Hiba Schahbaz’s paintings are stunning. Working with water-based pigments and tea, she focuses on the female form, admiring every aspect of its beauty. Having trained both in Lahore and New York, Hiba is partly inspired by the ancient art of miniature painting, and describes her approach as “speaking an ancient language in a contemporary feminine voice.” She recontextualizes the art form to accept and embrace a female perspective. Playing both the role of the artist and the performer, she photographs her own body, using the images as references for her paintings, which unveil the beauty, fragility and strength of the female form to address issues of sexuality, freedom and censorship. Inspired by how Hiba uses the female figure to unfold a narrative that transcends cultural and political boundaries, we spoke to Hiba about her influences, her art world sheroes and what she’s up to in quarantine.
When did you start making art?
I have been making art for as long as I can remember. As a little girl I would keep scrolls of paper, markers, and a flashlight under my pillow, and at bedtime I would hide under my blanket and draw into the night. I would repeatedly draw elaborate, colorful villages inhabited by cheerful people. I often wonder why I drew this idyllic, friendly landscape when I lived in a busy city. Perhaps I read about it in a children’s book once.
How has your heritage influenced your work?
I grew up in Pakistan, where I studied the Islamic art form of Indo-Persian miniature painting. Eastern philosophy and spirituality definitely inform my inclination towards beauty and tradition, the colors I use, the stylization of my subject and the interior spaces that I paint. There are often repeating patterns and arabesques in my paintings which are inspired by architecture and textiles from my home.
Who and what are your inspirations?
I find inspiration in nature. Every tree, sunrise, and rainbow results in a desire to create. I am also deeply inspired by women; their beauty, resilience, and wisdom. I’m always painting women in nature or in imagined spaces where they are safe and free to be themselves.
What inspired you to enlarge the art of miniature painting?
I love miniature painting and have always been deeply involved in it. I only painted miniatures for fifteen years. The scale shift in my paintings came about gradually and organically. I was recovering from an injury and upon returning to the studio I needed to use my body in a new way. I began by joining small sheets of paper to form larger works. In this way I could work on them individually as well as together. Then I sourced larger, more durable handmade paper which I could sit on and paint, since I was unable to stand for extended periods of time. This process was unplanned and experimental—I needed to bring a vision to life but also prove that I was strong enough at a time of intense physical vulnerability.
Your work often places nude women in the center of a tradition that usually places men as the main subjects, why did you decide to subvert that?
I paint women because they are the subject that I know best. I used to draw myself in front of my bedroom mirror as a teenager. This was mostly out of necessity as there was no easy access to female models living in Pakistan. As a result, I became my own muse and many of my paintings today are self-referential or an archetype of the women that I love. I feel compelled to paint women. I think a lot of artists feel like our subject chooses us and we simply follow inspiration.
What advice would you give to young women wanting to make a career as an artist?
I would say do what you love. If you follow your passion, it will take you where you need to go. Believe in yourself and create everyday. Always be your best self and give your all in life and life will give that back to you.
Who are your art world sheroes?
There are many women painters I admire. Some of my favorites are Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, and Florine Stettheimer. And there are numerous artists today whose work I love, but I will not take names so as not to leave anyone out! I am also grateful to know several amazing, visionary women working in the art world today, such as my friend Jasmine Wahi. She is the co-director of Project for Empty Space along with Rebecca Jampol, the Holly Block Social Justice Curator at the Bronx Museum, and also full time faculty at SVA. She has been creating spaces for women and underrepresented artists for as long as I have known her. She works tirelessly and with pure passion and a strong sense of justice which I deeply respect. Another is Helen Toomer who began a summer artist retreat for women at her beautiful residence upstate at her own expense simply for the love of art and the desire to support artists and create a community.
What are you making during quarantine?
I’ve set up a small miniature painting studio at home where I’m working during quarantine. These days, I’m painting small self-portraits in isolation. In many of these works I’m bringing the inside and outside world together, blending imaginary landscapes and soft airy interior spaces. I’m painting with tea and hand-mixed watercolors on handmade wasli paper traditionally used for miniature painting.
What are your plans and hopes for the future?
I was scheduled to debut my oil paintings at DeBuck gallery in NY this May but since there is a lockdown in place, I will be exhibiting my miniature paintings online instead. I love painting miniatures but I’m also looking forward to going back to the studio and working with oil paint again. It’s been exciting and very challenging to learn a new medium and a different way of expression. I’m hoping to explore that more this year.
Text Lizzy Vartanian