A half an hour interview quickly turned into a fascinating chat with an immediate friend as the light turned dark.
It is such a complete and utter delight to meet Schahbaz, and I can’t believe I’m finally posting my interview with the one and only.
The iconic shots of Schahbaz’s painting in her New York studio first attracted me to her works. Trained in centuries-old Indo-Persian painting technique, Schahbaz’s works challenge perspectives of the female figure and each unfold a narrative that transcends boundaries, embraced by the female perspective.
In our interview we discuss her studio, creation, what makes the art world go round, kindness and more.
Hiba, firstly, your studio in New York is insane. It’s so beautiful. Whenever I see it on Instagram I just squeal! Just beautiful.
It is beautiful… I also think I have learned how to photograph it over time. It's an old decrepit warehouse that’s been turned into a studio building. There are artists upstairs and galleries on the ground floor. And all four sides of the building are gorgeous windows that reach to the ceiling. And those beautiful windows are not waterproof, snow proof, or soundproof… but I just really enjoy working in natural light. Coming from Karachi, where it's sunny all year, and then being in New York, where after a certain season, it gets dark after 5, I need it. I feel happy when I paint in the sun. And so yes, I moved into that building right after school, and I’m still there.
As you were saying that, Hiba, I was just thinking: when did I leave school? I was like, I don't know. It was another life. Literally, yeah, another life. There's the life before COVID. And then there's the life before like work and then school. Right. And did you study in New York?
I did. I started grad school a week after I arrived. And I just kind of jumped in. I hadn't visited the US since I was seven, so it was about time. And this seemed like the way to do it. I earned my BFA in Pakistan and my MFA in New York.
I love New York! I went there last Thanksgiving literally a year ago with my partner. And it was just amazing. We stayed in Manhattan - and we, like totally underestimated just how big Manhattan was.
Yeah I mean if you go to Times Square, or Union Square you are basically ambushed because there’s so much going on there. It’s hard to escape.
We had the longest list of food to try! But looking at America and everything we’ve seen and read about, and we were like, yeah, we're gonna try all the top places for pizza. But everywhere in New York is like labelled “the world's best pizza.”
I know! Everywhere is branded as the best and the pizza here in Brooklyn is amazing. You know, I have a spot right next to my studio, a really great pizza place: Roberta's. I went there before I even knew the studio was there because the Clintons had gone there so it was famous. Their pizza is really good. And they’ve expanded like crazy. It was like an unmarked door with graffiti on it. And now they've taken over the block. They have a garden. They have a takeout spot and a long wait list for fine dining. They grow their own veggies.
Half the art dealers who come for studio visits—they're not really coming to see me. They say we want to visit you and then can we have lunch at Roberta’s!
Their excuse to get the pizza!
Basically yes! New York – I’m just going to say it – has spoiled me for pizza, because after New York, going places when I’m at a residency and trying to find a good pizza, it’s impossible. You become a real food snob. It's terrible.
Whereabouts have you been for residencies before?
My first residency was at Vermont Studio Centre. You should visit. Their food is so good. They have their own chef and serve three communal meals a day so we felt taken care of. And it's really well run and a large program so it’s easy to meet your people.
I've also been to Mass MOCA. That's in North Adams, and it's part of the museum, with a separate studio building for the residents. And they have housing above a bar. I believe the Berkshires are lovely in the summer. Plus, it’s nice to have access to the museum and see a lot of art.
Last year I stayed at a sweet place in the Catskills, started by Helen Toomer and Eric Romano. They're New York art people. And they build their home on a beautiful 20 acres upstate… Stoneleaf Retreat. They have a guest house for residents and a barn studio, a huge space, totally skylit, and then two studios downstairs opening into the garden. There’s a giant pond with a raft. And they invite women artists up over the summer to work.
That sounds really quaint! And off grid!
It’s so beautiful and lovingly made. They have a lot of space, and they're such lovely people and have a cute baby Harry. And the vibe is so good.
I’ve also stayed at Dreamland, an invitation-only residency started by to the Dean Collection. It’s a beautiful home in Arizona and occasionally they invite artists to live and work there. It’s a magical place. I try to go for a residency every year, since I’m a full time artist with a full time studio I sometimes get stuck in my own rut.
So I feel like when I'm working away from the studio and ordinary life I go through a period of accelerated growth.
Did you enjoy working with the other women in the residency? She Curates was born from this need for women to be supporting each other.
I think it's amazing that women are taking more initiative for other women! I primarily worked with women dealers over the past few years and it’s been so good for me—so healing and fulfilling. However, David, who I just began working with in NY, came highly recommended. And it’s been a lovely experience. He’s smart and upstanding and straightforward. He’s raising three daughters and is so good with female energy. Meiying who is the artist liaison at the gallery is also a force of nature and beautifully eloquent, it’s been a pleasure working with them both.
Why is it so often that women are pitted against each other? I think ideas are changing but this idea that women don’t work well together… And I like to say I think is changing, but it needs to have been changed. It needs to have done it.
Yeah, totally. There’s a weird myth, at least in America, that women don't like each other. And I think it's perpetuated to divide women. But it's so far from the truth. Speaking for myself, my closest friends are women and I’ve had very meaningful and fulfilling experiences working with women in the art world. I’ve hired a studio Assistant who recently graduated and I’m doing my best to teach her what I’ve learnt about working here and empowering her both as an artist and as young woman working in the arts. I believe its so important to pass it on and I feel I’ve had so many women look out for me throughout my life.
You’re so right… Hiba, how would you describe what you do in a few words, your practice?
I think of myself as a painter, as a painter of women and beauty and nature. I’m immersed in our rich inner life and how we are connected to each other. I don’t have a specific definition for what I do, I want to stay open so I can keep evolving.
And have those women in your artwork evolved from when you first sort of noticed them appearing in your work to where they are now?
I’ve been drawing women since I was a girl living in Karachi, mostly drawing myself in front of my bedroom mirror.
During college in Pakistan I trained as an Indo Perisan miniature painter and primary painted miniatures for a long time after that. I love miniature painting, it’s a very specific way of woking, very handmade. We make our own paints and brushes and papers. The painting themselves are very delicate, almost jewel-like, and the entire process of making them is very ritualistic and meditative and immersed in tradition and beauty. I have a few miniatures on view in my upcoming presentation at Untitled Art Fair with DeBuck Gallery.
Some years ago I transitioned into painting large life-size women on huge sheets of paper. Even though the scale of the subject has grown, I still work with paper and watercolor and tea and use a lot of techniques employed in painting miniatures.
My small works on paper are more narrative and self referential whereas the women in the large paintings have become more archetypal and reflective of the women I have had the privilege of meeting in recent years. Sometimes I feel all the stories I hear from women and all their secret lives and beautiful spirits feed the large paintings.
It is so interesting how you're how you're saying your work starts off as the smaller pieces but it was you yourself and you're kind of inward looking. And then as you got to know these women, they expanded as though your understanding of other women and then the sort of insights into other women's lives almost literally grew. The women that you're sharing. I think that's really amazing.
Yes, I feel like we're all so connected and the more I think about it, I feel we share so many experiences and stories, regardless of whether we grew up in the East or the West, we have so many emotional experiences in common. And we have extremely deep, rich emotional lives. It’s beautiful and I’m trying to understand how we're connected. I've always assumed all humans are connected, both men and women in a cosmic way. I began meditating with a group twice a day online during self-isolation and we discovered that a lot of us women had synced periods with each other and the moon and we have never even met in person. That blew my mind.
And over time, both in the Eastern and the Western world, because even in the Western world, with the Inquisition, and women being persecuted as witches. The part of us that makes us who we are and gives us the ability to create life is also the part which hurts us.
I remember in Fleabag – the show - there’s a scene about how women are literally like, you know, born of the pain of your mother through childbirth, and that kind of thing, and how you have this inherent pain in you from your periods of a cycle. But whereas men, historically and culturally, arguably seek out pain through things like war, and fighting, and that kind of thing, whereas women have it kind of in you, born in that, and then in, you know, one day you might have your own children. And that pain continues.
That's so interesting, but it makes so much sense in a weird way.
Speaking of incredible women, we must talk a bit about the new Vice President in the USA! I feel like this election – from my perspective is you know living in England not being on the streets over there or anything - is that it was an election born more of love this time. I felt like people were really, like love each other like yourself, kind of thing. Even if you know, he's not the best candidate ever, ever, ever, you're not the worst. And I think that's what drives so many people to vote it was it was amazing that they're seeing the Instagram videos of the streets of New York when it was announced and everyone was having this like major party and just like, it seemed like a weight was lifted off of so many people.
It was insane. I was sitting outside my house having tea on a park bench with Hrag Vartanian who lives in my building. He's one of the owners of Hyperallergic. And we're having a moment because there was a man who was swimming past us in the East River. Without even a wetsuit and we were laughing and wondering what on earth was going on? We'd never seen that before. And suddenly, people started hooting and cheering. Within seconds, we were surrounded by people, asking if it had really happened, and it had happened! And our entire building, and the neighbourhood went wild. It was a spectacular wave of joy after months of stress, protests and anxiety. And in a second Brooklyn was changed. Earlier during the summer we had protests happening and behind the protesters, there would be a dozen unmarked police cars. And helicopters circling over us. It was intense. And suddenly the energy shifted and there was an outpouring of joy which lasted the day. On my way to the studio, people were celebrating on the streets. It was so beautiful.
And that's quite an interesting transition into I love asking artists and what they would change about the art world, if they could, if you could change something tomorrow, because there's, like, God knows there's so much that needs to be changed, what would be your main focus?
I love the art world and of course, like in any field, there is room for improvement and growth. I think it would be interesting if the art world was less about commodifying and more about the art.
I feel like if the art world was less about commerce, and more about creation, and honouring the artists, not trying to make them into the world's next biggest commodity, we may have a richer and braver and exciting art world.
Maybe artists would feel freer to do whatever they want without really having to consider fitting in. And collectors might support artists differently.
I feel I've been really lucky. But generally, we artists need so much validation and support. I just want us to have the freedom to deepen our creative expression as artists. I also think about our legacy sometimes, about how the history books are going to remember us, will history only remember
the trendy artists and will everyone else vanish into oblivion
I don't mean that all art is equal, but I think it takes time for artists to develop their voice. And so many artists stop working because they don't see any hope. Or because they fear their soul will get crushed. Research has shown how good creativity is for mental health and emotions wellbeing.
Artists can be so sensitive and we wear our hearts on our sleeve. And it shouldn't always have to be that the strongest survive. Everyone should have a fair chance.
So yes, I think one of the key parts of the platform She Curates is supporting living artists. I think understand the history so important, but I think if you're going to buy an artwork, you might as well buy an artwork from someone you can talk to, which is really exciting. And I'll say literally they'll help them pay for their weekly food shop.
One of the most fulfilling part of being an artist is to exchange ideas with and work with living artists. I’m happy to live in NY where there is a constant flow of creative energy. I’m lucky enough to have collected some wonderful art by living artists, a lot of them are women who are friends and that makes the paintings so much more meaningful to me.
So, I love this question: if you could have a meal with any artists from any time, who would the meal be with and what would the meal be and why?
It would be Frida Kahlo as she is one of my favourite artists. And I was thinking it should be at her place, Casa Azul. From what I know of her, she used to cook special dishes for her husband. I love all her paintings with watermelons and fruit and so I imagine we would we would spend the day together cooking. She would teach me to make her favorite dishes. And then we would lay a beautiful colorful table outdoors with fresh flowers and fruits, brides would be singing, there would be a gentle breeze. And host a lovely meal for the people we love.
So a big communal meal?
Yes, as long as we cook it ourselves. When I cook, which is rare, It feels like an art. If you're not a recipe follower—which I'm not—even if you have no idea what you're doing, you’re mixing ingredients in good faith and praying for something special and heartwarming.