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Summaiya Jillani: A New Voice in Pakistani Art

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The Pakistani art scene is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment, with a wealth of talent emerging from Pakistan's numerous cosmopolitan cities. From Karachi to Lahore, a resurgence of artistic curiosity has reinvigorated Pakistani culture existentially. One such artist is the 24-year-old Summaiya Jillani.

Summaiya, a Karachi based artist, has taken the world by storm. Her paintings are exciting visions of colour and surprise, with a foundation that lies in pure Pop Art eccentricity. What Summaiya has done is take instantly recognisable images from popular culture, from the likes of Frida Kahlo to the Beatles, and given them a delectable Pakistani twist.

The painting which first grabbed the public's attention was Jillani's reimagining of the Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe. The famous image of Monroe standing over a New York air vent was drenched in colour, and Monroe herself was decked in a kaleidoscopic Salwaar Kameez, complete with chunky gold earrings. As soon as the image went viral, through social networking sites, a storm of interest erupted.

I had the opportunity to speak with Summaiya, who is still baffled by all this attention, at her studio in Karachi.

First and foremost, how did your artistic style come about?

Having being born and brought up in Karachi (the heart of Pakistan), I did not have to make too much effort to come up with a style like that in my work. The way I live, dress and see things as, being in this city; I only transfer that in to my work and it becomes what you see it is.

The ethnic touch in my work is part of my upbringing and also a matter of personal preference. I have always had a proclivity for "desi" things and the indigenous colours of Pakistan. It is a blessing to have a rich cultural background as a native of some place. I find it very easy to bring out the Pakistani feel in my work just by being true to the colours we get to see in our every-day routine. Living in a country like this is truly an inspiration for producing such works, where nothing is too basic and plain. Textures and colours play an important role in my work and these two things are to be found everywhere in absolute abundance around us; from a cracked door to a rusted bicycle to a vibrantly coloured overcrowded bus to a local wedding offering an explosion of loud colours and so on.

Of course I had to put some effort in learning how to paint and visualize things effectively by studying a number of my favourite artists' works and analysing their techniques. Works of famous painters like Belinda Eaton, Francoise Nielly and many more inspire me the most! But that is just it. All the rest comes naturally - the colours, the language, the feel, the mood, the humour, etc.

What is that inspires you to paint?

I cannot pinpoint what exactly it is, but during my graduation days in an art school, there came a point of realization that I was actually good with paints. I was very reluctant about it before that. I had a wish to become a sculptor. My teachers and my friends made me realize that painting was my main strength and I should never stop doing that. That moment and those compliments from everywhere around became a pivotal inspiration for me to keep painting more and more. I don't hesitate in saying that I make art in order to show off and gain pleasure through the flattery it brings me in return. In short, people going gaga over my work inspire me to paint more.

What is it about pop culture that you find so fascinating?

It fascinates me for many reasons, first and foremost being its light-heartedness. I have never had any interest in complicating things in general; hence, for myself I prefer art or even poetry, which is simple yet striking. I love pop art for being accessible to all. One doesn't need to take a dive in an ocean of intellect to comprehend it because it's so 'in your face' kind of a thing. Apart from that, it is not just about one culture or one style. Anything and everything can become part of it owing to its gained popularity, regardless of its style and origin. Albeit, pop-culture was originally born in the west, yet it generated a strong appeal throughout the world because of its catchiness and humour. Many cultures and movements came up, went down and became historic. Pop-culture for me remains immortal.

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What compelled you to take on these pop culture icons?

I haven't painted the pop culture icons only. I've been painting different icons that either I truly love or find interesting to be brought into an art form no matter if they've been part of the pop-culture or not. My work is all about my personal taste. People at times give me suggestions to paint this or that, which they think is related to the pop phenomenon somehow but I won't be interested in painting those icons unless I have a serious liking for them already. So initially when I commenced painting icons, there was no such intention to pick up pop icons, I was only picking icons that I wanted to pay tribute to out of my personal adoration for them. My work language is very pop, hence the label of a pop icon painter on me.

What do you make of the flurry of interest your art has received on social media sites?

Usually in Pakistan, an artwork and the response it attains stay within the gallery premises. Out of my habit of keeping a Facebook record of my activities, I uploaded a very simple picture of myself with my work on Facebook. While uploading it, I had no clue that the view-ability setting of my 'wall pictures' was public. I went to sleep right after that and the next morning, things had totally changed for me. About a thousand likes and shares even more in number and my inbox full with messages, offers and requests. Both the responses (gallery and internet) had their own fun. Social media response was, of course, very oceanic and it spread like fire, while the gallery had its own charm. People standing in front of your painting for long minutes, then moving around a bit and coming back to it again definitely make you feel very good. I am always interested in seeing young kids' response to art, which you don't get to see much on Facebook or Twitter as at this age 'art' has not yet become their cup of tea. But when they observe it in a gallery, their body language tells how mesmerised they are to see some original piece of art. That thrill in their conversations is exciting and something very positive.

Do you think social media is a useful tool for artists to promote their work?

I believe social media is playing the strongest role in many field these days. We all need to get a little more open about our artistic endeavours here on the social network. You never know what strikes the masses as something extraordinary here. I never understand putting up of artworks under severe privacy settings. What is the point of putting them up then? Why do we make art? To hide it from people? I mean your family and friends can always come over to your place and see your work. Make it visible to all and show it to the real world out there. Don't forget to put dates and watermarks to avoid plagiarism though.

How do you approach an artistic project, such as this?

Being very honest, ever since I graduated, I did not approach any project myself as I have been busy teaching at a school as an art instructor. Meanwhile I did produce works on and off but I never approached them myself. My work is open on facebook, which gets me projects pretty effortlessly.

What is your next project?

There are quite a many things lined up, it gets a bit difficult for me to prioritize but mainly I am looking forward to having a solo show here in Pakistan or maybe somewhere else. It all depends on how things shape up for me in a couple more months. I also wish to continue studying, done with my Bachelors in Fine Art, I feel the need to explore art in some other dimension.