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Karachi-born, Brooklyn-based visual artist Hiba Schahbaz initially specialized in the Indo-Persian technique of miniature painting, but now paints human-scale images of women adorned in flowers, gazing at their own limbs, and sleeping in ethereal brightly-colored pools of color, as if emerging from a dream. She has curated exhibitions in Pakistan and The United States, has held residencies at numerous institutions including Mass MoCA, The Wassaic Project, and the Tang Museum, and has spoken on panels, including one called "Art In The Age Of Instagram Culture" this year at Pratt Institute.
In her artist statement, she writes, "I am both the artist and the performer...Through the stories I create I contemplate what it means to be a woman." On Instagram, she often posts videos and photographs of her process in which her presence adds a living, moving element to the images that surround her, which are loosely based on herself.
In her studio, the walls are adorned with paper cutouts and life-size paintings of women painted on paper with tea, a quintessential part of daily South Asian life. They are even more arresting in person than they are online. Lit up by sunlight pouring in from a gigantic window panes, the images feel like they're about to walk off the wall and join your conversation at any moment. It has been a long process getting to this place, Schahbaz told me. Initially the paintings she made were faceless. She then painted profile images until finally, the women gazed back at the viewer.
You started with miniature paintings and now make these large scale paintings. What was that transition like?
I trained with miniatures in undergrad. I pretty much just painted miniatures for a decade. When I moved here, I went to grad school. I was relocating, so I was emotionally ready for a change, so it just happened. It felt impossible. I never thought I would do anything different, but the work expanded and the larger the women got, the more charged they felt, the more alive. I connected them differently. Part of it was the challenge of doing something that I hadn't done before. Part of it was the need to connect with myself. Also, when I moved I left my core group of women friends behind, so I think it filled several different voids.
Who are the women you're painting?
It's different for every painting. Initially before I moved here, I was just painting bodies without faces. Mostly because I was using myself as a reference point and it was plausible deniability. When I came here, I decided to start painting my face just to learn how to paint the face because I realized it was a gap in my education. A lot of them were spin offs from that. Now I feel the need to vary the features. A lot of it was self-referential but not in a very realistic manner. Brown women, brown skin for the most part.
I've noticed that hair is a prominent feature. Is there a reason for that?
I know a lot of South Asian women have short hair, but I was brought up with really long hair and my dad used to brush it and fuss over it. It was oiled every other day. I think a lot of South Asian women identify very strongly with their hair. Even though I've shortened mine several times, I always feel a little lost without it. It's not a conscious decision, but as I grow older I've started to realize I am carrying some kind of female power in my hair. I think that's why it's become more prominent in the paintings. It's cultural, personal.
I feel that way too. I cut my hair into a bob after a break up, and it felt like this cool other persona, but it didn't feel totally like me. I have memories of being a child with coconut oil in my hair and two tight braids for when you go to sleep.
You identify with it. I think it's totally normal because it was such an important part of our habits, rituals, culture. I think as women, we tend to have so much discomfort within our bodies, and people literally have opinions on them all the time, and we need to figure out what works for us first.
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It's hard to reclaim that autonomy over your body and not feel like you're adhering to a white male gaze.
You've also moved back and forth, so you were exposed to a white gaze much younger. It probably influenced how you notice people looking at you as the other. [We spoke earlier about our immigrant narratives and I mentioned that my parents and I moved back and forth to India and the U.S. when I was a child.]
I talk about that with my parents all the time. They grew up in India and they don't see things like appropriation as such a big issue, for example, I think because they didn't have the same kind of forced exposure to whiteness when they were growing up, going through puberty, etcetera. Being an immigrant is of course its own set of hurdles, and whiteness impacts people globally.
It's totally different. It was different for me too. I grew up in Pakistan. I had a totally different set of issues with being a woman, but they didn't have to do with whiteness because I didn't have that much exposure to Western culture. When I came here, some friends I made were more conscious of it and I started noticing it. If someone came to me and said, "You look exotic" seven years ago when I came here I would have said, "Uh huh." At first I would have tried to understand. Now I would probably walk away impatiently. I feel like in New York especially, there's no excuse.
People can also be really condescending when they talk about the problems women in South Asia face. It's true that women face immense hardships, but I always feel frustrated when white Americans say that.
It feels reductive. It doesn't feel appropriate. It's like someone saying something about your family. Only you can complain about them.
Exactly! And it's like, I do it enough! I'm very aware of the flaws, I'm not going to let it slide!
Look at the problems in your backyard! Trump is president. People will be like, "Oh you're going home again. Isn't it dangerous?" I'm like, "Yeah, it is. But I grew up there. I spent 30 years there. I have family there. My culture is there. We have a thing called cultural identity!"
I feel very strongly connected to where I come from. I grew up there. I didn't even know there was a different way to live. Even though I do feel like I've changed almost completely, there are so many things about me I might never be able to put into words, so many conversations that I cannot have because there's no shared experience.
Certain smells, hearing the sound of Hindi spoken at home, it's very innate and will never go away no matter how long you live here. I'll smell a certain spice and suddenly remember, "Wow there's this whole other way of perceiving the world." There are words that don't exist in English.
I struggle with that at home too. Now that I live here I know it's very hard for people who know me to process the work I do. I understand it. You adapt to where you live. This work does not adapt to Pakistani culture, so in a way, it's rejected from it. I'm aware of that.
There's lots of things in South Asian culture that we're not supposed to talk about or portray: sex, desire, bodies.
I didn't acknowledge that I had my period for 30 years during Ramadan. It is another thing—it's a woman's body, it's not normal, we don't talk about this, we don't acknowledge it. But we are all engaging with it. At the same time we're hiding it. We spend so much time negating ourselves.
You paint with tea. Why?
When I was studying miniature painting, I learned three techniques. One is called siyah qalam, which is black and white, one is gudrun, which is color, and one is neem rang, which is tea. It's this very sepia version. There's a bit of watercolor in it. When the work expanded, I took the tea with me. It's a medium that I've used since I was 18. For some reason, it just feels right for the bodies. It's a habit, preparing the tea wash, the smell of the tea, which reminds me of home a little because we were big tea drinkers. I'm not really interested in using a brown watercolor. This seems to fit.
It feels poetic. Chai is so desi.
It is. I've stopped drinking tea over here. I literally drink a cup of instant coffee in the morning and run to the studio. But I bring all the tea bags I use [in my work] from home, because the color is different. I think our tea is stronger. Tea bags I get over here from the same companies are totally watered down.
What kind of tea do you use?
Lipton. In our house, we drank Lipton when I was growing up in Pakistan. My grandfather would feed me breakfast in the morning, and he would spoon tea in my mouth with a teaspoon since I was literally a baby. Now over here, my mind was blown when I walked into a store and saw 20 varieties of tea. That change didn't come to South Asia until recently. Medium tall chai lattes…Chai tea [laughing].
It's so funny. [Because chai means tea, so the term 'chai tea' doesn't make any sense]. My parents drink chai like six times a day. Recently my parents came to visit me and were complaining about having to get up at 4AM. They didn't get here until 10, and it's a two hour drive, so I did the math and was like, "Why were you up so early?" They just said, "We needed time for chai!"
I was exactly the same. My dad used to prepare the tea at home. There's a certain beauty to getting up with your family and there's a breakfast table and you have chai and makkhan [butter] toast. I really miss that. When I go back home, I wake up at 7 to have breakfast with my great aunt. There's a comfort to it. Tea has to be part of it. There are people who come and are like, "Achha, I'm coming after dinner, I'll have tea."
It relates to that Desi sense of community that sometimes feels like it's missing here. If you go to someone's home, they're going to give you a meal. They will call it chai, but it's actually going to be a full meal.
Even if you don't want it. It's hard to break out of that habit of food being very social.
Yeah. Sometimes I feel this cultural clash here where my white friends are very particular about food and ownership over what is theirs. It doesn't feel as shared.
When I split my first check it was so weird. But if you don't do that over here, that's weird. It's a mental shift. If I tried to pay for my own coffee in Pakistan [when out with a friend or coworker] they would see it as a sign of disrespect. But if you don't do it over here, you're rude. A lot of things are transactional over here. I also feel very privileged as a South Asian woman; I know that a lot of women who grew up here have been fending for themselves since they were 18 or younger. My parents sent me to college and it cost $100 for the year. It's a totally different situation if you don't have the means, of course.
In one of your first paintings, your mouth was tied shut. Why was that? Has your work changed since then?
I think the first self portrait I made had my mouth tied shut with a red scarf. It was a very spontaneous painting. My work generally is very intuitive and instinctive. If I rationalize it now, I had just moved. Maybe there were things I felt like I couldn't say or talk about. Maybe I felt like I couldn't talk about my life or my experiences. Definitely I felt like my expression was restricted. I think it took awhile for me to move past that, to feel like it was okay to express myself. I used to just paint bodies without faces. Then the face came in and her mouth was covered. And then there were side profiles, maybe three years ago she turned to face the viewer. When I think about it now, it was a process.
I found your work through Instagram. I'm curious how you think about social media.
It took me a really long time to get online. For the longest time, I was hiding what I was painting. Then I realized you can't really be an artist if no one sees what you're doing. It was a very random decision. I was working with someone whose PR person wanted all their artists to be online and they insisted. It was really interesting. As an immigrant, not knowing anyone in the art world, I met a lot of people over social media. It was an amazing thing because it's an equalizer. We're all on it. Me, you, your boss, celebrities, Trump. Even though there is so much controversy about it, I think it's giving us a sense of community that we stopped having in our day-to-day lives.
I made friends. I post pictures of my paintings and of myself painting and of my studio. A lot of women reach out from different parts of the world. Especially brown women. People reach out saying they have felt all their lives that their brown bodies have been completely excluded from the canon of art history. They like looking at a woman's body that they can relate too. Sometimes I wonder if that's why I started painting it. Did I feel a disconnect from my body? It's complicated but it's also a very lovely thing to experience so when I started the paintings, they were much more about me, and they had more of a narrative aspect, but as the work started expanding and I started meeting more people, they became more about a collective.
Photography by Ben Hassett
Styling by Mia Solkin
Hair by Rudy Martins at the Wall Group
Makeup by Eric Polito at Art Department
Digital Tech: Carlo Barreto
1st Photo Assistant: Roeg Cohen
2nd Photo Assistants: Eric Hobbs and Chris Moore