Interview with the artist Nasser Azam, at Saatchi Gallery

Last Thursday 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.

Nasser Azam, Installation view of Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook at Saatchi GalleryPhoto: Piers Allardyce, Courtesy Azam Studios

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.

Nasser Azam, Installation view of Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook at Saatchi GalleryPhoto: Piers Allardyce, Courtesy Azam Studios

VB: So, the first question: I know you chose the lake Saiful Malook because of a poem, is there a direct relation 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.

Nasser Azam, Installation view of Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook at Saatchi GalleryPhoto: Piers Allardyce, Courtesy Azam Studios

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.

Nasser Azam, Installation view of Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook at Saatchi GalleryPhoto: Piers Allardyce, Courtesy Azam Studios

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]

Nasser Azam, Installation view of Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook at Saatchi GalleryPhoto: Piers Allardyce, Courtesy Azam Studios

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 non 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!

Nasser Azam, Installation view of Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook at Saatchi GalleryPhoto: Piers Allardyce, Courtesy Azam Studios

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.

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