Born in England, raised in Pakistan, and now residing here in Vancouver, Sara Khan is a painter fascinated with perspective and representation, who works intimately with personal history. She moved to Vancouver three years ago from Lahore after marrying her husband, who’s from Vancouver. Much of her work depicts the conflicts surrounding her and are largely autobiographical. Over the years, her work has shown intriguing progress in her journey of exploring and revealing vulnerability. From sexual repression in Pakistan to personally maturing as a woman and encountering what she calls, “baby fears,” her paintings are capsules of personal narratives mixed with cultural politics, gender and sexual dynamics. Khan was accepted to exhibit her newest series of paintings, Ubiquitous Follies, at Deer Lake Gallery in August. SAD writer Katherine Chan sat down with the artist to talk about her relationship with her work, and how it relates to the world around her.
Katherine Chan: What would you say is the inspiration for your work?
Sara Khan: Mostly it is the interactions I see between people, but a lot of the times it’s fiction too. When I read I see how it connects with me, and then come up with a visual for it. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of Doris Lessing and a lot about female issues. Doris Lessing writes a lot about relationships. I think she had issues in her old relationships, so there’s something very dark about the relationships presented in her books. One of the short stories was about a couple living with four children and when the children reach a certain age, the mother finally gets to do her own thing, but she just can’t get back to that life. She wants to, you know, but she just can’t. Her writing is about human relationships, power, control. It’s about the female vision and perspective on things. I think that’s what my work is about. It’s not about anything in particular, but it’s more about my perspective of things.
KC: This makes me think of representation. It seems that you care very much about how things are represented.
SK: Yes. I find it so interesting how relationships work and how we interact with the world around us, how we judge things. it all comes from how we grew up and what affected us when. It’s very complicated. Especially after I moved, I can’t relate to the person I was in Lahore at all, even though I know how my mind worked. When I spent time in London, I always felt like the western culture was London. Then I moved here and realized, no—there is community and family life, and there is slower pace. It’s interesting how we see things and put things in boxes, and then realize no, these boxes don’t work.
KC: There’s an interesting depth and use of background and foreground in your paintings. This is important because they seem outwardly premeditated and separate yet coherent within a smaller frame. They are like two pillars of narrative in the piece, and each serve a purpose. Waiting and Doll from your The Unsolicited Sidekick series are good examples.
SK: They’re more planned and structured. Most of these [from The Unsolicited Sidekick] have a background linked to Pakistan. There’s always some kind of politics, some kind of corruption, and some kind of madness that’s running through our lives in the background. I was doing a lot of things that I felt almost made to do, so here [in Doll] I depict myself as vulnerable and completely exposed, but not really willingly, and being judged. It was more about one’s vulnerability being seen. I was always one of those people who could keep herself together, but it was all gone then.
KC: What role do animals play in your paintings?
SK: A lot of the time animals are reflective of our very basic instincts. In fact, when we get more complicated, we often become dishonest as well. But when we keep to the animal instincts, a lot of the time it’s far truer. I love animals, generally. I feel like they’re so straightforward and honest.
KC: What about sexuality? A lot of your your paintings are quite sexual.
SK: I’ve always found it strange how something as simple as being vulnerable with each other puts you in a weaker position. The power shifts outward. Sex is almost as essential as other basic needs, but in our culture it’s so repressed. It’s such a taboo and it makes me immediately want to rebel against it. This one [The Stroll from series The Unsolicited Sidekick] is about what men are “supposed” to do with women [in our culture], which is putting them away. The women in cloaks depicted here are stacked, hidden away. Because of how suppressed sex is, a lot of men turn to little boys. That’s just what happens when you suppress something essential, it always forces itself out in some way, anyways. I think that’s why sexuality comes out so automatically in my work. It’s so basic of a need and you cannot suppress it. My last relationship taught me that I can’t always control or contain everything. Some things are just more instinctively based.
KC: What is the art scene and the audience like in Pakistan?
SK: The good thing about it is that people are very interested in Pakistani artists’ work. Close by, Dubai has become very popular with the arts. Lots of artists hail from Pakistan and show in Dubai, and some venture to Europe through Dubai. Geographically, it’s convenient. Showing in Pakistan is interesting because more recently, about five years before I graduated, all of this was picking up pretty quickly. There were a lot of new galleries, things opening up, and a lot of galleries were working with those outside of Pakistan, so it’s growing. I’d love to show [my new series] in Pakistan after showing it here.
KC: What’s the new series called?
SK: Ubiquitous Follies. You know when you’re young and you have your own little world? You’re on your bed and you think you’re in a sea or something. In the background though, there are always people surveying you, like adults keeping an eye on you. I think a lot of the time elders want to be part of the game, but they just have to keep an eye and you know you’re always watched one way or another.
KC: Is the darkness in your work intentional, or a consequence of thinking so much about representation, especially when there are so much that’s misrepresented these days?
SK: I think that’s also just how I see things. The negative and positive have to work together to form a picture, right? It’s never just one aspect. Whichever life I’m leading, there’s always something dark. That’s how I see it. The struggle teaches you things.
KC: How did your upcoming exhibition at Deer Lake Gallery come about?
SK: I applied for the show with the Landscapes series. [That series is] quite simple compared to my other work. I usually don’t do that style of work. I enjoy more crazy, spontaneous, all over the place… but I think Vancouver itself sort of got me thinking about these kinds of spaces, because I’m on the twenty-second floor [in my building], and I feel like I’m always seeing these strange shapes formed by the light throughout the day. Sometimes the shapes come into my room at certain time of the day. Sometimes it feels very misty, so you just see bits and pieces of houses. It’s always these clean-cut lines and I find Vancouver itself is utopian—everything is clean and straight-edged, very organized, and for me that is all very new.
KC: What do you think of beauty? Is there a resistance against what is societally considered beautiful?
SK: Beauty? For the longest time, I’ve always loved it. I used to paint very “beautiful” paintings and then I sort of started turning away from that, when I had a teacher who was quite into the grotesque. I liked painting whatever I wanted, but recently I’m moving towards painting beautifully again [in my latest series]. I realized it doesn’t need to be dark or grotesque intentionally; of course it can have elements of it, but I also enjoy the delicacy of beauty. I like the idea of beautifying creepy things. Beauty is very relative.
The opening reception of Silent Disparities, a two-person show with Sara Khan and Tom Douglas, will be hosted at Deer Lake Gallery in Burnaby on Thursday night, August 10, 2017, at 7:00 pm. Khan’s newest works from the series Ubiquitous Follies will be displayed at the exhibition. More information can be found here.
This interview has been edited for clarity.