Interviewed by Kinza Kasher
September 7, 2020
Hafsa Riaz & Ajiya Asif
The Rungg Collective is about conversations with artists from Pakistan.
So I would love to begin with getting to know you both a bit, one by one. Tell me a little bit about yourself and a little bit about your background, who you are, what makes you, you?
Ajiya: So I’m going to start off. Do you want to know before graduation stuff or after graduation stuff?
I would love to hear how you even got into art school and what was that process? Everything like that!
Ajiya: So I’d say that coming to an art school was fairly an easy process for me. I knew I wanted to go specifically into fine arts since I was probably in sixth or seventh grade. I had been working towards that throughout my academic career and I did my O-levels from Beacon House. Then I took art as a subject, I got a C, I got very disheartened but I was like no, I’m still going to take it in A-levels and I remember there’s a college here in Karachi. The teacher over there wouldn’t take me in because I got a C previously, but I begged her and she let me in saying – “If you think you can do it, then sure, why not?” So I did my A-levels, got an A in my batch in arts, and from then onwards, I was like, either go to Indus Valley, which is in Karachi or NCA, which was in Lahore. But I felt like NCA was not an option for me at that time because you know how brown parents are – they’re very overprotective and they pamper their child a lot and I thought I would probably not get their permission to go to NCA but I applied, just in case. And then I got in! After giving my test and interview, the results for Indus and NCA were both supposed to be announced on the same day so – (laughs) – I got into both of the universities and my parents were so happy when they realized I got into Indus! But when they found out I got into NCA, they weren’t happy. I could see that. But I pushed them and they were like “Fine, we don’t want you to say later on that, ‘I had a chance, I wasn’t able to go because of you guys.’” So I did.
And let’s just say when I went to NCA, I think I can vouch for Hafsa as well, that we changed a complete 360 degrees – entirely! Our world turned upside down when we went there. Not just because of academia, but also because of that atmosphere that we were in. Having a liberal and a secular environment in Pakistan, where you are completely free to do whatever you want, however you want to do. It can be maddening and it can be amazing at the same time! So when we were in NCA, we were given the liberty to do whatever we want, we even got the option of not studying! And so the whole point was – if you are in an art institute, you came here solely and wholly because you wanted to. Nobody forced you to come here. Four years went by crazy, loved every bit of it. But after graduating, I moved back to Karachi and again, I think I can vouch for Hafsa when I realized that you know, you have a fine arts degree and it’s like a slap on your face! (laughs)
Because in school you have teachers around you, inspiration all around you, you’re studying, it’s a completely different environment. But once you graduate you realize you’re out of that bubble now. Now, you’re on your own, nobody’s gonna guide you. And then we were struck by COVID. And that was just the cherry on top!
Hafsa: (Laughs) That is exactly what I was going to say, it was just the cherry on top!
Ajiya: Right, like you get an environment where you can go out, meet people, get inspiration but now you are locked down completely. You cannot go anywhere. You cannot see anything. And the only form of communication you have is the internet.
Ajiya: And I hate it! I absolutely hate it and the reason being – okay, so my cousin was getting married in February and then my Nana (maternal grandfather) passed away. Then a friend of mine passed away in a plane crash. And recently, again, my mamoo (maternal uncle) passed away. So, I’ve been struck with tragedies over and over and over again this year. And I just don’t know how to respond anymore. What to say, how to say it, and even if there’s little happiness in my life in whatever way, I feel like, how do I react? I feel like I’m used to this feeling. Not just with me actually, everybody’s facing that, in one way or the other.
So, about the scroll which you know about. One day, I was about to go to sleep and I got this idea. Hafsa and I recently started talking a lot on the phone and so I asked her, Hafsa – how about we do this project. We’re gonna create an artwork but together and keeping in mind that we are in a lockdown. So how can we go about it?” And we discussed what medium should we use, should it be a canvas? A canvas is going to be very heavy. A newspaper?” And then the whole idea behind it is that we’re going to courier it. So already, it’s an artwork which is being done by two people, not in the same city, worlds apart!
I was thinking “I don’t know what you’re going through, you don’t know what I’m going through.” And there’s only so much you can express through video calls or phone calls. I was like, “How about we make the same artwork? And you do one part, I’m going to do some other part” and we made a whole structural thing to it, emailed each other on how we are going to go about it. And so yeah, it’s still in the process!
Once you graduate you realize you have you are in you’re out of that bubble now. Now you’re on your own, nobody’s gonna guide you. And then we were struck by COVID. And that was just the cherry on top.
After graduation I have been working on my own artwork as well, doing commissions, but at the same time working on this scroll. Now the scroll is like the highlight of my year! Because see, when you’re working on your own artwork, it’s a personal relationship between you and the artwork. But the scroll, this is like a relationship between three people. Now we feel that the scroll keeps on changing, every time it travels, it goes through a whole long process, it’s never the same again. So it’s like a living, breathing thing, an object, but I feel like it has a soul in it. It’s a partner that is supporting me – that is seeing me and Hafsa both going through our tragedies and is there for us and it’s never going to be the same again. So it gives you hope. It gives you life and it makes you feel that art is so much more than what we imagine it to be.
And so now I am planning to do my Master’s in art education so that I can spread the knowledge of art and tell people what art can do and how important it is at this point. Especially, because you’re at your home and you’re working and you’re depressed, right? So what other ways can you have of letting yourself out? And a country like Pakistan where art education is not considered important at all. At all! I also want to tell people how art education can help in your respective fields too, not just in art, but in every field – how creativity is required in every field.
So yeah, that’s what I want to do. Spread knowledge about art and activities for students, for children, for adults, so that they get to know how important it is for you to be creative, for you to have a soul in yourself. You don’t want to be a corporate slave. You want to be something more than that, as well. Right? So that’s my journey – as yet – this is because when I was a student in eighth grade, I remember my art classes used to be a free period. And in that, we weren’t given an assignment or a prompt to draw a specific thing. It was boring. It was very boring. And so now when I graduated, I realized art is not just drawing, it is not just painting. It’s a whole thought process.
I have never thought about myself this much than I have in these last four years. I remember we would be sitting on the stairs, not just me, everybody. Everybody had gone through that process sitting on the stairs outside our studio, sitting there for hours, and just thinking about who we are. What do we want? What do we like? Being mindful, being aware of yourself, and this constant struggle of evolving. It also teaches you empathy. Because you start with who you are as a person, then you can relate to other peoples’ feelings. That is what art is for me, I feel like it’s a religion to an extent because religion is a belief but it’s also a way of living and art is a way of living.
Hafsa: It gives you a purpose.
Ajiya: Yes, exactly! I want that art is with me, but also about how I can affect other people with art, how I can bring a change in other people’s lives with art. So that’s what my goal is so far.
The scroll – this is like a relationship between three people. Now we feel that the scroll, every time it keeps on changing, every time it travels, it goes through a whole long process, it’s never the same again. So, you know, it’s like a living, breathing thing, an object, but I feel like it has a soul in it. It’s a partner that is supporting me – that is seeing me and Hafsa both going through our tragedies, and is there for us and keeps on, you know, it’s never going to be the same again.
My heart is so warm – I have jittery feelings because everything that you’ve just said top to bottom, every atom in my body is feeling the same way. And I just want to take a pause here and say I’m so sorry for your loss and the way that you’re sitting here and dealing, but not only dealing, that’s not the right word. It’s more about how you’re feeling – you’re feeling and you’re expressing the way you’ve gone about it. I mean, you’re Superwoman! So thank you for sharing how you are feeling in such a beautiful way.
Ajiya: Yeah, no problem. I feel like it’s not just me who is going through these tragedies, right? Everybody is going through it one way or the other. And even before graduation, I was a very strong person, more strong than you think I am, or I look. But after graduation, I realized, that there is sadness, there are tragedies. And there’s a lot that can happen to you and the people that you love. But the most important thing is that we need to start giving more than we take. In terms of giving back to nature as well in terms of giving back to the human race. I feel like we are taking everything but COVID is reminding you to start giving instead of taking. How I always talked about there’s so much hatred around us that there is no room for love anymore, right? We need to give out love, we need to give out positive vibes to others no matter what we are feeling from the inside. We’re not alone. There are so many people out there who are in worse conditions than I am. And I’m blessed so like every night I am actually counting the things that I’m blessed for because that makes you feel whole, right? That makes you feel like you’ve got a lot more than you’ve lost.
Thank you. I love this, love this!
I would love to also hear from Hafsa’s perspective of the scroll.
Hafsa: I would just like to start from where she left off. For me, art is a way to be connected and stay connected, especially at this time, we need this sort of human connection more than ever. And because we can’t actually meet each other and just sit and talk – it’s this basic thing that we took so for granted – we do not have access to that anymore. Because of this scroll, this has given me this new sense of friendship, – I don’t think I’ve ever felt this connected to Ajiya before – and honestly, this scroll is like a third entity that we have with us, which is handling all of our emotional stress or baggage. There is the feeling of writing this diary that I know she’s going to read. I don’t have this fear that somebody else is going to read this. I write it and at the end of the day, she’s going to read it. And I won’t be judged because of it. This is something that I’ve cherished throughout this project.
That’s amazing! The scroll has become like an entity and as Ajiya said, it has a soul. It has traveled, it has seen things and places. And not only that, it has traveled with a part of you guys. What was the process like and how have you seen yourself and the scroll evolve from the initial stages of thinking?
Hafsa: I have definitely evolved in this process. I think we have had this emotional trauma which we’ve simulated through the scroll and I felt myself noticing things that I know that I need to change, but I never could really point them out. But I’ve learned to process things better through working on this scroll. If I may say that.
The process within yourself?
Hafsa: Processing the emotional feelings, everything that happens throughout our days. It has been more developed thinking.
Ajiya: Yeah, I think that it has evolved a lot. A lot! And not just the scroll, we have evolved along with it. I’ve started to realize how I found this collaboration a lot better, a 1000 times better than what I produce as an artist separately. I feel like I am an extrovert in the sense that I gain a lot of energy from people. So the scroll is like me gaining energy from Hafsa and me connecting to her, with what she’s good at. Whenever I receive the scroll, I have goosebumps. I have teary eyes. It is like you are opening a present. The moment I get it, I rip it apart. And I start jumping up and down, I am so excited! Everybody can see that. And even my dad, he’s an interior designer. And so I think I have my creative genes because of him. But he’s also excited and everybody is standing around me and we’re all looking at the scroll, how it has changed this time and what we want to do with it this time.
But also this scroll is more than an artwork, it is like a huge sketchbook for Hafsa and I. I feel like we’re not thinking about it. We’re just laying it with whatever we have, whatever we’re feeling especially like every week, every time that I get it. This was the second time that I got and I gave it back to Hafsa. We’re gonna do a third round again. But the second round that I had, and again, like somebody just passed away in my family, I was like, fuck, what? How do I feel? What do I feel? And then I was like, you know what, I’m not gonna think anymore. I’m gonna portray whatever I’m feeling at that point, whatever that I want to do. Even if that means that I’m going to scratch it away, I’m going to ruin it. I don’t care. This is how I’m feeling and along with the scroll, the diary as well. At first, I was super excited, but this time I was depressed. And I guess she hasn’t received that as yet. So I can’t really say a lot about it. But as this scroll has evolved, we have also evolved. And it’s like our baby, we want to keep it close to ourselves. It’s literally like Hafsa and I are a couple and this is our baby.
Hafsa: I actually started writing these articles, because I wrote about how I felt in the diary. And from there, I kind of have developed this love for writing recently and started writing these essays, that maybe I will someday publish, I don’t know.
The scroll is like a third entity that we have with us, which is handling all of our emotional stress and baggage and the feeling of writing this diary…I don’t have this fear that somebody else is going to read this. I write it. And at the end of the day, she’s going to read it. And I won’t be judged because of it.
“I’ve literally started to realize how I found this collaboration a lot better, a 1000 times better than what I produce as an artist separately. I feel like I am an extrovert in the sense that I gain a lot of energy from people. So the scroll is like me gaining energy from Hafsa and connecting to her, with what she’s good at.”
Does this look masculine?
The Scroll – Details III
So evolving into finding more about yourself and things that you like to do. That is so great! You mentioned this diary. Is it part of the scroll? Is it a second part? I don’t know about that.
Hafsa: Yes, it is a second part for as many days as we have the scroll, we write anything that we’re feeling or just something in the diary alongside the scroll, so we’re working on both.
So It’s a two-part work?
Ajiya: Yeah. So we upload the photographs of the scroll on our Instagram. But the diary is just for both of us. There’s a visual part and then there’s the written part where we just let ourselves out, express ourselves. And it could be anything – could be a poem, it could be our thoughts. We get attached to each other more so that we can get inspiration from each other’s writings and to see what she was going through when she was making this. And it gives you a sort of insight about the other person.
That is amazing. And Hafsa, what was your journey going to art school like?
Hafsa: I was actually gonna be an accountant until halfway through my A-Levels!
Wow! And what changed?
Hafsa: I always wanted to do art but you know how desi (word used to describe people from South Asian culture) parents are, they were just very against art and they were very worried about what I would do and that I would have no job possibilities or just sort of die hungry! (laughs) I mean, if you think about it, it is difficult to find jobs, there’s no exchange for passion. I didn’t get to have arts in O’Levels and then convinced my parents to let me take it in A’Levels! I told them, let me just take art as a subject for now and get it out of my system so I can focus on being a better accountant!
That’s how I convinced them and so I knew I would regret it if I had become a CPA. My parents told me, “If you get into NCA, then you can go do whatever you want, but any other school, you just do the CPA because then it won’t be worth it.” And I said, ‘No! I’m not even gonna take that chance’, so I just applied to other colleges and NCA which was my first choice. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t gotten the admission and NCA did change us. I think I was very much confined to whoever I was and I’m still that sort of person a little bit but I am definitely more open to opportunities. I definitely take more risks.
So I say the journey has just been amazing. And I think it has more to do with the environment that is provided by NCA and the teachers. I think if I wouldn’t have had those teachers, it would have been very difficult to figure everything out for myself. Especially in a creative school where you have no idea what you’re doing at the start. And the teachers don’t really hold your hand but they just keep pushing you a little bit from the back, you know, like, ‘It’s not there so maybe take a step there’. They don’t exactly guide you, but they tell you how to guide yourself.
Right. And that’s actually something that I don’t hear a lot when I talk to people creating art in Pakistan. Who are trying to make a creative way for themselves in the country. An institution is key in shaping you, as I’m hearing it?
Hafsa: It is, it definitely is.
Everything that you guys have just talked about I resonate so well with. Having graduated into a very saturated art industry, how do you stay original and one of a kind to yourself? And of course, you guys are already making awesome moves towards that by doing experiments. I personally consider the scroll a very important human experiment. I wouldn’t even call it an art, I would call your scroll a human experiment of feelings, of emotions of adapting and making the best out of your environment right now. But what are your feelings about that? Staying true to being your original self while having graduated into an art industry that you are so familiar with?
Ajiya: Yeah, so I think I can say that there are so many points where you start realizing that you are full of shit, and you don’t what you’re doing! Especially after graduating, you don’t feel like you have any inspiration. You don’t have anybody pushing you. You don’t have people around you who can talk to you about your work. And so it’s really hard. But the one thing that I’ve noticed is that even if you’re producing shitty things, at least produce something. The point is to produce something! That has been my goal throughout.
I’ve also realized that when I was in NCA, like Hafsa said, that they don’t really teach you anything specific. They just guide you. So I used to produce artworks and I never knew what I was doing. And it all started to make sense once I had enough work. I was like you know what? Stop trying to make sense with the one artwork that you have. Keep on producing with whatever you’re producing, then you can add, you can subtract, and then you can see where you yourself are going and how you’re growing.
So, it’s sort of like evaluating your sense and the one thing that I also realized is how COVID is affecting that. My art practice usually revolves around nature and the element of digitalization in that. And when I was in quarantine, I was locked up in my room, in my house. And I started making things that I could see around me – and that was my house. I started noticing things like dead leaves, dead animals, dead insects, and these little things that you tend to forget or not notice at times, you just throw them away. I started taking photographs of these. I collected a lot of references and I also started to realize how our photo galleries on our phones are like little sketchbooks. It’s the new-age sketchbook!
I remember I was going through my photo gallery and I took a picture of my brother’s torso against the light. And at first, I was like, why do I have this? What is this? Then I thought I have this because I found it interesting and maybe later I could paint that. And so whenever I wanna paint, I go through my gallery to see what I have in my “sketchbook”. And then I’m gonna paint that. So coming back here to your question. I feel like it’s a journey where you are talking to yourself, you’re evaluating yourself and I feel like I am just a speck in the art world. I just have to stay true to myself. Everything else would follow with time.
How awesome is that! I love that you’ve just referenced the 12,000 photos that we do have in our phone galleries as sketchbooks! Makes me feel a little bit more productive! Hafsa, what do you think about that – the same question to you – what do you do to stay true to yourself?
Hafsa: For me graduating as a printmaker, I don’t really have, after NCA, access to a proper printmaking studio which has been a real struggle. It has only been I think, hardly a month, that I joined another studio, which a teacher of mine opened up. But it has only been one month. I think I’ve been practicing printmaking for about two years before I graduated. So right after graduating, I mean, I just didn’t know what to do. And I was sort of afraid to paint or just draw because the paint or the drawing part had always been part of the process work that was eventually going to be developed into a plate or print. But to make that as an art form, it was a challenge. It took me some time to get started on that.
It was about I think, three months after we graduated, I started painting complete pieces of work. I was concerned about the fact that maybe I was just repeating everything and the context was sort of lost for me and that connection – I felt wasn’t there anymore. Even though it took us two years to develop it once and I was still in the process of developing it again, what exactly do I want to do? How exactly do I want to make this, another body of work that says something? This sort of feeling about everything that is around me, collecting references, doing these small, really small things as one piece, and then maybe I’ll select all of them and see where it goes. It’s sort of lost, the process is sort of lost, but then again, consistency is key. I’ve just been working on it and just trying to see where it goes.
Ajiya: I think you figure it out when you’re making it and you don’t know what the end product is, you learn and you grow with your work, and then you get ideas while you’re creating your work.
And that’s the part of the whole process itself. I love that so much. And I want to thank you both for sharing that.
And so talking about your scroll, where do you see that going? I love the fact that you said there’s a piece of this that the world is probably never gonna see. And that’s the diary. However, the rest is like there for us to share and interpret like you are. Talk to me a little bit about what that means to you. Why do you choose to keep that personal?
Hafsa: I think the purpose of this scroll was basically to connect at this time where staying connected to people is rather difficult. So the diary kind of serves the purpose to stay connected to the artist on the other end of the scroll. And it’s for us too, for our emotional process, to work on this scroll. So, the world doesn’t really need to see the diary and they can interpret the scroll, like you said, in their own way.
How many rounds has it made back and forth? And does it have an end? Or does it keep going?
Hafsa: So it does have an end. We have these 16 feet of paper. So basically, when the 16 feet is either, you know, all filled up, or maybe even if there are some negative spaces and we think that it is complete, that’s going to be the end of it.
That’s so cool.
Ajiya: I feel like of course, it has an end, we made a whole structure and we had a whole timetable. According to that timetable, we are late, we were supposed to finish in two rounds, but because we were focusing on the journey and on the quality, we didn’t want it to be hasty. And we wanted to take our sweet time. And so we’re going to add another round. But as far as the diary is concerned, I feel like if the scroll is out in the public, we want the viewer to also relate to the scroll in whatever way they want to relate to it. So the diary, if we add that, then that’s too personal – closing the viewer in a box. And like we are telling them, “This is what you see and this is what it is” – nothing more than that. And we don’t want that. We want it to be open to whatever they want to see. And also because essentially, the idea was to stay connected to each other. We also went through a few things together, we’re going through a few problems of our own and so we wanted hope for ourselves. This was a way to connect to each other and understand each other a lot more and we could also make this an artwork so you know, why the hell not?
I love that so much! I always end with a question about – you have talked of inspiration in your process and your work. Are there any people in the art world, or otherwise, that you look up to? Who influences your work?
Ajiya: There are, yeah, there are for me. I’ve been looking at Henry Moore Sue’s work. And I’ve been looking at Agnes Martin and Nasreen Mohamedi because a lot of my work, usually subconsciously, I don’t know why, revolves around squares. A lot of squares in a grid formation. And On Kawara, he has his ‘date paintings’, and every day, he paints a date and there are dates that are missing as well. And then the viewer starts to wonder, you know, well what happened during that time when he didn’t paint that specific day? And so one of my works, during my thesis, was painting the sky every day at 2 pm. It was in a square form on a plywood surface.
But I do feel like Pakistani students do not know anything about their own roots. I still don’t know anything about my roots.
Hafsa: I know. It’s frightening.
Ajiya: And we need to stay connected to who we are, where we have come from, how we have traveled, how art has traveled, and you know, where we belong. So because we have been taught European art and American art, we haven’t been taught what Pakistani art is, what art from the subcontinent was. We haven’t been taught that at all.
Hafsa: It’s difficult to search for and find resources on that.
Ajiya: So what I was wondering was that as a student, how hard it was to actually refer back to our roots and after you graduate because you feel you’re so lost. It would be so crucial to understand our own art.
So true. There are not enough resources for our art.
Hafsa, any inspirations that you feel like influence your work or you look up to?
Hafsa: I have mostly been trying to look up to more printmakers since my practice is in printmaking. It is actually very difficult to find printmakers that are Pakistani, you sort of relate better to their work. I have always loved Saleema Hashmi’s work. So, I recently discovered Anwar Jalal Shemza. I sort of found myself in his work. I don’t know how to describe it. I printed a particular picture and put it on my wall and I want to look at it every day. I love that painting. I hope I can own it one day.
Oh, I hope so too! And the thing we are doing with Rungg now is hoping to do exactly that. Why can’t we find our information and resources easily? So Rungg is centering the whole thing around the humanity of art first, it’s not about just selling paintings. It’s about why are we doing the work that we’re doing? The reason we don’t have a voice at the creative table is that there is nobody representing us at the table.
It was a pleasure meeting you guys and talking to you. I’m looking forward to talking to you again.
Ajiya: Looking forward to talking to you again!
Is this girly?
The Scroll – Details V
All images provided by courtesy of the artists. Hafsa and Ajiya are upcoming artists on Rungg Gallery, New York.