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With a brush dipped in his soul

Now a sought-after artist across the globe, Shahid Rassam learned to paint using brushes handmade by his mother

By Shazia Tasneem |
PUBLISHED October 31, 2021

Shahid Rassam’s paintings and sculptures have been lauded by critics and art lovers alike for the past two decades. Commissioned for the portraits by Dubai Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid al Maktoum, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and by Rashid Abdullah, Chairman IBL Group and philanthropist, for Asma-e-Hasna and Sooarh-e-Rehman casted in aluminum and gold plated. Having his mural auctioned at Christies, Dubai for UNFP program for earthquake victims, Rassam heads Arts Council Institute of Arts and Craft.

Rassam received a good number of scholarships for the study of arts. He was visiting faculty to eight universities including JJ School of Art, Mumbai, University of Toronto, Al-Ain University UAE and Boston University USA. The artist unveiled his first solo exhibition at 21 surrounded by starry names like great writer and satirist Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, poet Jaun Eliya, painter Iqbal Mehdi and scriptwriter Anwar Maqsood. Since then, he has exhibited in countless galleries across the globe including the UK, USA, Canada, France, Italy, UAE, India and a solo exhibition at Embassy of Pakistan, Washington DC in 2011. Rassam’s work of art has a genuine quality and is a sincere expression of his inner being. Starting with his creative mother’s homemade brushes he dipped into the love of colors to transform this cruel world of daily existence into beautiful works of art. The Express Tribune held a ‘brush of words’ with Shahid Rassam in his studio to discuss his art, inspiration and his views on his mega project, the largest Quran in the world.

STF: How did you finally decide on becoming an artist?

SR: Art is something that I am born with. Ever since I was a little boy, I used to create artworks that drew my mother’s attention. Like every modest household, in ours too, there was hardly any space for spending on art stationary. But my mother had a great creative instinct. She was my first teacher and art promotor. While in the sixth grade, I had no art book. My mother torn her dupatta to create paint brushes, and used different inks to make a watercolor wheel to help me create my school art. Those were not colors. Those were the flows of her love she poured on my canvas and to make me what I am today: an artist.

How did you choose to specialise in figural sculptures?

SR: I wanted to use the human figure so that people can connect with the artwork. That’s the main aim of my art.

STF: How does your artistic process start?

SR: The way I work is like writing a book. First, I have to know what story I want to tell. Once I have an idea of what I want to present, then I start working. The sculpture never begins with a visual image, but with words. Sometimes I’m inspired immediately and sometimes it takes a while.

STF: What are the three basic rules of oil painting?

SR: Any truly creative process does not follow the bookish rules of art. In fact, it destroys the artwork. One needs to experiment with new compositions. I remember famous portrait painter professor Joshua at the Royal College of art, England while teaching the basic rule of paintings taught that the blue hues should be used in the background and the brown in the foreground. But his contemporary painter Thomas Gainsborough painted famous ‘cottage girl’ painting in blues by using reverse arrangement and it became a masterpiece.

STF: What genre does your work fall into, abstract expressionism, conceptual art or realism?

SR: I have practiced many styles of paintings, like portraits in realism, conceptual; figurative sort of surrealistic work based on the socio-political scenario of the region as well as the world.

STF: How does your work comment on current social or political issues?

SR: Every artist has to be politically aware otherwise he won't be able to create any thought-provoking body of work. I have been a student of literature and history as well. My political understanding has helped me creating my last series ‘Kafir’. The works in the series are my narratives about our society.

STF: Who are your biggest influencers? Are you influenced any artist or artistic movement?

SR: The very act of drawing or dipping a brush into paint is sufficient to get me started and inspiration almost inevitably follows. As an artist you are inspired by many movements as well as many artists. But it keeps changing as you grow and evolve. When I was young, many artists, romantic poets, writers, and painters impressed me. But now I see the world with a different lens, and I nurture something that is thought-provoking. But few artists are all-time great and are still my favorite like Sadequain and Picasso.

STF: How do you seek out opportunities to display or showcase your works of Sculpture?

SR: Alhamdulillah now I don't seek out opportunities to display my work of sculptures, galleries and art biennale follow me. I display my work with particular local and international galleries.

STF: Tell me about the challenges you face trying to bring your work to new audiences.

SR: Actually I don't believe to please audiences or clients. I pour down my own thoughts and moods on the canvas and display those for the audience. I leave the choice on them whether to like my work or not.

STF: Many creative people have strong daily habits. Do you have any?

SR: Instead of daily habits I strongly believe that art or the creative process is not a part-time affair, you have to engross in it all the time so deeply.

STF: You are experienced in all mediums. Tell us about your framework of shading, layering, or smooshing.

SR: Yes, I have practiced in different mediums, but it is really impossible to explain the process in words. I would rather suggest that an artist should know the art of observation, (s)he needs to study life as a first. There should be a deep understanding of the subject to create its visible and invisible layers and only then one can paint, shade and smoosh.

STF: How many brushes and markers you have in your house?

SR: I have not counted them. I could not afford a single pencil in my childhood but now I have so much in my studio. I have many stationary at home not only for myself but for my students too.

STF: What is the most challenging part about being a mixed media artist?

SR: I think everything is a challenge whatever the media is. The point is how you accept it and take it.

STF: What is the basic material that you use to shape your sculptures?

SR: My most favorite medium is bronze and gunmetal. It is challenging and complex and very few people work on this.

STF: How different is it to paint murals? Do murals need any specific technique?

SR: It depends on the artist and his style of painting. I have painted many murals. I use different techniques like pallet knife, glazing, and stippling.

STF: If asked to select one from painting and sculpturing, what will be your choice of work?

SR: I love doing both, depending on the idea then I decide the medium.

STF: How long does it typically takes to create a sculpture?

SR: It is not an easy process and can take months. It has different phases of work: first in clay, then plaster of pairs, in fiber, and then metal casting. After doing all these starts the finishing process.

STF: What is your dream project?

SR: I love experimenting and doing challenging stuff. For the last five years, I have been working on the largest Quran in the world. Although it is very challenging, but I have accepted and started working on it. The art is a combination of sculpture and paintings. I have cast the holy words of the Quran in aluminum and the design was painted on canvas in a glazing technique. Therefore, it is unique and exclusive kind of project, which was never created before in the last 1,400 years of Islamic history I believe. The piece is going to be displayed at the Dubai Expo 2020 next month.