Wearing Your Braid as a Badge: Challenging Expectations and Finding Your Place
By Christina Nafziger
Through the female body and cultural iconography, Nadia Waheed’s paintings explore dichotomies present in her own life as well as those that affect the female experience, one that forces women to navigate through the unrealistic, and often contradictory, expectations from others. Originally from Pakistan, and now based in Austin, Texas, the artist has lives all over the world, with her artistic practice being the space where she can claim agency and be her true self, away from judgment. The blue, pink, and orange women in her paintings often sport henna on their skin and long braids, both strong and beautiful, nodding at her cultural roots. Recently represented by the London-based gallery BEERS, Waheed shares honest advice on how to stay focused on what is truly important as an artist. Join me as Waheed opens up about her struggles overcoming personal obstacles, and discusses the challenge of balancing the two sides of East and West in her work and life.
Have you always considered yourself an artist? When did you first feel like you had found your voice artist voice?
I haven’t always considered myself an artist, actually. I hold that word and title in very high regard and I don’t think that everyone who makes “art” is an artist. Artist to me implies a very high level of commitment to a certain type of work and practice. Mentally, it is not a “part time” relationship; the thinking about the work becomes something that’s always there, processing in the background of everything you do. It’s everything. I wasn’t comfortable calling myself an artist until I realized that this really was my only purpose in life. I could’ve taken another route after graduating with my BFA, but I felt so empty without my work, it was a clear sign that making paintings is an inherent part of my identity and that I could never be a functional version of myself without it.
I grew up drawing and that was my primary method for communicating myself artistically. When I moved to paint in 2013, I didn’t at all have the same fluidity or finesse as I did with line. I believe I found my artistic voice many years ago when I was young, but it’s been a years long process of honing it. When my mentor Kevin Wolff passed away in early 2018, his death rattled and pushed me to the brink emotionally—it was like a rebirth. I lost my apprehension and stopped thinking about painting and just did it. Everything clicked into place and this body of work is what came out; Blue Portrait (Sisyphus’s Boulder) is the painting that started it all.
Originally from Pakistan (born in Saudi, but from Karachi), how has your cultural background affected your artistic practice? Are there aspects of your work that are influenced by cultural elements or iconography?
I think it’s affected everything - it has always been something that I’ve responded to. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere, so my sketchbook was always my sanctuary. I could be my unadulterated myself, outside the sphere of judgment from Western or Eastern culture. My practice was born from a need to belong and be understood as myself, and my studio became the space for me to do it. I am heavily influenced by the styles and themes I see back in Pakistan, and am so in love with miniature painting and Islamic architecture, but I only draw from the pieces that feel mine. The things that I’m most excited by, or scared of, are the things that you’ll see in my paintings. The weight that I see carried by women, the different weight of expectation that I see carried by others and myself. Iconography aside, I’m interested in the social dynamics of the East and West - what’s “societally appropriate,” primarily in regards to the development of young women. The difference is incredible, and balancing the two has been a challenge for me.
There seems to be an emphasis on hair, specifically on the braid, in your work. Can you speak a bit to this?
The braid has become a metaphor for so many things. Connection, worth, beauty, vulnerability... but maybe the simplest answer would begin with me saying that I wore a long braid similar to the women in my paintings for many years. I felt it was a tangible connection to my culture, a badge I could wear that said, “This is where I come from.” Long braids are symbols of traditional beauty in Pakistan and I pay homage to that tradition in my paintings. It’s a heavily layered symbol, a liberation and simultaneously a huge weight. It can be your pride and your greatest vulnerability; the interdependence of opposites is something I think about all the time. My grandmother’s nurse in Karachi has an incredibly long braid, down to the back of her thighs. She says she keeps her hair wound away and hidden when she’s in public because she’s afraid that her hair is going to be cut off by a jealous woman or a man who thinks she’s being shameless about her appearance. She says it’s happened before to others. I don’t think I’ve fully unpacked it, but to me, the braid says, “I’m trying to be a good Pakistani girl.” It’s totally contradicted by the nudity, but that’s my point - we can have both and still be good.
Can you tell me about the presence of the female in your work? Are the scenes in your paintings allegories or are they perhaps reflections on your own thoughts or experiences?
I’d say a combination of both. I love women. I love men too (I love all humans!) but I’m amazed by women every day. So much is put onto us, and for generations women have persevered, raised families under constant abuse, broken countless glass ceilings and fought for respect in society and from our male counterparts. In my paintings, all my imagery is very personal; a lot of it is a surrendering, the resignation and the waving of a white flag. Someone looked at my paintings and said that none of my figures were empowered, that this work doesn’t empower women. I still grapple with that today, but I don’t disagree. Some of these figures are not empowered. It’s because sometimes I don’t feel empowered. There is an idea of “conditional” love that I see everywhere in my world which panics me - why is our worth and value as an entity dependent on our appearance or our paycheck or our marital status? I paint women because I am a woman, and mitigating the endless layers of complexity surrounding femininity and vulnerability and whatever ideas are thrust onto us, hoops we need to jump through to be given “worth”... these are all questions I’m painting through. At this point I have no definitive answers, rather I’m more interested in the question and the idea.
Congratulations on your gallery recent representation with BEERS London! Do you have any advice for artists seeking gallery representation?
Thank you! It was an incredibly serendipitous occurrence and I couldn’t be happier about it, BEERS has been one of my all time favorite galleries for years and I’m so thrilled to join the team.
Advice wise, there is only one thing that matters: making a good painting. We all know it’s a very difficult thing to do, so that honestly should be the only thing on your radar. If you try to curate your authentic voice towards a particular gallery or type of gallery, you are doing yourself and your work a massive disservice. The only thing an artist needs to be doing is making the work the best and most authentically that they conceivably can. There is no timeline. There is no falling behind. The only thing that matters is the quality of the work. If you can proudly stand next to your art and say, “This is me, this is mine,” then that’s all that matters. Everything else will come. Any young artists out there who are feeling anxiety, take charge and tell yourself this, “as long as it’s not impossible to do, it can be done”. Even a 1% chance is still a chance. Commitment is key.
Do you listen to anything (podcasts, music, etc.) while you paint?
I used to listen to music when I worked, but I’ve switched to NPR and podcasts in October 2018. I’ve placed really stringent restrictions on the music I listen to because I’m just so overwhelmed by it now. Commercials make my heart race and make me cry, any music that’s too emotive takes me too deep inside myself and my vision warps. It’s almost funny how strongly I react to it! Pretty much the only music I can tolerate without weeping is lo-fi hiphop, very calm music with few words, and nothing too emotionally charged. I’ve become a really big fan of On Point and Fresh Air on NPR, and the podcasts Philosophize This! by Stephen West and Making Sense (formerly Waking Up) by Sam Harris, and also, The Adam Buxton Podcast. I highly recommend all three of those. I deal primarily in ideas, so these are great podcasts that explore a particular idea or person in each episode, a deep dive into the nuances of a certain topic. Nothing in this world is black and white; I love being exposed to shades of grey I hadn’t thought of before.
Can you tell me about a time where you had to overcome an obstacle, either in your art career or during your painting process?
Things in my personal life during 2018 overwhelmed me to the point that, at the tail end of the year, being alone with myself in the studio became dangerous. I prefer working without natural light so that I don’t see the passage of time and I can just get lost in the flow of the work, but things in my life were happening one after the other and I was drowning. Going into my studio and being alone in a windowless room for 10 -14 hours a day was so isolating. My studio was slowly becoming this echo chamber for all my terrifying thoughts and feelings: of failure, of worthlessness, of hopelessness - but I couldn’t stop working. More than being alone with myself, I was afraid of not painting, I couldn’t stop. If I stopped I was afraid that one day would become two, that two would become three, and that I’d wake up one day and it had been a year and I hadn’t painted. Even thinking about it now is terrifying. My practice is about communing with myself and my deepest thoughts about different ideas, if my mind is full of fear and anxiety, it becomes intensely amplified in the studio. Learning how to mitigate the part of me that is compelled to paint and the part of me that was terrified of being alone with myself is something I consider to be one of my biggest accomplishments.
Do you have anything coming up this year that you’d like to share?
At this point in time nothing in particular besides a group show in Toronto and my two-person show in May with BEERS! I’m very excited to make a whole new body of work for that show and to see what comes out. I’ve got some really good ideas rattling around in my noggin and while they’re very labor intensive I think they’re going to look super good. If you want to keep up with my work or get more insight into my process, feel free to follow me on Instagram at @nadiakwd.
(And thanks so much for reading!)