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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REVIEW(ish): T. Emin, ‘A Fortnight of Tears’

‘Ms. Emin’s nihilism is so intensely passionate that it amounts to her life force. It is carried (…) primarily by language (…). In this day of multiple media and blurred boundaries between disciplines, it still seems that she might be less an artist than a writer, whose autobiography and hard-won philosophy of life would work best in book form. But in whatever form Ms. Emin chooses to work, one thing seems clear: she’s all voice.’ Roberta Smith, NYT

Yes, I know, I haven’t chosen something easy to write about, especially being this my first article.

Today Tracey Emin is one of the most controversial contemporary artists, some say that her works are ‘too much’: too much depression, too much sadness, too much passion. She knows how to provoke the viewer, she knows how to make us feel. It is as if she was saying ‘You can choose whether to open yourselves to my artworks and accept whatever emotions they may cause you, or you can go on living emotionless your gray and dull life’. Because despite all the tragedies she went through, her life is a blaze of colours.

Tracey Emin with My Bed, Tate Britain, 2015 © Guy Bell

Tracey Emin was born in 1963 in London, and she is one of the most well-known British contemporary artists of today. Her arguably most famous work is My Bed, exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 1999 and which represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2007. The bed (yup, the artwork title is quite self-explanatory) exhibited was the actual bed where she spent hours and hours smoking, eating, or having sexual intercourses in a quite difficult period of her life. For this reason, her artwork attracted not little media attention: it wasn’t just a bed, it was a bed surrounded by empty alcohol bottles, sheets full of weird stains, used condoms and empty cigarettes packets. Some thought ‘I didn’t come to an art gallery to see used condoms!”, but thankfully a lot more people appreciated the underlying intensity of her sorrow and despair.

Oh, yeah, she is also famous because in 1997 she appeared drunk on TV in the discussion panel of the program ‘The Death of Painting’ (…or ‘Is Painting Dead?’, according to The Guardian). I actually looked for the video but couldn’t find it (please, share the link if you do!).

The entrance of the exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, 2019 © Virginia Bianchi

Tracey Emin’s ‘A Fortnight of Tears’ is now on at White Cube Bermondsey until April 7. If you’re in London, GO AND SEE IT. I mean it. (If it wasn’t clear enough, it was quite a long time that I wasn’t that emotional about an exhibition).

The artworks exhibited are how Tracey translated her sufferings into material, artistic objects. Each and every one of them (and they’re quite a large number) is a punch in the stomach of the visitor. Starting from the first room, where fifty self-portraits taken during her sleepless nights of insomnia are hanged on the walls, the intimacy of her devastated glances made me feel naked and uneasy, almost as if the ghosts haunting her nights were in that same room, with me.

Insomnia Room Installation, 2018 © Virginia Bianchi

Those very same ghosts are the ones that appear in the next exhibited artworks: her passed away mother and her unborn child… or actually children – in the exhibition only one abortion is fully mentioned, but she had two: ‘After three [abortions] you start going mad. I’ve had two and I’m borderline.’

The ghosts of motherhood and femininity pervade the rest of the exhibition: the two naked bronze sculptures laying on the floor, leaving us to wonder whether they are unborn foetus or despairing figures; the paintings, representing female figures drawn with such an anger that sometimes they just seem splashes of blood on the canvas; or the silent video she made filming slowly, with a deathly calm, her mother’s box of ashes. The last piece of the exhibition is a 22 minutes-long video where she tells us of her first traumatising abortion in 1990, and of how that experience has had a profound impact on the rest of her life. Her strength, once again, consists in how she doesn’t hide, how she explains in full details how it went, how she calmly doesn’t spare us anything of that story.

In one document, contained in one of the two vitrines collecting intimate and improvised writings from her archive – some are also on sheets with the logo of hotels where she was staying -, she writes ‘Always so alone, so scared – so not wanted.’ And she has that incredible power that only very few artists have nowadays, of making the viewer feel discomfort as if her despair was theirs.

But, of course, only if you are open to embrace her works. That is why she is such a controversial artist: by thinking rationally, by examining her technique, one will never get to the bottom of her works. I feel it to be a bit like looking at a Pollock and saying ‘My child could have done that!’ One also need to consider the fortnights of tears the author spent creating that same artwork you are admiring today.

No Love, 2018 © Virginia Bianchi
(from left) I watched you disappear. Pink Ghost, 2018; I was too young to be carrying your Ashes, 2017-18; You were still There, 2018 © Virginia Bianchi