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.


Among the artists included in the list of the 100 most expensive artists at auctions, do you know how many of them are women?

Seriously, think about it.

Are you thinking?

Do you have a number in your mind? Keep it there.

The right answer is 2. Out of 100, only 2 of the most expensive artists at auctions are women. Anyone guessed right? Let me know in the comments!

© Artsy

Quite impressive, isn’t it? That number speaks for itself, I believe.

Some say that actually price is not the right, or only, way to judge and have a perception of today’s art world, meaning that there are other factors that come into play when we enter the world of the art market and artwork prices. So, on one hand, the majority of artworks that are now valued as the most expensive are usually made by deceased artists from the past century or more, and thus were produced in a time where women were less considered and had less opportunities to become known for their artistic talent. This, then, reflects on the artworks purchased nowadays – fewer female artists’ works are sold in auctions.

On the other hand, however, it is no excuse, and it is important to recognise that there can be no excuse so that nothing is ever taken for granted. The worst that could happen in the future is that we accept what we have achieved, and we stop being aware of those inequalities that could happen around us. From my point of view, what really matters is awareness, knowing how the world was and is, and what we can try to do to change it in the future. What matters is being true to one’s beliefs.

Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?, 1989 © Guerrilla Girls

The Guerrilla Girls have been one of the first group of artists to address inequality in the art world. Formed in the mid 80s, they write:

‘We are a group of women artists and art professionals who fight discrimination. We’re the conscience of the art world, counterparts to the mostly male traditions of anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Batman, and the Lone Ranger. We have produced over 80 posters, printed projects, and actions that expose sexism and racism in the art world and culture at large’

They have attracted more and more attention and now their posters have been awarded with places in the most famous modern and contemporary art galleries of the world, like Tate Modern and MoMA. Are they bringing change from the inside or have they just accepted fame and been victim of those same art institutions that they used to criticise? They say it’s the former, I like to think the same.

You’re Seeing Less Than Half The Picture, 1989 © Guerrilla Girls

However, I don’t think that you necessarily have to be a feminist collective to become a popular female artist. That is why I feel that it is important to try and let people know that there are a lot female artists out there. For contemporary art, I have noticed that there are SO MANY whose work is AMAZING, but they are less known, and their work is not yet exhibited in major museums. Maybe this is also because I am growing more and more interest in digital art, and I am focusing on those contemporary artists that are working with video, 3D, VR, photography, or whatever medium that is slightly less traditional than usual, and thus not yet exhibited by major museums.

So – to conclude, in the next articles I am going to help you discover some female artists that you HAVE to know. I want to attract people’s attention not only on female figures that have been an important part of history of art, but also on those who are becoming popular right now, or are still considered as emerging artists. The majority of them working with digital mediums, not yet that famous to be exhibited in museums. I hope, most of all, that it can be an interesting source of information, and that you can discover new things and broaden your horizons.