practicing in a conservative setting. How comfortable do you think the people of Pakistan are with nudity in art? What are the different kinds of reactions towards your imagery?
You have to learn to be impervious of other peoples’ judgment and opinions. In many ways you have to love what you do more than anything else to keep doing it every day. It’s a tough life for sure, but the rewards are way more fulfilling. It always bothers me that while Sadequain, Jamil Naqsh and Saeed Akhtar painted highly stylized nude female forms- overtly sexual in most cases- no one batted an eyelid, no objections were raised and their images went into print and were even celebrated. But when a woman decides to paint the female nude, it suddenly becomes risky, audacious, even borderline scandalous. People (mostly men) try to find reason in this by assuming that this is a display of my own body because of some misguided cry for attention or narcissism. Older women like to ask me when I’ll go back to making “drawing room” paintings which are worthy of being seen by others, implying that my current body of work is something to be ashamed of or hidden away. My work almost never goes into print- magazines, journals, newspapers, print and digital media have all apologetically refrained from printing my images citing that its “too risky” to print. I have learnt that this dichotomy exists on a very deep level here in Pakistan. Sexism is something we have been unable to shake off throughout our history and being an unyielding feminist at heart, my fight is against sexism. Furthermore, because we live in a conservative environment here, our process of socialization teaches us from a very young age that nudity, especially for women, is something to be ashamed of. This has serious consequences for our society. It inculcates a narrow minded view of women. Nudity is seen as sexual deviancy or promiscuity for women. It teaches us to view nudity as sexual desire and nothing more. By trying to make the female nude a part of our visual language, I am attempting to dispel the myth of sexualisation in nudity and make it something which can be viewed with respect and admiration rather than covetousness, shame or discomfort. Luckily I live in a protected and supportive environment with my family who understand that my work is not about the nudity at all. My clients, curators and friends have been vocally supportive as well, allowing me the audience and monetary stability to say what I want to say without repercussions. They reward me with the strength and validation to carry on. I doubt I will see the change I wish to inspire in my lifetime, but if I can contribute to it in any small way then my struggle will have been worth it.
What in your opinion is the biggest misconception about artists in general?
That we’re all pot-heads who work at odd hours of the night and sleep throughout the day, and have no sense of structure to our lives. The truth is the exact opposite. When you are self-employed, if you do not stick to your studio you will produce absolutely nothing. There is a certain amount of freedom and spontaneity afforded to being an artist, in that we are not answerable to anyone, but this does not mean that we work loosely.
What is that one thing that you feel is essential for all practicing artists? And what should you suggest they avoid?
Practice, practice and more practice. No one is born gifted. You have to dedicate yourself to something you believe in to be more important than anything else in your life and do it every day. Inspiration has to find you working. The only thing to be avoided is the judgment or opinion of others. You should never actively seek anyones’ validation other than your own.
What has been the most rewarding experience for you as yet as a Visual Artist?
The obvious answer is success. It always gives me a sense of elation when I know my work is selling and when clients tell me how much they love to own something made by me, that feeling of acceptance is very gratifying. But the biggest rewards for me are when young girls and boys contact me to say that my work has affected them in a positive way, that it makes them feel accepted, inspired, understood or that they connected with it in any way.
Do you see yourself venturing into other Art forms in the future? Performance art, music etc perhaps?
My first love has always been dance, and if this country had allowed it I would have loved to become a professional dancer and choreographer. I was into performing on stage and doing dramatic arts at NCA as well. So that will always be an open door for me.
As I mentioned before making it as artist can be quite a feat. Have you ever questioned your career choice? What motivates you?
In my professional career spanning 7 years, I have never once questioned my choice to become an artist, it is, in fact, the only thing I know I want with certainty for the rest of my life. I think that drive comes from the root cause of being an artist and feeling like I have a mission, like I have a target to achieve. When you give me something important to do which I wholly believe in, I marry the idea and live with it until it is done. That’s what I feel my practice is for me; a relationship which is extremely fulfilling.
Lastly, would you like to give some advice to emerging artists?
Stick to your gut and don’t ever settle. In a world where originality doesn’t exist the only truly original thing is your experience of this world. Make it matter.
Interviewed by Shameen Arshad.
This interview has been edited for clarity.