The Light Dancing in His Retina

jal hamad
Nov 5, 2013 1:31PM

The Light Dancing in His Retina: Waqas Khan
by Zahra Khan

Waqas Khan is a rising star in the international art circuit. He is one of this year’s nominees for the prestigious Jameel Prize of the Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A), which is held every two years in partnership with the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives. The prize honours contemporary artists and designers whose work is inspired by Islamic traditions and it adheres to a stringent nomination process. Khan is one of the 10 shortlisted artists selected from a total of nearly 270, and the fifth Pakistani artist to have been nominated since the advent of the prize. The winner of the prize will be announced on December 10th at the V&A, and the work of the finalists and winner will be on display from December 11, 2013 – April 21, 2014.Khan has submitted three pieces for the Prize, including Letter to Lover I, 2013, all of which exemplify the large scale of his delicate and extremely precise mark making.Khan says, “There are no chances of error in my work, it is always the same dot and each dot is an expression.”I was lucky enough to speak with Waqas Khan at Frieze Art Fair, 2013 held at Regents Park in London. Khan’s Untitled, 2013 dominated the external wall of the Vienna based Krinzinger Gallery’s booth. Visitors crowded around the piece marveling at the complicated pattern the artist had created using pen and ink. Unsurprisingly, many of them found it difficult to believe that the exceedingly delicate, fine lines were drawn by Khan who is over 6 feet tall.“I enjoy traveling with the work, it is very interesting, and especially meeting different artists, and critics. They just want to talk about the art. People look at the work and they imagine an artist with a certain aura. They cannot believe it is me.”The delicate meticulousness of this piece is characteristic of Khan’s mesmerizing work. Yet despite their precision and seemingly easy uniformity, Khan’s pieces are far from static and require intense focus and concentration. The dots he creates are wholly dependent upon him, as he modifies his breathing to match the pace of his mark making, and exerts pressure on the paper to prevent any movement. Khan views his work as his diary - snippets of his life. He wants people to remember his work, and realize that they saw and were part of something magical. Likening his work to the exchange of energy, he offers his viewers a story, a narrative and the opportunity to embody it and live it.“My mood and emotions dictate my work and decide the pressure, and so the lines dance with my emotions. People can see how I am feeling right now.”

Khan manipulates miniature tradition in his work. He continues to work on Wasli paper, since the strength of the paper is necessary for the pressure of his pen. He uses a regular permanent ink pen with an extremely fine nib. Working in several colours, often having them overlap in his work, he creates dots, mini loops and thousands of marks to create spectacularly large pieces, the largest has been Letter to Lover II, 2013. Working from the outside inwards, each mark that Khan creates is part of a dialogue between himself and his viewer.“You look at things from the outside to the inside and that is how I create my work.”Khan’s success has snowballed in the last few years. The prize is just one of the changes that his life and practice have undergone. Khan developed his style of art making after he graduated from the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, where he had studied Printmaking and Miniature in his Bachelors. Khan was far from the model student during his studies at NCA, but his story is remarkable. He discovered a hidden talent and passion one afternoon while doodling on a piece of paper. He missed a flight to London and rejected a new job in Dubai because he was preoccupied by his discovery. It was his self belief and determination that led to his first solo show at Rohtas Gallery in Lahore, which was followed by a solo show at Canvas Gallery. Khan persuaded Sameera Raja, the founder and owner of Canvas to grant him a solo show. His art impressed her to such an extent that she created room for him in her busy schedule. As news of his astounding talent spread through Karachi, Lakeeren Gallery in Mumbai contacted him and invited him to show with them. Modestly attributing his success to the friends, professors and galleries in his life, it is evident that it is his own motivation and determination that have pushed him thus far. His praiseworthy combination of hard work, talent and self-belief have opened doors for him and paved his way forward.“Everybody knows what they want to do. They are just scared. If you don’t listen to the voice inside of you, you wont get anywhere. Whatever you do, just do it. Don’t think about it. Give it your maximum, and enjoy it. This is what is lacking in our lives. Each of us has a bird within us that can transform into a monster or an eagle.”Khan is inspired by his daily routines and encounters. A chance conversation may trigger images, or the green and gold overlay in an awning might spawn an idea for an art piece. He has demonstrated that his art is based upon far more than a lazy afternoon of doodling, but Khan still claims that anyone can do what he does.“I am not bringing anything new, nobody is, individuals just change things. Anybody can create this; I am just the person who is here right now.”“Do we get tired of breathing in and breathing out? It is called living. I am living with the work. I am breathing in with it.”Khan has a strict schedule of working at a constant pace. He has shown at a total of four international art fairs in 2013 alone, and has had solo shows in the last two years at the three galleries he displays at: Krinzinger Gallery, Vienna, Sabrina Amrani Gallery, Madrid and Lakeeren Gallery, Mumbai. He has an understanding with each of them regarding his pace and timeline; this independence keeps him focused and his work precise, intricate and on point. Khan has a number of shows opening within the next few months, including a group exhibition at Bickle Stiftung Foundation, which is curated by Peter Welemer, the Miami Basel Art Fair, and the V&A Jameel Prize exhibition, in addition to a host of shows in the pipeline.“You have to reach out to galleries and try to show your work. They have been very kind to me and they understand how I work. Whenever I feel like doing it, I do it. I do it from my heart. You have to talk to me and you have to know me. You cannot tear my work, just as you cannot tear me.”Khan says all his art is for his audience and that is what he really wants to cultivate.“I want people to have something that they can enjoy, and feel happy about. There is no agenda behind my work. I love people; I just talk to them and need to have a conversation with them. I want the viewer’s retina to dance with my work and dance around it. I want them to have something that they can remember and enjoy. It has to be a surprise, and they should remember it.”Khan attributes his recent focus and concentration to Sufi practices; Sufi music and pure Sufi thought. Khan describes his village upbringing in Akhtarabad, where local mystics would sing and perform frequently and publically. Those epic poems and love stories such as Heer Ranjha, which is one of the most popular romantic stories of the Punjab, have remained with him. Khan’s meditative, time consuming and difficult daily routine has calmed him, centered him and created a safe haven. “I am describing my feelings with my spirituality and my God. Everybody has a spirituality and everybody is connected, it is how we live. There is so much here for me to get from other people, there is a certain kind of smile, a certain surprise. They should remember it. That is what I want.

♦Zahra Khan, an independent curator with a focus on contemporary South Asian art, is the curator for Satrang Gallery in Islamabad and recently completed a Masters in Contemporary Art History at SOAS, London.

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