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December 05, 2016

Miniature Reinventor: Hiba Schahbaz

Text by Wyanet Vaz

The Brooklyn-based artist is all about questioning the rigid rules of miniature painting

Her jewel-toned paintings depict an unsettling tension, and things are not what they seem. The Brooklyn-based artist is all about questioning the rigid rules of miniature painting. She is her own muse, and explores a strong feminine perspective through dream-like narratives and self-portraiture in her nude paintings. Hiba Schahbaz trained at NCA, and has an MFA in painting from Pratt Institute in New York.

Setting the stage
“My parents are both very artistic but they did not pursue fine art professionally. My mum’s oil paintings hung in our home; my dad ran the design department for the state television network, so he would usually design sets. This was back when a lot of filming was done within the studios, so large-scale backdrops and stage designs would always be in production. After school, I would sometimes go to my dad’s office and paint backdrops with the set painter.”

Life-long love affair
“I was formally introduced to miniature painting as a student at NCA. I was completely absorbed by it and somehow knew that I was going to be working with this genre for the rest of my life. I love the beauty of the art form, the discipline required to master it, the intricate process behind it, and the drive for perfection inherent in every painting. I am especially taken by its history and the narrative possiblities.”

Nude revival
“Ever since I was a young girl, I have drawn and painted nude pictures of myself. It is my catharsis and my obsession. As a teenager, I would sit in front of the mirror in my bedroom and sketch myself. My paintings are deeply personal. But it has definitely been challenging to show my art at times, and of course there are places where I am unable to show my work at all. The most difficult aspect of painting miniatures is introducing my own body into it. It has been challenging having people misunderstand or react negatively to my work where I am both the artist and the performer. Through the stories I create, I contemplate what it means to be a woman. I often use self-portraiture as a tool to express freedom, destruction, sexuality and censorship by unveiling the beauty, fragility and strength of the female form.”

Channeling the imagination…
“Although I use traditional techniques, and stylisation of figures and landscapes in my work, my paintings are fuelled by my imagination, and the imagery I use comes from the contemporary world. Also, I think that my dreams filter into my paintings.”

Diverse influences…
‘I respond to all sorts of works: painting, sculpture, and installation. I am interested in beauty, be it a masterpiece at the Louvre or a ceramic pot sold on the streets in Karachi. These days I am particularly inspired by nudes from antiquity such as Ingres’ Grande Odalisque. I find inspiration in so many artists’ work. I love the paintings of Frida Kahlo and Francesco Clemente. I am also discovering the masterpieces of Botticelli and Manet now.”

On her shade card…
“My colour palette comes from traditional miniatures which are bright, vivid and full of vibrant colours. I loved learning the process of painting with tea, a technique called neem rang. I love the different tones that can be produced from layering tea washes. The first neem rang painting that I ever made hangs in my parents’ home.”

Change of scenery  
“I like to experience different residencies. It’s always a unique experience to get out of my comfort zone and paint in a different place. When I am at a residency, the change of environment almost always impacts my work and challenges me. It also helps me break away from my normal practice and be more experimental.”

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