“I’m a shit artist” – Interview with Scheherezade Junejo
What was your first piece ever exhibited?
It was in 2008, I was still in college. It was a class assignment and more like an experiment than anything else. But what I consider to be my first proper exhibit was in 2009. It was my thesis work, and it was the first time I had painted the nude. It was the affirmation from receiving an Honours as a result that cemented my drive to take the study of the nude further. I didn’t like it initially, if you see my initial work its lacking in detail and you can see that my grip on drawing anatomy is still raw. But backed by a lot of appreciation, I kept practicing till it improved. I would always steer clear of drawing the human body, but I pushed myself to do the things I was scared of and it began to define me. Now if I need to draw the human body I know exactly what to do. I also teach anatomy.
Who are your inspirations?
Amongst international artists, I’m inspired by Michaelangelo, Caravaggio, Georgia O’Keeffe, Egon Schiele and Rene Magritte. I draw very specific elements from each of these artists. I draw from Caravaggio’s use of contrast of light. O’Keeffe, for instance, paints a vaginal looking flower, but its still a flower. It may be identified with sex by anyone who views it, but that was never her intention while creating her work. A similar affection is happening in my work as well. I focus on Schiele’s impeccable detailing and line work. Rene Magritte, in my opinion, is the most important surrealist artist. His work is symbolic and its what I try to inculcate in my work as well. Amongst local artists, I was inspired by Amna Ilyas. I used to model for her in 2008. I got an insight as to how to work with the human figure. Karen David is another local artist I was inspired by. I draw from the way local artists work – their work ethic, their attitudes, their confidence. They display their pieces no matter what and give their work priority. They steer clear of the politics and that really impresses me.
What is your favorite medium?
I use pencil, graphite and pen. But my favorite is oil paint on a canvas. Its glossy look and lustier is what stands out for me. I find it seductive.
How long does it take you to finish a piece?
It depends on the lines and details. Sometimes it can take 2 to 3 days. Sometimes I can do it 13 hours before an exhibition. Or it can take 2 years. I had a client, and I had to make an 8ft piece for her and that took me two years. I am a perfectionist, and I have to get it right. That can take hours, months, or years.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on multiple things. I have an exhibit in Islamabad, then theres a show in New York, and I’m also working on a wedding gift for a friend.
Do you have a muse?
I don’t know. Not one muse particularly. I can be inspired by anything. If I needed a muse, I’d be waiting forever. I think it’s important to be mentally and physically stable in order to keep your work going. Inspiration has to find you working. I have a process, so no I don’t need a muse. For instance, I could be in a public space and note someone’s posture and it would spark an idea which I would then photograph and start working on.
Do you have models?
I do. They are people I have known them for years and established a relationship with them. They trust me and are comfortable with me. I also need them to be super fit. If you notice, the figures in my paintings all have very fit and athletic bodies.
What about the paintings where the faces look like your own?
I used my face on another person’s body to protect their identity. It’s a way to take the heat off them.
Did you face problems with exhibiting your work? Specifically in a Pakistani society?
Oh yeah. Family had issues, my friends felt uncomfortable, but whatever. I really don’t care. I learnt not to give a shit. My parents actually said if you have to do this then go for it, just don’t get shot.
You add inanimate objects in your paintings. Do they serve a purpose?
Yes. I’ve added horns, bones, fabric, cushions etc. Inanimate objects are important. By adding them to my paintings, I try to draw a balance between the organic and inorganic. I try to draw a parallel between the two. The inanimate objects are always in colour because that’s the first thing we are visually attracted to. Plus, it’s a way to show that that’s what we give importance to. We tend to devalue the organic, which is why the bodies are in black in white. In my opinion, black and white paintings are like a virgin canvas. That is how much we neglect our individual worth. The media teaches trends, and whether you like them or not, you still follow them. It kills our individuality. My paintings are simply my response to that, they are not meant to project any kind of statement about what is right or wrong. For me, the only part of body that doesn’t die is your bone. Its yours, it doesn’t desecrate. But instead of identifying ourselves with our body, we identify ourselves with an identity number prescribed to us by the government.
What lead you to start painting bodies?
I used to mess around a lot. I tried to adapt to a lot of ideas. I was a very non-serious painter. I was the sort of student to muster what I could hours before a submission. So my earlier work has a lot of flowers, leaves, shoes, telephone poles. It was when I started working for Amna Ilyas, that I started appreciating the human body. To make something that appears to be ordinary into something that’s extraordinary I started looking at the body as art. She would use plaster to mould and cast specific parts of the body, and it made me realize the importance of positions, postures.
What do you think of yourself as an artist? Have you seen your work progress?
It has evolved. My skill has improved and become more refined. They’ve transformed and almost don’t look human. But I have stuck to human figures because I’m obsessed. I think I’m a shit artist. I studied with great artists. I’m just doing what makes me happy. If I don’t do it for being an artist, its for me. I’ve been a snotty and arrogant person but I use my art as a method of showing people how I feel without actually talking. And people actually like my ideas. I don’t think I have the brains to be a great artist. My brother, however, is. He lets himself explore the darkness which I steer clear of.
Oil on canvas
5 feet x 4 feet
What is the ultimate goal? As in when will you think: ‘Yes, I’ve made it!’?
I don’t want to be forgotten. Not much else in life, no marriage, no plans. I want to matter on my own without having a man on my side or with the support of a family structure. It needs to be all me. Probably when girls are actually breaking away from societal trends and implications and having the courage to do their own thing. If I had a part in making that possible, then I’ve probably made it.
What does your family think of you becoming an artist?
It was a big fight. My art teacher, Ayesha Khan, who I now work with, convinced my dad to let me go to NCA. He wanted me to do an MBA but finally I made my way to NCA. The first time my dad saw my work was in my last year when I had to present my thesis. That was the first and only time he said ‘AMAZING’. But even after college he wanted me to go do my MBA and I was like absolutely not. I wanted to show that it was possible to make more money that any MBA behind a desktop can make. I painted my ass off. I would show him my work and he would have panic attacks haha. But I know he’s proud of my success. His main concern is that I’m painting nudes. He worries for my safety. But when he sees my name in papers or articles he sees the milestones I’ve achieved. I’ve started booking shows a year or two in advance and he’s seeing that I’m doing well for myself. I stuck to this root. They may not be comfortable with it but they’re proud seeing the worlds reaction.
Which was your biggest exhibition?
My biggest show was in Miami, at the Miami Art Basel. My work had a lot more exposure, and there were many celebrities present like Leonardo DiCaprio, Sylvester Stallone, Lenny Kravitz. I was just happy to know that my work was in the same room as these people.
How many pieces do you make a month?
I don’t work commission. I only say yes to a show and then I take six to nine months to prepare. If I’m doing a solo show it can take up to a year.
In some of your paintings, the face/head is cut off or faded out. Why?
I am trying to reobjectify the purpose of the human body. Without certain parts of the body, it lays emphasis on other parts which are so detailed and important. I make a different entity or form out of it.
Where all have you exhibited?
I displayed my work in 2011 at the Young Arts Exhibit in Lahore. There was 350-400 artists and I was amongst the ten people to be awarded the best Art Work. I’ve also had international shows in Melbourne, Delhi, Dubai, Miami and currently I’m working on a show in New York.
Who has most influenced your work?
Amna Ilyas. After working with her, I realized how important art is. She would put plaster on me and I started acknowledging body as art. It was an in and out of body experience. Parts of the body that may be seen as unappealing are transformed into something so beautiful. That’s what got to me. I realized the importance of positions, postures and I’ve stuck to it since then.
What time period of art is your favourite?
My favourite movements in art were Surrealism and Pop Art. Rene Magritte for Surrealism and Andy Warhol for Pop Art. They were my religion.
What genre would you classify your art as?
I would want to be either a surrealist or a pop artist but I wouldn’t classify myself as anything really. But if I had to I’m probably closest to a fusion of those two genres.
Do you think your art serves a function?
In the history of art, nudes have usually been painted by a man. That was considered as acceptable female nude art. I wanted to evoke a sense of vulnerability in my paintings where a female artist is painting a nude female. In Pakistan, such art shocks people. It is a closeted and conservative culture. Through my paintings I was to get more women and men to talk about the uncomfortable truths of life. I want us to get rid of this closet culture and stereotype of the “acceptable” woman. “Penis or Vagina, human is human”!
Do you think being a female artist makes a difference?
Definitely. I have faced loads of problems. Some people don’t like my work, including the people I work with. They feel its too commercial and refer to me as a “Grammarian Artist”. They’re probably right, I have to make money. I have faced disrespect from certain artists. They feel my work is gimmickry. They love my detailing and the level of skill, but they feel my work is lacking in terms of concept. “Whatever man, I don’t care. I don’t mix my professional and personal life”. Instead I tell my friends to just have fun, because it genuinely doesn’t affect me. Its their opinion and they are entitled to it. If certain curators don’t choose me for their showing, I don’t take it as a setback. I think of it as the money they are losing out on. I usually sell out, and if they don’t want to include me then “its totally cool”.
Has other peoples opinion of your work ever affected you?
I don’t like to mix my personal and professional life. Even if people don’t like my work, I don’t let it affect my relationship with them. My work is private – no one knows about it. But the moment its done and its in the gallery, I love to see peoples reactions. I’ve spent so much time alone painting it that I start seeing it very differently than how anyone else would observe it.
Interview: Umrat Khan, Ameera Naz Saeed
All pictures taken from Junejo’s FB page: www.facebook.com/