Naseeba Khader is a Mississauga based artist who describes herself as 'A girl who loves to draw'. Her work is inspired by the beauty which surrounds her; be it the elegant lines of a minaret, the vivid hues of flowers or the curves of calligraphy. Naseeba's passion is the Art and Architecture of Islamic lands. She is on a quest to absorb and learn as much as possible and to translate that knowledge with her pen or paintbrush.
We talk to Naseeba about her passion for Islamic history and architecture and how her cultural heritage has influenced her artistic practice.
What was your journey to becoming an artist and have you undertaken any formal art training?
I guess my journey to becoming an artist started when I was quite young. I would draw on any blank surface; like the underside of the coffee table or the walls of our home! Much to the annoyance of my parents! I would make paper dolls or draw my favourite cartoon characters. By the way, my parents still have the coffee table I drew under! Throughout my elementary and secondary education, Art was my favorite subject. Even in my other classes, I managed to somehow incorporate some Art into it, like drawing title pages for new units and assignments. I remember in Grade 6, my teacher had selected me and two other classmates to attend a Summer Arts camp. I wasn't able to attend, but I kept that application form as a reminder. In high school, I continued taking Art classes. I had even won the Visual Art award for 2 years but I did not pursue a Fine Arts degree in University nor did I train in other institutions. In hindsight, I don't regret it because I believe opportunities will present themselves when the time is right.
Currently, I am a student of Islamic Calligraphy at Deen Arts Foundation, studying under Master Calligrapher Shahryanshah Sirajuddin Hoca who is based in Istanbul, Turkey and I am ever so grateful for the opportunity to learn this beautiful and sacred art.
How has your heritage influenced your creative practice?
I was born and raised in Toronto but my parents are originally from Hyderabad, India and as I grow older, I try to reflect what it means to be a Muslim/Canadian/Hyderabadi/woman. I have a deep interest in the Tehzeeb (Culture and Art) of Hyderabad and the Deccan plateau generally. Lately, I have been delving more into the Deccan Sultanates of lndia. Which were five Medieval kingdoms that ruled in the South from 1527-1686. My art is one way for me to explore, learn, and express all those facets of my cultural and religious identity.
You have a strong admiration of Islamic history and architecture, why architecture in particular?
I believe architecture is the physical interpretation of Art, History, Religion, Geography, Politics etc. Each structure has its own unique story, a story which is just waiting to be (re)discovered. That excites and inspires me. I want to learn who built these structures? Why were they built? What has time done to the structure? Why have some buildings survived while others have been lost? I love searching for what I call ‘the little guy,’ that obscure, local architectural gem that perhaps has not been given its proper due as some more ‘famous’ buildings have been.
You also combine calligraphy in your work, can you tell us more about your vision and process around this?
Since I am a student of calligraphy, I want to learn more about the history, the heritage and the legacy of Islamic calligraphy. I try to add it to my work whenever possible, but I am still in the early stages of learning and the calligraphy that may appear is not Islamic Calligraphy in its true essence. I feel it is very important to state this because there is a lot of misinformation about the practice of Islamic calligraphy. Calligraphy is an Islamic Science which requires many years of dedicated study and hours of practice under the guidance of a qualified teacher (someone who has attained their Ijaza). What you see in my sketches or paintings is me ‘drawing’ the calligraphy, not actually writing it (with a few exceptions, where I have written the phrase via qalam and ink then traced and transferred it.) But I hope that one day InshAllah I will be able to use Islamic Calligraphy in it's true form in my work.
You draw and paint, what mediums and materials do you use to create your works?
For my drawings and sketches, I primarily use pencil, pencil crayons or pigment-based pens, and illustration markers. I always get an equal rush of excitement and fear when I draw/paint my first stroke. Sometimes I feel I will be able to give the subject I am drawing its proper due with graphite pencils. Sometimes I feel it can best be expressed with just black ink. Other times, I will draw the ‘skeleton’ of the building in black fineliner then add depth of colour and shade with a mix of pencil crayons, fineliners, and illustration markers. When I paint, I enjoy using watercolours. I love the intensity, the richness, the transparency, the luminosity about them! Watercolours are so unpredictable. But that is why I love them as well. Lately, I have been drawing exclusively in a lovely sketchbook a dear friend had personalized and gifted me. I have a smaller sketchbook with Aya Sofya on the cover (another gift) which I use for my pencil sketches. For commissioned work, I use Arches watercolour paper (cold or hot pressed) because I've found that it works really well and can withstand erasing of small mistakes and cleanups. For my calligraphy practice, I use a variety of inks and qalams, though I find I really love the Kamish (reed) pen. As for calligraphy paper, on my recent trip to Istanbul I bought some glossy white paper for regular practice and a selection of machine and handmade ahar paper. But I’ve only used ahar a handful of times because I feel I need to be more proficient in calligraphy. Though I haven't drawn on my tablet as much as I used to in the past, I would use Autodesk Sketchbook. The app was a quick way to draw when sometimes pen and paper was not feasible. I could draw one half a structure and by using the symmetry tool have it replicated on the other side. Or I could zoom in and add little details to clothing and textiles. I could play around with colours, or duplicate a pattern with ease.
Your work is incredibly detailed, what is your creative process and how long does it take you to create a painting?
Thank you. This is a hard question because I am inspired by so many things. It could be the an elegant minaret, or the round onion-like dome, the geometric patterned door or window, the stucco arches, the partially-erased tiles on a facade or the flowers of a garden. Once I've figured out what I'd like to draw, that’s when I go into research mode. I love this part because this is where I get an opportunity to learn more about the subject matter. I try to read up on the history and view as many images as I can. Or take an online class. I want to get a clear picture in my mind before I begin. When I feel I have enough information and a basic idea (in my head), that is when I start to draw. Certain pieces require a rough sketch or I draw certain design elements on a separate sheet of paper and then transfer them to the page. But normally I draw straight onto the paper. My current painting of Wazir Khan Masjid in Lahore is based on a series of notes and drawings I made for an online class. When the client contacted me, they asked if the sketch in my sketchbook was for sale. To be frank, I didn't feel that it was worthy to be sold as ‘art’ but the client got me thinking. So, I proposed an idea for a watercolour and ink painting based on my notes. The client agreed! I like to think of it as a framable architectural drawing/painting with decorative elements dissected and reimagined. It is something that I want to explore more of. I did something similar for my Aya Sofya drawing.
My sketches are relatively quick; I usually get those done in a day or two. Mostly at night when I’m on the couch watching TV. As for my commissions, I take my time. Even though my paintings are not huge canvases, it takes me up to 3 or 4 months to complete. I will get into this zone where I forget to even sip water and I start to obsess over tiny details. Doubts start to creep in and that's when I know I need to stop, step back and take a break. I physically put the painting away. I will stick it under books and stow it away out of sight. That way I can return to it later with fresher eyes. I painted a watercolour this morning of Masjid Al-Nabawi. It took my 4 hours. No pencil sketching. Just painting straight onto paper. I like to do that sometimes as a way to test my eyes, hand and speed.
The colours you use are so vivid, how do you select your paints and colours, is there a lot of blending and mixing to get the right shades and textures?
As I have mentioned previously, I love using watercolours and I personally feel it is the best medium to express the different nuances required. I am not someone who needs this brand or that brand but I will stick with something that works well for me. Like my pencil crayons. Those are a hodgepodge of leftover sets from my childhood, my siblings, and from my children's childhoods. I blend different brands together and mix mediums to get the shade I want. I don’t think I've washed my palette in a very long time! I just use what's there as a base and build on it. That is another enjoyable phase in the creative process: the mixing of colours and shades. I love the process of identifying the colour and trying to recreate it on a palette. For example, I see the domes and minarets of Mimar Sinan’s Süleymaniye Camii in cool gray-blue-purplish hues. For Lal Qila (Red Fort) in Old Delhi, I see warm reddish-brown-orangey shades.
Your work expresses the joy and spirit of the rich heritage of Islamic art and culture. What has the response of audiences been?
That makes me so happy to hear because that is what I hope people will feel when they see my work. I want to spread beauty, happiness, and joy. I am so deeply touched and overwhelmed by the responses. A few weeks ago, I woke up one Sunday to see all these new followers and likes on Instagram. I was puzzled a bit because I had not posted anything new. The only thing I had posted was in my Stories, but that was about some Chicken pilau recipe I had made for dinner. Ha ha! Surely that could not be the reason for the surge?! Then I scrolled further down and saw a post I was tagged in. It was from trt2 - Turkey’s cultural and art channel. They had re-shared a few of my drawings on their Instagram page. I was so shocked and honoured! I couldn't believe it! Though, nothing can beat the support of my family and close friends; they are my backbone. I would not be doing what I do today if it wasn't for their constant love and encouragement.
You have painted architecture relevant to Islamic history and heritage. What meanings do these buildings hold for you?
First of all, these places are a reminder to me of how Islam has touched and enriched the world we live in. Mosques and other places of religious significance are extremely important to me because these are places where we try to put our worldly issues aside and focus solely on the Almighty. Painting and drawing them is a way for me to connect with my Creator. That is at the core, the heart of all my work.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration everywhere! It could be in a minaret or dome. In arches or columns. In gardens. It could be a calligraphic panel or a floral tile. It could be an item of clothing or a trinket handed down to me from my mother or grandparents. It could be a dream I've had. It could be a book I am reading. It could be something I saw on TV. It could be something simple as the colour of some object.
What do you hope audiences feel or think when they encounter your work?
I truly hope that when audiences come across my work, they are left with a sense of happiness, of beauty, and a little bit more enriched. I hope my work inspires them to go on little creative journeys of their own.
What does the future of Islamic arts and culture look like to you? What are the opportunities and potential?
The Islamic Arts have been here for hundreds of years and Insha’Allah will be for hundreds more. I don't want to say there has been a recent surge of interest in Islamic Arts because I think it has always been there. I like to use this analogy: there is an old chest in your attic. You know it's there but haven't really taken much interest in it. Then one day, you're stuck at home (like a COVID lockdown) and you're bored. You go upstairs to look for something to do and you come across that old dusty chest. When you open it, you realize all this time you have been living under a great and immense treasure! That is exactly how I feel about the Islamic Arts. It has encompassed and enriched my world in ways I could not imagine. Alhamdulillah. I am so very grateful to the Almighty for providing the opportunity for me to explore this legacy of our Islamic heritage. I would like to thank all my teachers and the organizations who have provided these opportunities. Organizations such as Deen Arts Foundation, Lulu Ateliers, Scripts n Scribes, Art of Islamic Pattern and Reed Society to name just a few. They provide wonderful platforms to learn in person and online. It is because of organizations like these, that the Islamic Arts are able to reach a wider audience. My wish is that we can build similar organisations and institutions in Canada. To create an Islamic Arts hub here in Toronto and other Canadian cities. To provide greater access to education for future generations. To educate the larger public in general. Insha'Allah.
For more information follow Naseeba Khader on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/naseeba.khader/?hl=en
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