Write Abstraction: An interview with Saba Hasan

A version of this piece was published in The Asian Age on March 26, 2012

There is something ineffably extraordinary about Delhi-based artist Saba Hasan’s mixed
media works that were on display at the Art Konsult gallery in New Delhi till March 26.
Through a riot of nails, leaves, written word, sand and plaster, she imbues the ordinary with exceptional connotations and denotations, leaving you in the richly woven tapestries with multi-layered meanings and interpretations.
Her big solo after about five years, the new show has no title. “I do not want to plant words or thoughts in your head about what it is that I am saying,” she says, talking about her works in an email interview. (Even as we exchange mails, she is packing her bags for a week-long trip).

The titles of her paintings and installations are far from revealing. They are, at best, “plainspeak”. Like nine books, burnt book, tied up books, etc. In the nine-book installation on floor, Hasan conceals several books, neatly set on nine rehals (Quran stands). “I don’t reveal which book it is that I have chosen to treat in a particular way. I feel the meaning broadens if the viewer can put his own book mentally into that space,
be it in German, Turkish or Urdu,” says Hasan, who has been developing this technique for over ten years now, adding materials as she goes along. There has been a lot of trial
and error in her studio, and she has made many discoveries during her travels. “I seem to lean towards the ordinary, the organic, but something that adds another letter to my language, another meaning as I go on gathering,” says the artist who knows what she is doing most of the time, but also relies on chance and accidents in the studio. A large brown work called “Large Parchment” (mixed media on canvas) got accidentally left out in the rain. “I let it be there for three days, just to see what happens. I learnt from this that I can actually use the elements, like the sun, wind or the rain to take part in the making of my works,” she says, adding  that the process of making is a long one for her
and she enjoys it at the pace of life around as it unfolds within and on the canvas.
But life, sometimes, unfolds in messier ways. According to Hasan, messy reality is best suited to abstraction. “It just takes longer to put things together and then go for the essential, but for me abstraction offers many possibilities and involves the viewer in its interpretation, thus never limiting the work to what may have been my original intention, but to allow it to acquire a life in its hanging where it is in rhythm not only with my breathing, but also with another human being, looking at it,” says Hasan, who thinks that abstraction allows her to delve into the mysterious for which no literal representation is true enough. In this show, she says she is beginning to use it to her purpose: of reconciling the atheist in her with the philosopher and spiritualist, as in the installation of nine books which deals with the multiplicity of truths, perhaps.
Abstraction also allows Hasan to build her own “visual language” where the sound of each material, its texture, glint or weathered feel is like an alphabet of a language which she wants to construct in art and use to convey a vision which offers not merely an insight into reality, pain and conflict, but a hope that there is a future, that each person 
has a tribe and that despite what we are doing there will be survival.
For Hasan, who distils her own life experiences and moulds them into artistic marvels, art to be art needs to have “painstaking thought and experimentation” to finally offer a “depth and vision”. She says: “It can never be alienated from the artist or her life and experience for it is that experience and understanding that brings value to the work.”
When she is working, Hasan is not conscious at all of who she is. “I am simply honest as I face my vulnerabilities as a human being and then try and overcome them for I believe in people and in this world of brutality. It may sound naive, but I believe in an innate goodness and common wisdom which will survive,” she says.
Each work, she always hopes, would be an epiphany between art and life. “The two are never too far apart, nor am I looking at either with too much detachment. It’s like slow burn, slight shock at first and then you can live with it,” she says. Or it could be a book which is concealed under shells. “It’s hidden but you sense its beauty and potential power if released,” says Hasan, who argues that the chaos on canvas emanates from the interaction of what is within and what is around. She says she walks the line between the real and the unknown, the understood and the concealed.
Walking this line for the show, Hasan moves from the vocabulary of letters (text) to the book itself.
She uses Urdu text both for the “content” and its “visual lyrical line”, moving from extracts from literature to news to personal letters which lay bare feelings without censorship and bring a universal and contemporary relevance to the work. “After all, art is about both the personal as well as the larger cultural aspects,” says Hasan who chose books as her new material to “push the boundaries a bit”, on her quest to find a new surface so that instead of creating relief she could use the three-dimensionality of the new material. “When you are searching for meaning, there are always more than one dimension and I felt that instead of pulling out extracts, the entire book will bring with it a multidimensionality and loaded values which I could then have a dialogue with,” says Hasan. Looking at her works on display at Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi, you know she had quite a dialogue.
The artist’s prime preoccupation these days remains books. “I take long time to explore, grasp, reflect, ponder, conclude, if ever and so,” she says, talking about your her current projects, including “parallel experiments” with sound that she started two years ago. On her website (sabahasan.com) you could check out her sound installation for which she wrote a long poem and recorded it to play off the ramparts of a castle in Austria.
In terms of approach, she seems to be making a shift to a more conceptual and philosophical view. “What is the truth? Is there an absolute truth? Knowledge? Meaning? Faith? Death? The human place? Is your truth bigger than my truth?” she wonders, maintaining that she uses books as “signs” to deal with contemporary and philosophical 
questions.
The artist, who grew up on Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, John William Coltrane, now listens to Hindustani Classical music, especially vocals and dhrupad. She is learning to play the piano at the Delhi School of Music. She says she has done music notations as the surface for drawings, but she thinks they are not “good enough” to show.
In poetry and literature, there is an entire array of writers she keeps reading: Faiz, Ghalib, French poet Aime Cesaire, Mahmoud Darvish, Saadat Hasan Manto, Tagore, Ismat Chughtai, Tolstoy, Proust, Pushkin, Marquez, Chekhov, Vikram Seth, Hanif Kureishi, Arundhati Roy and Mohammed Hanif. Currently, she is reading Seth’s The Rivered Earth, besides Anita Desai and Agha Shahid Ali.
What is Hasan’s conception of good art? Must art invariably be a reflection of an artist’s own journey? She says its depth and vision she seeks the most in all works of art, with a dash of personal with cultural references and resonances of contemporary relevance.
“Artists’ own journey is always there under the surface, but the focus on the ‘I’ is not interesting unless it can be universalised. Nature is stronger than the I. The world goes on without the I,” she says.
Hasan’s influences include her “open’minded, literary, generous, philosophical and good humoured” parents. She also lists some of her school teachers, books, friends, family, cook, her children, all those who support her and let her think and be free to work and have helped her evolve as an artist as her influences. But, mostly, it is her parents for “letting me grow in th direction I wanted and my talent lay”.

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