Every day when she wakes up, Saba Qizilbash plots her strategy to carve out four to five hours to work. As the mother of two daughters, ages 7 and 3, the wife of a busy businessman and a part-time lecturer at the American University in Dubai (AUD), maintaining such dedication to her art requires real planning.
If her children are at home, she may pick up her purse and wave goodbye to them before going out of the door, round to the back of the house and sneaking upstairs. “They don’t seem to ask questions even if I am still dressed in my pyjamas,” she laughs. On other occasions, she will eat her breakfast in the car on the way home from the school run – to maximise the time she can spend on her paintings. When her husband is working at home, she has even resorted to camping out in the bathroom with her easel.
“I am a hunter-gatherer when it comes to my space,” she explains. “Time is like gold to me and I work hard to make sure I keep up my painting hours.”
Qizilbash’s acrylic paintings are so meticulous they are as realistic as a photograph. She trained at Lahore’s renowned National College of Arts and later went to Rhode Island School of Design in the US, then moved to Dubai with her husband six years ago when she started teaching foundation art at AUD.
Her most recent collection, The Empress’s New Clothes, depicts a series of fabric sculptures inspired by the coat stand in her bedroom which, after a few busy days, ended up telling a personal story simply by the clothes hanging from it.
“The issues that I deal with are very much related to the female wardrobe, what we wear, who dictates what we wear, the layering and the politics behind the layering,” she says, describing her work.
“I juggle a lot of different roles and there are certain social expectations that mean I have to dress differently throughout the day. I almost feel like I am doing a puppet act and these are my costumes and, as they pile up on the coat rack in my bedroom, they start to tell a story about how and where I spent my day.”
There are certain recurring items: the brown jacket, for example, which may represent a male figure, and the silk kimono, which tells of the feminine side. She also mixes her western outfits with her South Asian ones to reveal the conflicts she and many other women often face.
“So much work has been done on the role of women, especially Pakistani women, that I feel like I am repeating something that has been touched upon extensively, but I have never not painted what I experienced,” she explains. “I feel like as a working woman, who is western-educated and who has always followed her own path, I still feel like I have to remain within certain boundaries that restrict or dictate the way I dress and I feel like one can never be free from that.”
Even the way she seeks out the time and space for herself in the busy family home reflects her situation as a 21st-century woman. It also contributes to the complexity of the work. “I used to take time for granted and if I wasn’t inspired I would go for a walk or something until I felt ready to paint. But now I am always thinking about it and don’t take that luxury anymore,” she says.
For The Empress’s New Clothes, this meant that sculptures of tangled clothes would be left in place for up to a week and would sometimes startle the family should they walk in on one unattended.
Previous series were based on events such as earthquakes or the threat of minefields and were, in a sense, more abstract. However, in all her work, Qizilbash works from her emotions and very much enjoys the illusion of making her paintings appear realistic.
Perhaps because she dedicates so much passion to actually finding the space in which to finish them, it is paramount that they should be hyperrealistic and very much there – the opposite to the space that she constantly has to recreate.