Space for Women's Stories: Interview with Hiba Schahbaz

Space for Women's Stories: Interview with Hiba Schahbaz

Hiba Schahbaz was born in Karachi, Pakistan and lives in Brooklyn, NY. She works primarily with paper, black tea, and water-based pigments. She depicts women’s bodies while referencing self-portraiture, creating a space for herself and other women to tell their stories and reclaim their histories. Since migrating to the United States, her practice has expanded from miniature painting to human-scale works on paper.

Schahbaz trained in miniature painting at the National College of Arts, Lahore and received an MFA in painting from Pratt Institute. Her solo shows include The Garden (Spring/Break Art Show, 2018), Hiba Schahbaz: Self-Portraits (Project for Empty Space, 2017), Hanged With Roses (Thierry Goldberg Gallery, 2015), and In Memory (Noire Gallery, 2012). 

Schahbaz has participated in numerous group exhibitions; including shows at NiU Museum of Art, The Untitled Space, and Center for Book Arts; and at art fairs such as Pulse Art Fair, Art.Fair Cologne, and Vienna Fair. Her work has been written about in Vice, Hyperallergic, The Huffington Post, Coveteur, Vogue, NY Magazine, Art Critical, and others.

Schahbaz has curated painting exhibitions in Pakistan and India. She was an artist-in-residence at Mass MoCA, The Wassaic Project, Vermont Studio Center, and the Alfred Z. Solomon Residency at the Tang Museum. She teaches miniature painting at the Art Students League in NY.

Interview by Sarah Mills

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When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I can’t say that there was a single decisive moment. When I was a young girl, I would keep little scraps of paper, markers, and a torch under my pillow. I would draw imaginary landscapes hidden under my blanket when I was supposed to be sleeping. I always assumed that I would be an artist, and luckily life flowed in that direction.

When did you decide to start creating large-scale works? What pushed you to do so?

I began painting larger human scale works a couple of years ago. It was a big shift from miniature painting, and although I’d been thinking about it for years, I was still hesitant to do so. I think the shift happened because I had become very comfortable and settled as a miniature painter. I needed to develop something different. I craved growth (no pun intended). 

In part, the transition also happened because I began painting the gaze. When I moved to New York, I wasn’t painting faces at all. Over time, I began painting the side profiles of figures and eventually the women in the paintings turned to face the viewer. At this time I wanted to make their eyes life size to further this engagement.

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How did your work in miniatures inform your large-scale works?

I trained as a miniaturist and painted within the genre for over a decade. I see the human sized paintings as an extension of my miniature works. I still paint very stylized bodies and imaginary landscapes. My use of tea, pink, and turquoise are the same colors I utilized in miniature paintings. I also still use a fine miniature brush to articulate areas of detail. Most of the materials I use are a direct extension of my miniature practice, such as handmade paper, tea, gouache, watercolor, and gold leaf.

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Can you tell us a little about your studio practice? 

I’m a full time artist. My studio practice is entirely self-disciplined and self-motivated. I like working at my own pace and being in a state of flow at the studio. I prefer to paint without goals for exhibiting my work, and I don’t need deadlines to get things done. I find I’m most satisfied when I work without pressure and my paintings develop organically. The opportunities to show these paintings arise along the way.

I appreciate harmony. I wake up with the sunrise and come to the studio first thing in the morning. Early mornings are very important to me, since I’m most centred and productive when I have substantial mental space and quiet time in which to work. 

In the studio I often work on more than one thing at a time. These days I’m not working from preliminary sketches or drawing or color studies. All my energy is going into the paintings themselves. If I get stuck, I shift my attention to another work until things fall into place. I often shift scale, moving from working on large paintings to small ones.

What has been the biggest surprise you have faced in your art career thus far?

I think the biggest surprise has been all the support and encouragement I have received from both inside and outside the art world since moving to New York. Even when things got rough in my own personal journey as an artist, I always feel stronger and more accepted when I received a note from someone who had seen and experienced my paintings for the first time. It’s always a surprise and it’s always welcome. I feel a lot of gratitude towards everyone who has supported me on my path.

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What is one piece of advice that you got that you feel our readers would benefit from hearing?

Believe in yourself and make work for yourself. If you’re fulfilled as an artist, the rest of the world will come around. Ninety percent of the validation you need should come from within. Consistency is key, so work everyday—it’s not about ‘feeling’ inspired. Lightning will probably strike you before inspiration does! You’re an artist, so create your own inspiration. Never give up.

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