In his debut solo show in India titled ‘Between The Lines’, New York-based Pakistani artist Khalil Chishtee reflects upon his memories of a traumatic childhood post partition and political unjust of the newly found country. The themes of war, conflict and pain are central to his works. In an interaction with ACF, the artist shares story about his muse, how he approaches work and why love can never grow out of fear.
The show is presented by Studio Art and is on view at Visuals Arts Gallery until February 16. It will then be on display at Bikaner House from February 20 to March 3.
Artists always find a creative way to express residues of their painful memories of the Partition. Has the impact of the cataclysmic event been one of the triggers to pique your interest in creating works that reflect inner turmoil?
Although I have heard many horrifying stories of partition from my parents but my personal reason was indulging into art making or image making activity because of my muse, my elder sister who passed away when I was 6 or 7 years old, and I started making life like drawing, with remarkable skill (which made me one of the famous kid in old Lahore). If I look back, maybe, I was trying to capture people in my personal notebook so that they can’t leave me.
What methodology do you employ while working towards this new medium of marrying poetry with Urdu calligraphy? Does the thought come first, or is it the verses that lead to visual imagery?
We artists, most of the time, think in visuals and then we usually look for words to describe our artworks. In this body of work, I am trying to do two things: simply writing the idea/inspiration behind the image and secondly Urdu language has wrongly been associated with Islam, so even people who know Urdu language has asked me many times that maybe these are some holly scriptures. It’s so weird that when my Muslim friends come to my studio and after seeing my work on floor, immediately ask why this sacred thing is on the floor? To which, I reply what made them think it is sacred. The answer always is “it looks sacred”. That’s how our mind associates one thing with other and then we simply stop investigating further.
You live in New York, yet the idea of the work Sweet Dreams has germinated from an ironic statement by a Pakistani general. How do you look at political upheavals in your country? Do you think your preoccupation with themes like conflict and war is an outcome of your experiences in Pakistan?
I think people who live outside their country of origin somehow are more aware of politics back home and especially people like me who desperately want to make few changes in our existing structure of power. People who are trained in fighting wars cannot think like a peaceful person, their every action, plan or strategy is based on fear and “love” can never grow out of fear.
Do the questions of identity and home confront you in New York? How do you deal with these questions?
I moved from Pakistan at the age of 38, and that’s why I don’t have ideas of identity or finding myself in some cultural or religious ritual like any ignorant homesick individual. Studying myself with the help of my art practice is the most amazing outcome of my art.
Artistic expressions shouldn’t be restricted by boundaries, yet India and Pakistan have curtailed the freedom of free-flowing exchange. How do you view this decision?
I don’t believe in anything that divides us. How can anyone tell me that it’s not ok to think in your mother tongue or from now on you are not related to your land anymore? How can anyone impose new rules of some new religion that is a product of a distend land and its culture? I still think partition of India was a big tragedy. Waiting to see a day when we all start living like a one big family again.