Interview with the artist Nasser Azam, at Saatchi Gallery
Written by Virginia Bianchi
Published on 1 June 2019

I have had the pleasure to be invited to interview the Pakistani and British artist Nasser Azam, who currently has a solo-show at Saatchi Gallery, in London, called ‘Saiful Malook’. The show will be open until June, 10, and explores with large-size paintings a poem from the 19th century, written by the Sufi saint and poet Mian Muhammad Bakhsh.

The poem tells the story of a Prince of Persia who starts a troubled journey to the lake Saiful Malook to find a fairy princess he saw in a dream. The artist embarked on the same journey across Kashmir to create the canvases now exhibited at Saatchi: he traveled back to his native country for the first time in 25 years, after his family moved to the UK when he was 6.

In this interview, Nasser Azam gives important insights about the artworks he created throughout this amazing journey.


VB: So, the first question: I know you chose the lake Saiful Malook because of a poem, is there a direct relationship between the poem and the paintings here?

NA: I was introduced to the poem Saiful Malook, which translates into the Journey of Love, and was translated into a song by the musician Nushret Fateh Ali Khan, who introduced it to the West in the early 90s. After a long research, I found a strong connection with it: it was written over 50 years ago but the poet was born in the same city where I was, Jhelum.

The poem is about struggle, love, sacrifices, and I connected those themes with my parents coming over [to the UK] when I was a child in the early 70s, with the sacrifices they made and the struggles they strived for their kids. And utterly that persistence pays off. Those were the central themes that connected me personally with the poem, and that is why I wanted to pursue this project.


VB: There are a lot of connections between the large size paintings, they seem that they are made with a sort of …stencil? Because the shape is always, about the same. How did you do them?

NA: These ones are not stencils, I did use original Punjabi words for the poem so that the paintings were directly connected to the poem themselves.

VB: I know that you created some artworks made with iPhones in 2017/8, but I know that before that you worked continuously outside, in nature. So, what made you go back to nature?

NA: To me art is allegorical, it is emotion for the person to experience. It is something that you can’t learn from theory, and this applies in particular to this project. Together with my early works, it really was about me getting outside of the comfort of my studio, where I have a lot of time to finish a painting. I really like the challenge and the constraints and the creative restrictions in the surroundings of external environments.

VB: This […] was made in the studio, was it?

NA: Yes, this was made in the studio, just the two in the other room [in the picture below] have been made outside [on the shore of the lake itself, in Kashmir].

VB: How do you feel towards Pakistan? Because, as you said, you moved in the UK a long time ago. You always lived here, did you?

NA: Yes, I came here when I was 5-6 years old, and this is the first time I have been back, after 25 years. Actually, because it was a very restrictive project in terms of what we had to do and accomplish, I did not even have the chance to go back to Jhelum after I was born. So this was really me diving into a land where I had never been, although it was a very emotional experience.

VB: Of course, it must have been! So these paintings are also embodying your personal connection with the place and all the emotions that you felt when going back.

NA: Yes, sure!

VB: And then, the final question is, what is your mission? The mission of your art?

NA: Yes, so I think that the more I have been involved with the poem, and in this show, in particular, the paintings are more about trying to get a new generation of audience to appreciate the poet and the poem. The poem speaks to a lot of negativities in society back 150 years ago, like greed and violence, which are still relevant today as back then…? And the poem really does offer a spiritual solution to them.


Saiful Malook, the new solo-exhibition by Nasser Azam, is on view at Saatchi Gallery until June, 10. Don’t miss it: you will have the opportunity to discover new techniques to create art that will transport you into a new land.

You may also like…

Geumhyung Jeong, in Upgrade in Process – Fondazione Modena Arti Visive

Geumhyung Jeong, in Upgrade in Process – Fondazione Modena Arti Visive

I am glad to say that the first exhibition that I have had the honour to step into has been Geumhyung Jeong’s Upgrade in Process at Fondazione Modena Arti Visive. Jeong boasts an impressive list of shows, having exhibited at Delfina Foundation London, Kunsthalle Basel and Tate Modern, and discovering her works so close to home has been such a pleasure. She is a South Korean choreographer and performer whose work is constantly… on the edge.

Mona Hatoum, a short overview

Mona Hatoum, a short overview

Mona Hatoum is a Palestinian artist, now based in London. The exile, the theme of belonging to different cultures and, at the same time, to none of them, are some of the ideas she explores: a contributing factor is, for sure, her life and her continuous movements around the world. At the same time, however, it is interesting noticing how not one of the works she creates is explicitly autobiographical.

‘… gli artisti, che ci fanno così divertire’

‘… gli artisti, che ci fanno così divertire’

Yesterday I had goosebumps. I was about to go to sleep, checking out for the last time my Facebook dashboard, when I read ‘… artisti, che ci fanno così divertire’ – ‘… artists, who entertain us’.

Said by the prime minister of probably the most artistically rich country in the world.

Is that really what they do? Entertain?

How have we come to this point? How did it happen that art is now in the background, that it is only followed by such a narrow niche of people generally considered as a bit crazy, who have their head in the clouds? How did it happen that now art is simply not necessary?