Parkside Avenue, In Conversation with: Safwan Subzwari

Parkside Avenue, In Conversation with: Safwan Subzwari

While his artistic style is reminiscent of early Pakistani modern expression, Karachi based artist Safwan Subzwari succeeds to remain relevant and fresh in the art scene today. From his choice of colour, his abhorrence of an empty canvas and his incessant need to reinvent -- he opens up about what it means to be an artist and the responsibilities that come with it. In a candid and insightful interview with Kayal, he talks about his process, his philosophy and his journey ahead. 

Have you always maintained a boundary in your studio space? 
No, this is very recent and I'm absolutely loving it! I want my studio to be ready when inspiration strikes and I have a desire to create. I'm a very sensitive person and I realised that I would end up absorbing the energy of others whenever they came into my space and what I was putting into my artwork wasn't pure anymore. I was feeling their emotions and it was deeply confusing for me and my work. The most important aspect of creativity is the idea and it doesn't give you a lot of time. When an idea strikes, I need my space to be ready with the right tools for me to create. 

If you're sensitive to the energy of other people, do you use them to extract your own process? Or is it solely about you, your energy and state of mind?
I'm essentially trying to understand myself and my art is an automatic response to my existence. The message or theme comes later and I also feel like that makes me a better artist because I don't get in the way of the artistic expression passing through me. Sometimes it really messes with me because I can have plans to create something and it'll go in an entirely different direction. Even if it logically or financially doesn't make sense, I still pursue it because that's how you build the relationship.
 Safwan Sabzwari 'CNIC' Live Painting + Exhibit at Kayal Karachi. 
The relationship to what?
The relationship to art. It's like blind trust. I call it an 'art god' or the 'divine' or whatever. It's helped me in a way that no family or friends have ever been able to and it's pulled me out of really dark places. I feel a very strong connection to it, so when it tells me to do something, I don't question it at all. 

Could we then say that art is sort of like a meditative process to you? Is that your worship or your spirituality? 
Yeah it absolutely is. It keeps me sane and it helps me understand the world better as well as myself. I feel like I'm at a place where I can finally start to communicate with the world by holding up a mirror with my art as commentary but not defining if anything is bad or good. That's on the viewer to determine. I look at Karachi for example, and sometimes I feel like I'm in a surreal film where everyone is a character in this bizarre world. We live in such a bizarre world. But I love it because it's the fuel that allows me to create my art. I feed off of it. 

Is it only the bizarre that pushes you to make this art, or also the perfect? Or is there even a perfect for you. 
I don't think there's any such thing as perfect. My biggest fear in life is a blank piece of paper. I need to make it really hard for myself to create and that's my biggest challenge. I need to destroy that piece of paper and then try to figure out how to save it. When I'm in the right space is when there's a communication happening between the paper and I. That communication is the best way to talk to the 'art god' or divine. You can very clearly tell the difference between your gut and your conscious mind and I'll always listen to my gut. I don't listen to my conscious mind because I'm not a designer, I'm an artist. I need to figure out what the canvas or paper wants me to make. 
 Visitors at 'CNIC' Kayal Karachi, December 2020
Going back to your work being a commentary on things around you, do you ever wish for your work to be a force of change? 
Oh absolutely. I think I'm just getting started on the change but my main driving force to create the art is that i'm going to one day change the world. If I didn't have that mindset, I wouldn't be creating art right now because I'd be completely hopeless. I'm not even close to that yet but I will be. 

Do you feel a need to reinvent yourself as an artist?
Absolutely! Every 6 months I change my artistic style, my fashion, the way I behave, the things I eat and drink.

Is it almost like shedding? 
Yeah, what's the point of staying stagnant. I don't understand artists who choose to make the same stuff for the rest of their lives. Your gift is evolution, it's evolving and discovering what hasn't been discovered. Why would you not want to change? 

What's the one thing you need to do before you start painting?
I don't like painting or drawing until I'm in a sort of a manic mode. I call it seducing myself. I put on music, browse through a catalog of artwork that I'm inspired by. I love watching artist interviews online because I'm so sensitive, I can even feed off of their energy through a youtube video.

I know you mentioned that you don't stop once you start a piece, how long have you spent on one piece continuously?
It would probably be the work I did for the Karachi biennale, because they were so big, they were 10'x10' canvases. I already had back pain then but the process of doing those literally broke my back. I'd have to lie down to rest, get up and continue making it. For context: Basically, I put these large canvases in different parts of Karachi, and it was meant to be an interactive piece where people would walk all over it, throw their trash and cigarette butts, animals like cats and pigeons interacted with it too. After 2-3 hours it was a mess but I glued everything on it, took it to my studio and that's when I started seeing textures and stories appearing. All of these canvases were titled after the areas they were kept in and the whole process probably went on for 8-9 hours. 

Is your work for a global audience or are you channeling this work for our society. Who are you speaking to?
I've been struggling a lot with this actually. It's very difficult in Pakistan because there is so much censorship that it ends up seeping into your work. During the first Covid lockdown I was making art that was really visceral, raw stuff. I couldn't tell if this was my natural evolution or if it was my true self expressing myself without limitations and censorship. It's hard to separate the two. I find that in Pakistan, I have the responsibility where I can't just make the work I want. Art is a language and if you're communicating to someone in a language they can't understand then you're at fault. You can't just make some avant-garde artwork and say "i'm a great artist, people just don't get me." 

So you think there is a responsibility on the artist to speak the same language as their environment?
Absolutely. You're also responsible for your society and have a role to play as an artist. We think about things other people don't think about. I do want my art to have global reach of course, I'm not bound to Pakistan. What that does is that you then have to compete with the world. You can stay in Pakistan and be an average artist with all the fame and money but that's a really scary and dangerous place to be because you'll never push yourself.

That flows into the next question. Because you now have this global visibility with Instagram and social media. What are your thoughts on Instagram + art? Do you think that it's helped or hindered work? How important is it to see a piece of artwork physically as opposed to through a screen?
I don't think Instagram is negative. It's helped me a lot and it's easy access to a lot of people vs if I was just doing physical exhibitions. Viewing work live has its only value because there's a certain energy that an artist has transferred into their work and you notice that when you view artwork in a museum or a gallery.

It's like a fourth dimension almost. 
Yeah it's literally like a surreal experience. I'd seen Van Gogh's work a lot online but when I saw it in person, I wanted to cry. I could feel the energy it was holding on to from his studio to all the places it had traveled. So that's what you lose out on Instagram. What you do get on Instagram is access to it and then you can find it live. 
 Safwan's work on display at Kayal Karachi. 
I think it does more good than harm, at least you're still learning about a new artist. 
Absolutely, and there's no one in the middle deciding on whats good or whats bad. 

So is there any kind of song or music that you're into these days?
I'm into all kinds of music. Marium, my wife, bought me a trumpet two years ago that she keeps giving me sh*t for because I haven't practiced at all. I'm now picking it up and that's why I've been listening to a lot of jazz as well as old ghazals. I really like old Indian music. Old Bollywood like Kishore, Rafi and Lata. But I'll honestly listen to anything. I also do this experiment which is really fun for me where I'll put on something and just create with the flow. 

What are your rituals? What do you do everyday?
Well, I create art everyday. I have to be creative in any form. If I don't I feel this thing called mental constipation. 

What are your laxatives for that constipation? 
I've developed different avenues to express myself. I have music, art, film, photography. It's my therapy, it's what feeds me.

Do you ever turn off from being an artist?
No but honestly I really wish I could. I have these weird fantasies of just having a basic job with a basic routine. 

Like you're living in a parallel universe and can see yourself doing these things?
Yeah, I won't have to think so much or worry about getting paid by the end of the month. I really wish I could turn off, but I just can't ever do it which is actually very exhausting. Even in my sleep, my dreams are so vivid. 

Do you ever paint your dreams? What's been your craziest dream lately?
I'm praying namaz. Wait, a little context. I grew up in Saudi Arabia and was super religious, I used to pray 5 times a day, wouldn't even listen to any music. I literally would be wearing shalwar kameez and topi all day. Each namaz would have its own outfit. If you notice in my artwork, there's one topi with stars on it, that was my favourite. So my dream is that I'm praying namaz and right next to me there's something rubbing against my arm and my shoulder and I look to the side and I see Humpty Dumpty also praying namaz. I'm like omg, ok cool. Then he suddenly starts spinning around like he's about to fall and I know I can't interrupt my prayers so I don't and he ends up falling. Everyone stops praying and is attending to Humpty Dumpty and all of a sudden they announce that he's passed away. 

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. You need to make an art piece on this!
I have actually and it's a pretty big piece. There was actually a janazah and they were carrying him on their shoulders but he turns around and winks and smiles at me. 

That's intense. But it's good that the dream had a start and finish. Do you think it's important for an artist to experience hardship and suffering to produce great art?
Yes I do and I don't want to believe that. But I do feel like it's an integral part of being an artist. My art is definitely representative of my pain. I'm scared because I don't want to have a rough life to produce quality pieces of art. 

What is your relationship to the beautiful? Do you feel an artist should discover great beauty or uncover some truth?
Beauty not in the traditional sense but discovering your own sense of beauty and then sharing it with the world. I feel like that's the artist's responsibility.  Something people might fail to see as beautiful. Eventually with enough artists and enough time, we might start to see the world as a beautiful place. 

Also to change the perspective of what is beautiful right.
Exactly. I wrote this film which I want to shoot soon where this guy has a weird super power. He lives in Karachi and sees all these things which are very gruesome and dark, people fighting on the street, beggars, families crying. All of a sudden he starts seeing all these things as really beautiful. Like the fighting suddenly turns into a dance and he sits there enchanted by this dance. So, one day. 

One day. Last question, are you doing anything new with your work with Kayal?
I haven't worked on drawings in a long time and I love drawing because it's so spontaneous. Even with my paintings, I'm actually just drawing with paint. I wanted to get back into this voice in my head, which was making me question the authenticity of the artwork I'd been putting out for the last little while. With these pieces, they're all real. Doesn't matter if it's dark, it's just real. It's where I live, it's what I'm feeling. It's what's happening in our society and the world right now. I really just want to represent that.

 Parting gifts; postcards from 'CNIC' Live painting + Exhibit. 
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