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Contrary Gardens of Shahnaz Sheikh

Updated: Jun 23

Seerat Hazir

On Shahnaz Sheikh’s exhibition held at Ocean Art Gallery, in Lahore, from May 19-25, 2024, by ad film maker, part-time lover of anything that rhymes on two feet, or more, and husband to the artist, substituting as The Aleph Review interviewer for this piece.

Note: All of Shahnaz’s paintings were sold out on the very first day of the exhibition—her fourteen ‘gardens’ transplanted to homes around the world—from Lahore, Islamabad, and Sialkot, to Toronto, New York and Geneva.

One walks through a cluster of trees filled with bird sounds, then up the steps to the front door that has life-size figures of a man and a woman carved in wood, palms pressed together in a Thai welcome. Then down-stares at the artworks, photographs, some Thai statues, a tall venetian puppet, and into the basement flooded with floor-to-ceiling paintings, masks, and a host of other objets d’art. Brightly painted papier-mache bowls and owls—hand-crafted by Shahnaz— reveal yet another dimension to the artist. Tucked away in one corner, and just to keep things in perspective, is a framed picture of Shahnaz with Raj Kapoor.

In the fading evening light from the courtyard, Shahnaz and a hooded Ikea lamp are bent over a drawing board on a large dining table laid out with an assortment of paint brushes, markers, poster colours, and water colours—plenty to whet the palette! She seems as much engrossed in a Hamesh Macbeth audio-book playing  in the background as in the painting she’s working on.

A pug appears from nowhere and goes straight for my ankles, setting, simultaneously, a screaming parrot and my acrobatic skills in motion.  A few stern commands and the bonsaied ‘chinthe’ is back to its tail-wagging normal. The frightened parrot, returned to its perch now, is still muttering profanities in bird-speak.

This is the formal drawing/dining space doubling as Shahnaz’s part-time studio (‘the artful retreat, from husband and servants!’, she jests… in earnest). Persephone in her underworld.

For the public, she is the legendary actress who shot to fame with Ankahi and Tanhaniyan, the two most iconic PTV drama serials from the 80s. But those close to her know that this is just the smoke of the creative volcano that is Shahnaz Sheikh. Painting, sculpture, writing, children’s theatre, textile design—whatever Shahnaz puts her mind to, carries an aura of spiritual devotion, a carryover perhaps from the early childhood spent in the company of Buddhist monks on a hill station in Burma (the family migrated to Pakistan in the 1960s). After her O-Levels from The Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore, she got admission at the Slade, London, in 1976, but preferred to return to Pakistan to study Fine Arts at The National College of Arts, Lahore.

Shahnaz has been dabbling in painting and sculpture for many years, and has eventually gravitated to her version of whimsical art that challenges the limits of mixed media. Her latest series of artworks to be exhibited, Contrary Gardens, is quintessentially Shahnaz—vibrant, eclectic, and multilayered—reflecting a sensibility that is at once familiar and startlingly strange.

She says: “Art is therapy for me. When Queen Elizabeth, on her visit to NCA in 1996, stopped at my rather strange looking sculpture of a pregnant woman and asked what it was, I replied, my catharsis, much to her amusement.  I just have fun with colours and images; water colours, markers, crayons, poster colours, like I’m working on a colouring book for adults. The ingredients are all off the shelf, but the recipe is definitely my own… I think!  Oftentimes I just play by the ear, finding my way through a maze of forms, motifs, and colours, letting my hand guide me rather than my mind, without any intellectual compulsions. That’s the way it is, for me at least.”

Garden I

Your life, as your art, is full of birds, animals, and plants.

I’ve always been an animal lover, and I love to grow plants and trees. While most of my classmates at the Convent were hooked on Mills and Boons, I was binging on James Herriot.

(The laburnums in the park opposite the house have all been planted by her.

A ‘chlorophile’?)

You had a solo show at Ocean Galleries, titled Contrary Gardens.

Yes, and this is Garden 14, the last one in the Garden series.

Your first exhibition?

I’ve had small home-exhibitions before, mostly at my own house, and once in Islamabad. But this is my first proper exhibition at an art gallery.

How long does it take, typically, to finish one painting?

Anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks, not including the mental blocks.

(Replies are as abrupt as the cigarette in Garden VIII)

What are Contrary Gardens?

My paintings are all gardens, actually. A Shikar Gah type of tapestry, with flora and fauna from different lands, places I have visited, some real, some imagined. I work without any ideology, artistic or political. Let people find their own stories in my works, if they must.

(Despite their vibrancy, the artworks have a strange air of divine composure; a closer look, however, reveals the Devil—rendered with painstaking detail and  accuracy!)

Garden III

Any particular influences?

My sensibility relates to all folk art in the world—Madhu Bani, Mexican, Scandinavian, native American, South American, aborigine … and of course, our own truck art. I guess it’s whimsical art, of sorts.

At this point, fresh falsa juice arrives and we move out into the tiled courtyard resplendent with birdsong and windchimes, for a sip and a smoke. Some stray mosquitoes drift in and out of the conversation.

Artists whose works fascinate you.

All works of art fascinate me. Though I can’t somehow relate to some modern art, or even Mughal miniatures.

Garden X

Why mixed media?

I find oils and acrylics a bit messy and too hard for the intricate, detailed work that I do. Mix media - poster colours, water colours, water pencils, coloured markers, ink and gold leaf, are easier for me to get the effects I want.

Any issues in getting the materials you need, here in Pakistan?

Now that I am seriously working, and looking around for materials, there’s a treasure-trove of paper, foils, colors, glues, and other stuff available.... but here in Lahore, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Are you considering other mediums for future work?

Not really. I feel I need to perfect the application of colour on paper. Of course, I’ll be experimenting with different materials—paper, foils, pigments, etc.— but within the genre of mixed media, on paper, basically.

Azaan from a nearby mosque provides a closure to this conversation on art.

Garden XIII

All images courtesy of the artist.


Seerat Hazir is founder and CEO Hazirnet Asia, TV Commercial Production House, Lahore/Bangkok.

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Jun 24

Great read, it felt like I was sitting with you two!

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