Fiza Khatri is a painter and curator based in Karachi. Her paintings explore themes of intimacy and caretaking, and call for the viewer to meditate on quotidian scenes from her lived experience of queerness. For Khatri, who was born in 1992, painting is a form of witnessing and of being attentive to the subjects and spaces of her domestic world, ranging from portraits of her friends to an excerpted vision of her mother in the kitchen, as well as tender depictions of her many pets.
Others of her paintings explore themes of femininity and codified space in South Asia through the motif of hair, offering images of the artist transgressing traditionally male spaces such as the barbershop.
Two of Khatri’s paintings present views of a bathroom sink crowded with tufts of her own hair, ritually cut by the artist herself as a way of reclaiming her body and identity from traditional South Asian expectations of gender.
Khatri’s new body of work, Sailoon and Other Stories, is now a virtual exhibition by Jhaveri Contemporary in Mumbai.
In this interview, she speaks to Diva Gujral about relationship of her work to the pandemic, to Instagram, and to the spaces available to her as an artist in South Asia.
Diva Gujral: Something that strikes me about your work was your relationship to photography, and the way in which you the commit of domestic scenes, often incidental, quotidian photographs that one might make in the home, to painting. Can you tell me a little more about how you have cast the camera as an intermediary between how you consider commit a scene to painting? Here in particular I’ve been thinking of two of your paintings, The Sink and Big Sink.
Fiza Khatri: Photography is something that I am thinking about and contending with in my work in an ongoing way. What you’re describing is most visible in the self-portrait in which my figure is directly present – in Shining, where I am depicted standing in the barbershop holding a phone camera up to the mirror. The Sink also originally included my figure holding a phone camera, but I ended up getting rid of it as I realised it wasn’t necessary. I became aware of how the space between the sink, the mirror, and the viewer became productive even without me in the frame.
The phone camera often mediates my relationship with the world, and that definitely comes up across my practice. In the barber shop painting you mentioned, the camera helped me create a kind of monument, or a way of memorialising the space, the people, and what they meant to me. These photographs become references that I ultimately take home and work with in my studio. I sometimes think my work registers like an Instagram feed, through these everyday snapshots – and the phone camera becomes a kind of companion as I catalogue my life. I usually take images of moments or visualities I’m moved by, and it doesn’t always occur to me to make a painting about them until much later.
DG: I really want to come back to The Sink and the detail you’ve just disclosed about how you omitted your own figure, and I wanted to ask you to expand more upon the painting as self-portrait, as it documents the remains of when you cut your own hair. Is there still a kind of personal depiction at work here?
FK: I am interested in the vantage point of me as the painter, and also of the viewer the moment they look at the painting. For me, the idea of portraiture in both the sink paintings is contained in imagining the viewer in this intimate space of the bathroom, looking into the sink and seeing their own hair looking back at them, or their reflection which should be presented in the mirror. I like that shift from me to the viewer, where we can share the intimacy of this experience, perhaps through different anecdotes which relate to our lives.
I remember growing up watching my father at the sink shaving his beard, with a mug full of water in which he would clean his razor after every stroke, and the kind of ritual behind this practice. I’m interested in the scene of hair-and-sink inhabiting a space between me and the viewer.
DG: Something that struck me about the more public scenes in your work was its documentary potential, as you seem to commit public signs and symbols from the South Asian street to oil painting. Do you think the camera offers you a route to transgress these public spaces, especially in South Asia where public spaces are built for and around men? You’ve spoken elsewhere about how you’re attentive to the materiality of the objects and spaces you depict, and I was wondering if you could speak more about what’s at stake in bringing these vernacular motifs and scenes from the street to painting, especially as someone whose body isn’t always welcome in those spaces.
FK: For me, the public sphere of Karachi still has the legacies of the 1990s when I was growing up with a lot of thefts and muggings around me, and the advice not to exhibit anything valuable while out in public. This cautionary voice is still a part of me today; I am aware of hiding my phone and my wallet as an almost default move for safety. Most of the work in the show that refers to public space is actually from Kathmandu, where I have felt a lot more comfortable in public spaces while compared to Karachi. The streets of Kathmandu offer a very different kind of negotiation with space. For one, Karachi is a big city and walking often has class-based associations with it, to the point where one doesn’t usually walk unless one has to.
I’ve been a part of feminist collectives, Girls at Dhabas in particular, who think more consciously about how non-cis-men move through the city and take up space on the streets. We consider the fear-based relationship which most non-cis-men are taught to develop in relation to the streets, and the various concerns of respectability tied to women’s bodies/sexuality that feed this fear. All the paintings in the show that come from spaces in Karachi or Pakistan are domestic spaces or interiors. And all the outdoor spaces are in Kathmandu.
I think this speaks more to how I move through the world rather than an intentional division on my part while creating the work. So in many ways those paintings of street/public scenes don’t feel transgressive, because I feel quite comfortable in these spaces.
I don’t have a resolved answer on this, but for those of us who are not cis-men in a South Asian context, it seems to me that we feel safer the farther away we are from home. Even when we’re taught to feel threat or discomfort in spaces we’re told are not accessible to us, most of the policing and threat of violence is still located within private/domestic spaces. In that sense, distance can allow a greater freedom in negotiating space.
In Kathmandu, I’m seen as an outsider or a tourist, and can get away without worrying about adhering to social codes. There’s something about people being socialised as women in a South Asian context where that fear or threat to one’s safety and respectability is worst when we’re closest to home.
DG: How has your practice evolved in the course of lockdown? Looking at your portraits of Umair, made in 2020 and 2021, I was thinking more about domestic portraiture and how we’ve all become domestic authors, in a sense, over this past year. You’ve spoken about the home as a place where the world offers different kinds of patterns and possibilities, to do with caregiving of the people, animals and plants in your home. Is there a connection between the kind of universal confinement we’ve all been in and the motif of confinement or enclosure in your work?
FK: I’ve always been a homebody, and I enjoy being in intimate home environments. When the lockdown started initially, I wasn’t getting to the studio at all, I wasn’t making any art, and was mostly involved in the home space. I was caretaking and completely consumed by the rituals of domestic life.
With regards to confinement, I tend to relate to it from the other end, in that I tend to be attentive to what happens in the home – the element of caretaking, of intimacy, and translating that into paint. My process is quite slow so I might make work about moments and spaces some time after I have experienced them. I don’t refer to Covid directly in the work, but I do think my paintings are sensitive to caretaking between people.
DG: It strikes me that you’ve really tapped into something that has marked so much of the pandemic for so many, in that we have each returned to our domestic spaces and become more attentive to the kind of quiet looking and caretaking that you refer to in your work. I wonder if the way in which your work comments upon about interiority, combined the fact that we’ve all been more attentive to the interiorities of our own lives (during Covid-19) makes the work particularly resonant at this moment.
FK: I hadn’t really thought of that before, but that is a possibility. I am now remembering that there is one work which comes directly from this time. The painting of my cats (Spark and Bite, 2021) is sort of a reference to the pandemic – they are Covid pets who I began fostering about a month into the lockdown. I intended to adopt them out initially, but that never happened and now they are staying. So many people all over the world took in animal companions at this time, and I think it’s another testament to how important community is to our survival.
DG: How do you see yourself relate to the return of resurgence of figurative painting in general? Here I’m thinking of the resounding interest in Lynette Yiadom Bokye, Kerry James Marshall, Salman Toor, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and the popularisation of paintings depicting non-white figures and their lived experiences. You’ve written before about the genre of portraiture, and dynamics at work in who gets to be witnessed or made visible, and I wanted to ask whether you have had particular affinity to figurative painting for this reason, in part as an act of reclamation.
FK: There has certainly been a lot of interesting work in figurative painting and representation. But a friend of mine also keeps reminding me that representation is always violent, no matter who is doing it, and that’s something I try to be mindful of. At the same time I think it can be very rewarding to participate in the process of representation and even unresolved decisions, to posit a different way to see how bodies relate to the world.
I don’t think this can only be done through figuration – so much abstract work can be about the body in various ways. I don’t really see a dichotomy between the two. I see that figurative work contends with representation in a particular way, but so can abstraction. I’m not tied to figurative painting, but I do find what it allows me to do in terms of storytelling is appealing to me at this time.
DG: I suppose there is an element of abstraction in your work that undoes that binary in any case, especially if we are to think of abstraction as a verb rather than a noun. Your paintings are often these little excerpts from a life, plucked out of photographs and memories, which in itself has an abstracted effect, kind of like the Instagram reel effect that you mentioned.
FK: So much abstraction also goes back to the material – no matter what kind of painting I’m making, I always have to contend with abstraction because I’m contending with materiality, its limitations, the trail that it leaves, and the way that it responds under my touch. I like thinking of abstraction as something one can participate in, rather than a fixed category. One thing I’ve really been thinking about lately (in relation to the role of photography in my practice, and also to the camera as a mediator between me and my memory) is how to abstract myself from the dictatorial view of the photographic image. Recently I’ve been trying to create more distance from the photograph and work more from memory – and so there is another abstraction at work there.
DG: You used suggested earlier that you ‘translate’ different aspects of your vision or even photographic scenes to painting, which is such an evocative phrase. Can you say more on the act of translation and what it means to you, and perhaps more about breaking out of this authoritative camera gaze?
FK: As a painter, I am working towards developing a relationship to a photographic image that can serve me better. The authority of a photographic image can feel quite seductive, and it can be hard to resist. I’ve been making more intentional decisions in my practice to mark that distance from the photograph and to rely on my memory instead.
In the paintings of Umair, I really wanted to avoid the camera and its mediation completely – I wanted to focus on the person and their presence in space, so both those paintings were made from life.
Each of these mediations offers a different form of translation, depending on how consistent or reliable the information that I am working with is. I go back and forth between these different sources as starting points for my work, and they allow for different kinds of descriptions/translations based on their nature.
DG: So conversely, to what extent would you say your painting is itself about the act of painting? We’ve discussed the challenges of inter-medium exchange in painting, and the avoidance of a dictatorial photographic vision, which has been especially heightened in an age of social media, but I want to close by asking whether you see your painting as in some way a meditation on the act of painting itself.
FK: That’s interesting! I wonder if all painting is a meditation on the act of painting? My engagement with the process allows my relationship with the medium to continue changing, and I’m quite committed to investigating the medium and the material itself. I suppose as long as there are formal decisions to be made, this will be the case.
Diva Gujral is a PhD scholar at the Department of History of Art, University College London, as well as a freelance writer and curator. She is the co-author of Photography in India: A Visual History from the 1850s to the Present.