I met Sana Arjumand in Islamabad, Pakistan. At the time, I was overwhelmed by the fact that I shouldn’t rightly have been there. The child of Indian immigrants to the U.S., I was a long shot to get into the country. Among the group of journalists with whom I was traveling on a fellowship, I was the only one with Indian ties who did make it into Lahore and Islamabad in the end, thanks to the unfair boon of connections.
When I returned to the U.S., I wrote about Arjumand in context with inherited hate, and spontaneous love. I was taken with the miracle of stepping foot in the land I’d been reared to fear. And Arjumand was the perfect foil for a story on meeting the so-called enemy and questioning those terms; she is kind and open, and her work echoes the language of Sufi saints.
This month, she takes part in New Pathways, an exhibit of contemporary Pakistani art by new and established artists at the United Nations headquarters in New York. It’s an appropriate occasion to unveil the curtain on a body of work that has received accolades in Pakistan but is still new to American audiences. Fresh after her graduation from Pakistan’s famed National College of the Arts in the early 2000s, Arjumand became known for eerie paintings sliced with the iconography of a martial country: sickles, nooses, alien faces inspired by the long shape of her own.
Since then, she’s become taken with moons, which she sees as metaphoric vessels for understanding love. The drama of this reinvention says much about the pressures on working artists from regions known globally only for the worst atrocities that puncture their land. Where many such artists paint what is expected of them, Arjumand joins a growing group of Pakistani creatives grappling with the fullness of a life lived: not only terror, but joy. We spoke about that transition by Whatsapp a few months before her arrival in New York, when there was still a chill in the Islamabad air.
The Broken Mirror, 2014, Acrylics on wasli, 32" x 59"
Mallika Rao: How is the weather?
Sana Arjumand: It’s really nice. I need a sweater, shawl and some socks.
MR: Tell me about your first moon painting.
SA: I think it was the one with lots of them, like eight moons in one big frame, representing different phases.
MR: What was the intention of that?
SA: It was representative of the phases of love. It’s hard to maintain the same wavelength of love every day coming out of your heart. Naturally, the moon phases change. I saw that as a call to let go of being so cautious of how much you love. Sometimes you feel guilty. Why am I not giving up the whole of my heart? Maybe it’s just natural for that to contract and then to expand.
MR: When did you you switch from your overtly political work to the image of the moon?
SA: In 2014.
MR: What has the reaction been?
SA: I’ve not really shown the moon series [fully] yet. I had two shows -- one in Karachi and one in Islamabad. People are interested in why the moon. Strangely, I don’t know why. You know when you’re working and you’re sort of looking into oblivion: What do I do now? Where do I go? Things just come to you. Those are the best ideas, I think. The moon just came to me like that. My relationship with the moon has been kind of like this since I was a child. It’s probably meant to have happened.
MR: How did you feel about it as a child?
SA: Like it was talking to me. I felt in love with it. Basically, it made me want to analyze why I love it so much. I love it because of the light it reflects: how it lights up because of this light that’s not even its own.
Celebrating Moon, 2014, acrylic, ink and oil on mylar film, 42" x 42"
MR: You have two children. When you talk about love, do you make a distinction between romantic and maternal love?
SA: It’s the same. The perfect song that describes love is [Leonard Cohen’s] Hallelujah. “Love is not a victory march.” You give yourself up in reflection of another’s light and that sacrifice takes you to another place. We grow up with this idea that we are so important.
The world now revolves around the self. Self-preservation, not letting go of your comfort for another person. That’s where the idea came from, that if you let go of yourself, put yourself in the service of love …That’s what inspired me to paint the moon. It became such a strong symbol for that idea, a metaphor for that idea of giving yourself up in that process of love, to do for another what you cannot even do for yourself.
MR: The moon is a weighted symbol in Sufism, even simply because it’s a circle, a shape that indicates wholeness. Can you explain if and how the Sufi connection plays into your work?
SA: I am inspired by a lot of things from Sufism that led to me looking at the moon like that. A lot of it is about being present, being in the moment. I started reading Eckhart Tolle’s books in 2008.
Mystery of Our Landscape Is the Moon (Waxing and Waning Moon), 2015, acrylic and embroidery on wasli, 31" x 56"
I would read [Tolle] every morning with my breakfast to start my day. I used to go to my studio and all my political paintings were hanging and I was thinking, I’m reading this and I’m doing...this. He says you have to be really present. You can’t let your egotism guide you. I wanted to make work that represents standing here in the moment in your body. I want to paint life, and I think with that the switch came [to] symbolic paintings. I did these landscapes with scenes of heaven. I made a sculpture of a life size airplane with landscape paintings on it. The switch started happening.
MR: What was it about?
SA: The airplane again was taken into political interpretation, even though it wasn’t anything to do with politics.
MR: Did people understand what you were doing?
SA: My heart is attracted to things that are not pulled by gravity. Birds -- they’re free. I think that’s what the heart desires to feel, and if I can do that through art, then that would be a big achievement.
MR: That makes me think of the pull on Pakistani artists to paint what international gallerists and buyers expect.
Installation for the show "Let's Fly First Class!" at Aicon Gallery, 2010
SA: To be absolutely free is a big thing. I don’t want to care about what people are saying about my work anymore. When you’re showing a work in so many places, you have to internally cut those connections, and say, This is outside of me. Inside of me, I don’t care. I’m free.
My work should be about the relationship between me and that path towards freedom. The whole idea of right and wrong -- they’re ideas. The moon in its placement is totally full. We never say, oh, the moon is not perfect, in any of its phases. Finding your placement in life, to me, is done through the path of art.
MR: There seems to be a group shift towards this sense of internal peace, with artists like you and Waqas Khan focusing on shapes and symbols rooted in Sufi thought rather than “burqas and bombs,” as Khan puts it.
SA: [In the early 2000s], there was a lot of attention given to political art that was coming from Pakistan and people looked for that art. Maybe artists have just had enough and they want to move towards honesty. Not that political art is not honest, but what is the deeper meaning?
I find myself going back, back into the form of a child, developing our senses and learning to hear and to see. Especially today, we are constantly seeing outside: watching television, looking at phones, tablets. You forget what is on the other side of the eye. For me, to break away and go back into the form of just developing, like in a mother’s womb, that leads to art.
Because the heart is the first thing. When you look at an ultrasound, all you see is a small dot blinking. Turning away from all of this noise and visuals and this is good and this is bad -- everything is the same. Turn back, go back here, deeper inside. Become like the moon, just perfect where you are.
Mountain of Light, 2014, acrylic, embroidery and tea on wasli, 27" x 39.5"
Sana Arjumand is a contemporary visual artist based in Islamabad. Her work has been represented in New York, London, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Korea, Hong Kong, Mumbai, and Delhi. Visit her web site to view more of her work.
Mallika Rao is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her words and drawings can be found on the sites or pages of New York Magazine, Vice Magazine, Jezebel and The New Yorker.