Saba Khan’s art has a multitude of inspirations that cross cultural boundaries and transgress rules of convention. She traces an awakening of her senses to her earliest memory at the age of three years old when she travelled with her mother to India. Before sunrise the entire family would wake, “I would get up with the household and make my way to the garden, mesmerised by the sensuous and multicoloured scene of huge roses that met me.
"As the sun came up I watched the sky change to pinks, oranges, yellows, greens and blues and my surroundings slowly emerged out of shadow. I would wander into the garden compelled by an overwhelming urge and desire to secretly eat these tantalising roses,” she reminisces.
Her memory of that moment remains vivid and is intertwined with the competing imagery of that period and future visits – the pink city of Jaipur, the vibrant colours, artisans making handicrafts and dyeing fabrics. That memory, that longing to savour the taste of those exquisite roses and the irrepressible sense that it was somehow wrong or subversive to experience that desire was coupled with the intense security of childhood. Since then Saba has associated roses with the heart both of which feature in her work.
It is this memory that nurtured within her a connection with colour, which inspires her work today: “That is how the artist inside me was awakened and over the years has evolved. For me, every moment we have is political, emotional, spiritual and physical with the presence of an unknown. That is what I try to capture in my work. I am trying to encapsulate an unknown moment, a subconscious moment and not ‘intend’ in any way. I think my journey began as a child in Jaipur, but it probably began a long time before that in an unknown moment.”
That journey of the heart and colour continued as she grew up in a nuclear family immersed in warmth in London with regular visits to and from her extended family in Karachi, confirming her belief in the interconnectedness of family. The scene was no longer Jaipur or Karachi but London. As she entered adolescence she found herself witnessing a period of dynamism in South London, and drew further inspiration from this. Art was grassroots, alive on the streets with dance and fashion, Vivienne Westwood and Kate Moss were among the multitude of influences that captured her imagination.
But one source of inspiration predominates her thoughts and work, something she felt even at the age of three when coveting the roses - the unknown. “I find the concept of the unknown fascinating, the idea that a single event, action, word, glance can be perceived in so many ways. It would be true to say that ultimately I am a postmodernist and find solace in the uncertainty of truth.”
Emerging into adulthood and pursuing a career in human rights Saba found herself politicised and part of a movement that seemed so very far removed from her creative influences. She wrote about genocide and atrocities for her MA and this fuelled her thoughts. However, her professional activities did not prove to be divorced from her creative influences. “I engaged with an extremely diverse range of individuals from people with influence to those who were powerless, these interfaces manifested themselves many years later in my art. I can look back now and see how all those experiences jangled in my subconscious and culminated in the work that I produce today.”
Saba’s career satisfied her thirst for political engagement but she increasingly felt that it was time to bring her instinct for art to the forefront. As a teenager she had been offered a place to study at Central Saint Martins but had felt her calling was human rights. The intervening years taught her that the two were not disconnected so she decided the time was right to embark upon, or resume, her artistic journey, but not within a formal context. “I chose not to go to art college or train in an institution because I felt that nobody should tell me what art is. I am motivated by people’s presence, aura and spirit, I just let it happen. For me it’s a spiritual and meditative experience that is devoid of intent.”
Saba’s paintings are often full of opposites; as she explores the notion of fragmentation and the process of losing things, she likens this to a seed for new beginnings. “For me making art is about simultaneously engaging in mind, body, spirit and the physical where seen and unseen worlds intermingle and fluctuate. As I add and remove colour and texture, new environments emerge and are lost, mirroring a condition of human existence. I eventually face an image that is both fragmenting and optimistic. It is like the beginning of something new, yet familiar, which had always existed but was not previously noticed.”
Her last series of works are a commentary on the individual, the world and society becoming fragmented. It toys with the idea of whether that is a positive or negative progression and asks whether the process of fragmentation is in fact a unique opportunity for something new to be created. Emotion is intrinsic to her painting and her own emotional responses to the artists that inspire her reveal why: “I can remember how I felt even now at those pivotal moments when art spoke to me. I cried for 45 minutes when I saw my first Rothko. His piece opened my heart and connected with me both emotionally and spiritually.”
Saba is currently developing a new collection of works exploring surreal subconscious moments in relationships.
Happy, Shiny, Fragmented People