She is a fearless voice in a turbulent time, a beacon of outspokenness for the rights of women and children, and an inexorable force in promoting environment and heritage conservation. Pakistani artist Fauzia Minallah paints, makes cloth murals, engraves slates, creates installations in the woods, writes and illustrates books, sketches searing political cartoons, and designs fascinating animations. Abir Pothi gets to know her.
Share with us some of your early memories, and tryst with art.
I was born in Quetta, but my father’s job as a government servant took us across cities and towns of Pakistan. My earliest art-related memories are of pages of my first copy, which I filled with drawings of stick figures in Lahore in 1969… but it was in 1974 in Peshawar that my tryst with art began.
Peshawar has given me lifelong memories associated with art — this is where I started painting lessons in oil from a well-respected artist of the city. The space where the art classes were held was in the Peshawar museum, which has one of the richest collections of Gandhara art in the world. It was also in Peshawar that I finished the recitation of the Quran, which is called khatam-i-quran.
My parents used to take us to their hometown in the north called Sirikot for Eid celebrations with our extended family. I have childhood memories of playing in the graveyards and being mesmerised by the rich repertoire of floral designs and symbols chiselled on slate tombstones. My father’s posting in Gilgit gave me memories of the magnificent rock carving, which dates back to the 1st millennium AD.
I guess all these experiences as a child of living in different parts of Pakistan and parents who valued the artistic heritage of these places have inspired me immensely in my career as an artist.
Maybe it was this particular childhood that it was very painful when a 7th century rock carving called Jehananbad Buddha was vandalised in Swat in the northern part of Pakistan. Out of this pain, my series of carvings, ‘Buddha still lives in Pakistan’, was born.
How did your journey as a professional artist being?
It started very young! I have been painting for as long as I remember. It has been my constant companion and I cannot imagine a life without art. My journey has been of exploration and trying different media. At 19, I had a children’s book published and as a university student, I was working as a political cartoonist for an English newspaper in Islamabad. I have carved stone, painted on canvas and animated my paintings. When my sons were small, I created a cartoon character called ‘Amai, the bird of light’, and wrote, illustrated and animated stories about her. Lately, I absolutely enjoy recycling different things to make art. Since 2014, due to dividing time between Pakistan and Germany, my favorite medium is fabric. I call myself a jack of all trades, but master of none — and yet, every medium I have used at every time has given me immense joy. At this point in my life, art works like medicine for me.
Let’s talk about the pandemic effect.
At a personal level, even before the pandemic, my art became my lifeline, therapy and medicine. I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in October 2018, and art became an integral part of my healing process. When one is diagnosed with an old-age, degenerative disease at 56, one looks at life differently — and the worldview changes, too. After my initial shock, I had to pick up my shattered pieces and make some changes in my life. I had to heal myself without the modern conventional medicines which are not that helpful in Parkinson’s, in any way. I adopted a healing process that is very multicultural. Winters before and after the pandemic were spent mostly on my sun-drenched terrace and the rooftop in Islamabad, creating art. Besides art therapy, a number of things worked like medicine for me — my prayer in Arabic, tai chi, yoga, birdwatching and music helped. Summers were spent creating art in my little living room in Germany and savouring each moment of cycling in the woods nearby.
So, when the pandemic erupted, I didn’t miss much as far as the lifestyle was concerned, because I was already healing myself in a sort of a lockdown. Some of my favourite work was done after my diagnoses and during the pandemic. ‘Healing’ is the body of work from 2019 till 2021, which I did during the first wave of Covid. But it was during the second wave that I started work on my series ‘Tree Spirits’. It was the outcome of my immense love for Mother Nature.
Even before the pandemic, I have been pondering over the question of an artist’s role in the current climate crisis. Parkinson’s taught me to tread softly on the earth and I wish humans would learn this simple lesson from the experience of pandemic. Due to concerns about the climate crisis, which is like a degenerative disease for Mother Earth, and my passion for trees, I have started using recycled material.
In Pakistan, for the past 20 years, I have been teaching children how to make dolls from polythene bags and plastic bottles. But it was after living in Germany and loving the practice of recycling over there that I was inspired to use recycled material for my art. I have been collecting lightly used tinfoil since 2014, but it was during the pandemic that I created an installation out of it. This creative process started in the kitchen in Germany, but then I started using wheel caps found by the roadside and other trash like newspapers, polythene bags and tin cans.
The Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, who is famous for his monumental work made from recycled material, is my greatest inspiration. The first tin foil sculpture, titled ‘Tinfoil Mother Nature saving her children from rape and massacre’ was made in Germany for the Biennale Haimhauser-Art 2020. I took three wheel hubs I found by the roadside or discarded ones left outside the gate or boundary walls of homes in Germany to Pakistan and worked on my installation ‘Mother Earth’s Tribe’.
After the disappointment of the postponement of my exhibition at the National Art Gallery of Islamabad due to the lockdown in February 2020, I really enjoyed the outdoor display of my tinfoil installation in February 2021. It was displayed under an old banyan tree (another passion of mine) in Islamabad. I have been saving old trees of Islamabad as ‘Natural Monuments’ since 2010, with the help of the city administration, of course. So, displaying the installation under the old banyan tree saved as a natural monument was a precious moment for me.
Even before the pandemic, I always enjoyed displaying my work in the woods and especially under the shade of an old tree — this juxtaposition of my art with the magnificent art of nature fascinates me and reminds me of how small humans are. It makes one humble. So, my outdoor display of the installation under the old banyan tree and physically sharing my art with people during the pandemic was very special indeed. Because in Pakistan, like in many countries of the world, the pandemic has deprived several artists of the gallery experience. There have been very few exhibitions held in galleries in Pakistan during the pandemic.
Do you believe the art world will thrive like before with online viewing rooms?
Personally, I feel that there is no alternative to looking at work of art in a living space. Looking at the textures, strokes in an actual painting is an experience one cannot get in a digital space. This has really been the worst consequence of the pandemic for artists. I love the idea of outdoor exhibitions — but only sculpture and some installations can be shown outdoors. But while I make sure I am responsible while using Mother Nature’s space, many artists are not. The artist’s ego is sometimes much bigger than the concern for the environment. They end up dumping more concrete in nature. At this time and age, artists have to fill galleries and museums with monumental art that is made from recyclable material, with less carbon footprint, like El Anatsui is doing.
Tell us a little about your process.
The process starts with a feeling — it could be love and awe for Mother Nature and her most beautiful creations, trees, or it could be a personal pain one feels at a certain stage in life, or triggered by an image that one finds disturbing. For me, art is not only found in galleries and museums, but also in nature. I am privileged to have been the moving force behind saving old and historical trees as ‘Natural Monuments’ in Islamabad. Banyan trees as my biggest inspiration because for me they are, in fact all trees are, symbols of tolerance and peace. Each religion has some trees more sacred than the other, but the tree never asks about race or religion before blessing humans with its blissful shade in blistering hot summer days.
My art compliments my activism. There was a time that I took active part in protests against injustices and destruction of trees and nature, but after my diagnosis I am concentrating on producing a larger body of work, and if I have to make a statement I do it through my art. Using my hand became very important because I don’t know for how long I will be able to draw a straight line.
The Mosquito Nets series was made in Germany during the refugee crisis in 2016. The suffering of the migrants taking treacherous journeys to reach Europe was on my conscience. I was installing mosquito nets on my apartment window at that time to keep annoying pests away — in a similar way, some countries were closing their doors to shattered and broken people running away from war and poverty. I love this work the most. I play with light and shadows and it is interesting how these panels look different in different light. Only when the light falls on it can you see faces of children in the shadow.
‘Banyans in Germany’ were also painted around that time. I was going through the empty nest syndrome at the same time, and how I wished to be a banyan tree and have my children be a part of me until I die! But life does not work like that. One has to let our children fly. But many mothers who lose their children forever don’t have that luxury and at that time, children were snatched from their parents and drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.
It was in 2003 that I started using dots in my paintings, stone carvings or illustrations for children. Initially, I started with a few dots depicting the tiny particles one sees in a beam of light filtering through a window. But now, they take up a whole surface of the canvas, and the tiny dots form different shapes. While working in stone, the electric drill gives me dots. When I start the first dot, I cannot stop — the process is so therapeutic! Some Western audiences ask me if the dots in my paintings are inspired by the aboriginal dot paintings. The inspiration actually is traditional handicrafts from Pakistan, like chundri (tie and dye scarves that I mostly wear). A dot has great significance to me — every line starts with a dot and we all are made of tiny cells, so using dots in my work is just natural. Of course I am a big fan of Aboriginal art, but I call the use of dots in my work as my connecting dots of humanity. I just wish that when someone looks at my work, they find a humanist’s heart and mind in the images.
What are the challenges of being a woman artist in your country?
Actually, whether you are a man or a woman, the freedom of expression is under threat — like many other countries — in Pakistan, too. One of the bravest artists of Pakistan, Adeela Suleman, saw her brilliant installation removed from a Biennale because it ruffled some feathers. Her installation, The Killing Fields of Karachi, was a very sensitive statement on the extrajudicial killings in Karachi.
I am asked very often why my work doesn’t represent a Pakistani/ Muslim identity, especially in my work ‘Gandhara Mother Earth with a halo’. In this world of stereotypes it has become so difficult for many to understand that this work is not from India or any Buddhist country, but a Pakistani’s heritage. Of course India and Pakistan share a South Asian heritage. Within Pakistan, for some Pakistanis, Pathans have a stereotype of being violent terrorists — but Gandhara most of all is their heritage. This work is inspired by my childhood memories of Peshawar museum. This is also the city where I saw my mother learning sculpture. Sadly, the never-ending wars have not only killed our loved ones, but robbed us of much of our heritage, our songs, dances and traditional arts. Each one of us in Pakistan has become a stereotype and it indeed is suffocating in this ‘box of stereotypes’ — so I refuse to be shoved in it. It is painful because this stereotype has become the reality now of many Pakistanis. But through my art, I reclaim my millennia-rich heritage and preserve my blissful memories of Pakistani cities where I lived. I feel respecting and owning all the layers of the artistic history of Pakistan will allow us to respect our minorities — and the same goes for India.