Shrike with Fruits is a work in oil on canvas.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
“I think people, places, objects are only as much obedient to their selves as we expect them to be,” says artist Narmeen Zain. She was speaking on the sidelines of the latest exhibition she was taking part in, hosted by Dubai International Art Centre at The H Dubai. “Objects don’t exist in isolation,” she adds. “The links between them are hard for me to put into words, but I know that we overlap more than we are separate. However, there’s a volatility there that I sometimes forget. When I look in a mirror, for example, my face is broken into billions of others. But it is still my face. My work relies on this enmeshment.”
Many of Zain’s paintings begin in dreams, expressed in oils and acrylics. Though bound by language, art for her is something that exists outside its bounds because it can show thoughts that lie too deep for words. She has exhibited in places as far as Dubai and Karachi, Abu Dhabi and Mumbai. She has won awards ever since she was a student in Dubai and she has been Volunteer Art Teacher at Senses Residential and Day Care for Special Needs, Dubai. She went for higher studies to the UK (in the tech field) and is currently in Dubai, where she spoke to Gulf Today
Does your engineering side – you are a computer scientist – interfere with your work as an artist or does it help the aesthetics?
I find that the skills required for different fields can often be laterally applicable. Any kind of problem solving demands some measure of creativity, but programming is especially comparable to art in that it is also a form of creation. To answer your question, I don’t think being proficient in another discipline could ever really be harmful. It just gives me a different way to see the world. In this sense it affects my art, because it affects me. My work is the way it is because of who I am.
Man with Harmonica, an acrylic on canvas composition.
There seems to be Dali, Picasso and Van Gogh in your works. Will you agree?
As a child first learning to paint, coming across these artists was unavoidable. I will admit that I was struck by Dali’s concepts, by Picasso’s boldness and by the tenderness I saw in Van Gogh’s works. It seems inevitable now that parts of them have leaked into my own process. If you see them there, I am grateful. But it was not necessarily an intentional choice!
You use colour profoundly. Why are your artworks saturated with colour?
Colours are not just colours. They carry the weight of all their connotations and are just as essential an element as the subject. They evoke emotion. They continue the story. The colour is there because it has to be.
Has Freud – who famously interpreted dreams – influenced your work?
Very close! I relate a little more with the Jungian interpretations of dreams. The difference is that Freud would see a dream as a covering of a hidden meaning, whereas Jung would say dreams are what uncover the unconscious. The assumption was that the personality is striving towards fulfillment and through dreams, your unconscious mind shares some element that is essential to your growth. I’m not sure how wholly I subscribe to this, but another phrase that stuck with me was Yeats’ “in dreams begin responsibilities.” Perhaps he was right.
Who are the artists, living or dead, who fascinate you? Why?
This is a tough question. I’ll try to condense the list. Some contemporary artists I really admire are Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, who make large, challenging work, often incorporating technology to cast criticism on political constructs and how they’re exercised. Louise Bourgeois and Felix Gonzalez-Torres make sculptures and installation pieces, drawing on their individual memories and experiences. I will add Jean-Michel Basquiat’s neo-expressionist portraits and Sophia Narett’s embroidered scenes to the list and also the quiet, hidden sadness in Jasper Johns’ pieces and Li Shan Chong’s simple but honest, expressive work.
Narmeen Zain beside her work Man with Antlers.
How do you find the effective titles for your works?
This is the easiest part! I just name it after the most obvious elements. Any additional details seem superfluous. The intent here is to invite an audience to apply their own interpretation rather than feeding it to them through an overly-fanciful title.
You say you are a devoted reader. Which are the books that have impacted you?
There are several. The most obvious might be Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory, which almost forced me to think differently about perception and time. I have always liked how Kafka explores real, serious themes through surrealist concepts. His stark writing style makes his surrealist elements feel concrete and unapologetic. In this sense, he reminds me of Dali. One of my favourites of his is an unfinished book, The Castle. I’m also a big fan of Banana Yoshimoto, especially Kitchen. Her work is earnest and gentle.
How have Pakistan, where you hail from, the UAE, from where you learnt the principles of art making and the USA, where you have lived, affected you as an artist?
I think having lived in different countries throughout my life and being of mixed ethnicity have made it difficult for me to associate with just one place or identity. It forces me to think of home as an ephemeral concept rather than a physical location. So I live inside my memories and experiences instead.
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