Interview: Saira Wasim

13 Aug

Saira Wasim is a US-based contemporary artist from Pakistan. Saira has carved a niche for herself with her innovative, meticulously crafted Persian miniatures, which she employs to make political and social commentary. Saira’s work has been widely feted. It has been exhibited at numerous prominent art institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


How was it growing up in Lahore? Did you ever visit the BRB canal?

While I was born in the city, my parents moved to the suburbs right after my birth. I grew up in Allama Iqbal town, which is a southwestern suburb of Lahore. After my birth, my father built a house in Allama Iqbal town; he always wanted to live away from the city life. Our house was one of the first in the town. My early memories of living in that new town include seeing fields all around our house. My parents still live in that house, though the town itself is much more crowded now. And yes, I have visited BRB Canal plenty of times. My father loved to take us there on picnics.

Is your family originally from Lahore? Or did they move there during partition?

My maternal grandparents were from Lahore while my paternal grandparents were from Pasrur, a small village near Sialkot near the Indian border. Many of my family members originally lived in Qadian, a small village in Gurdaspur in Indian Punjab as Ahmadis have long had very strong ties with Qadian.

Childhood and parents

We were raised in a protected environment. Our weekends were spent at my father’s village of Pasrur. Our father always wanted us to have first-hand knowledge of village life because he wanted us to experience how people live in extreme poverty. We were also taught swimming, horse riding, fishing, and how to climb on trees, among many other activities of village life.


My father is an engineer. In 1984, my father started a factory for manufacturing capital goods in Lahore. He ran a factory to manufacture control panels and switch gears. Power Electronics, my dad’s company, was the first Pakistani company that made switch gears. Before that, Pakistan had to import these products from Western countries at an enormous cost. It was, in fact, that realization that prompted him to start manufacturing capital goods.

My father disliked the idea of emigrating to other countries. He believed that we have to make things better in our own country. He thought things would get better after Zia’s regime and that our Caliph, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, would come back. He thought that Pakistan would be on the road of peace and prosperity soon after Zia left, but my father was mistaken in his optimism.

Anyhow, while the 1980s were the worst in Pakistan’s history in terms of freedom of speech and religious freedom, the 1990s were the worst in terms of political chaos and corruption in the country. My father had to struggle hard and faced numerous obstacles due to the constant flip-flop between the democratically elected governments of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and because these governments brought a lot of corruption to the country. The common man in Pakistan had thought that democratic governments would bring peace and prosperity to the country, but things got much worse.


She is a very sensitive person.

My mother had a very tough childhood. My Nana Jaan died when she was two years old, and she had to live in extreme poverty.

Although my Nana Jaan, a close friend of Mirza Gulam Ahmad (founder of the Ahmadi sect), was a very rich businessman, with interests in Lahore and Bombay, before partition, and left huge property for his four kids and two widows, those four kids, and two widows didn’t get even a single penny from that property because my mother’s two Chachas (uncles) were very much against my naana jaan’s conversion to Ahmadiyya faith and his second marriage at the age of 60 to my nani jaan (a young Kashmiri Ahmadi school teacher from a very poor family). His first wife was a rich lady from a nawab family who lived most of her life with my nana jaan. She had converted to Ahmadiyya faith along with nana jaan but couldn’t have kids so she, along with second caliph Mirza Basir-ud-deen Mahmud and his wife, made my nana jaan do a second marriage with my nani jaan. The first wife died soon after my nana jaan death, and both chachas distributed the wealth among their children. My nani jaan, who got widowed at the age of 25 with four young kids, moved to Rabwa from Lahore where the second caliph was living, who supported nani just like his own daughter and grandkids and there she started teaching at a local school. My nani also died when my ami was 16 yrs old and my mamoo (ami’s elder brother) who was himself just 21 yrs old became the guardian of three younger siblings.

Growing up as an Ahmadi in Pakistan

Ahmadis have faced antagonism since the beginning. Ulemas of all the major seventy-two sects of Islam declared them Kafirs in 1891.

In 1974, Prime Minister Zulifqar Ali Bhutto declared Ahmadis non-Muslims. The constitution of Pakistan was amended to outlaw Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslims. Following the legislation, anti-Ahmadiyya riots broke out in the entire country. Thousands of Ahmadis died in the riots. Their properties were looted and their homes burnt.

My ami (mother) always tells us this story that in 1974 when she was pregnant (with me) and alone in the house with her three-year-old daughter (my elder sister), the mullahs led a call during the Friday sermon for every Ahmadi house to be burnt in order to secure Islam from Ahmadiyyat. A huge mob went on a rampage. As the word got around people, including our next-door neighbors left their houses to try to save themselves. When the mob, which included some of our own Sunni relatives, was marching toward our house, my abu (father) went to the police to ask for help. The police refused point blank saying that they could not go against the mullahs.

Just when the mob was about to reach our house, there was a sudden severe sandstorm. My ami always says that it was a miracle. (I don’t know about Indian Punjab, but in Pakistani Punjab, we have a lot of sandstorms, especially in early summer and they come so unexpectedly that one doesn’t get the opportunity to close the windows and doors of the house. The storms leave your house covered in dust, and the whole city turns into a desert; one can’t even see beyond a foot). The mob couldn’t do anything except break a few windows. My Ami tells us that after the storm there were only shoes and turbans found on the street.

So at a fairly early age, we came to know that we had a religious identity that was unacceptable to mainstream Muslims. We were nurtured in the basic teachings of the Ahmadi faith in the house and sent to the Convent of Jesus and Mary school because my father didn’t want us to face any discrimination because of our faith.

The discrimination against us has also been endorsed on our passports. If we call ourselves Ahmadis, we have to enroll as non-Muslim which deprives us of all our basic rights as Muslims. For example, Ahmadis cannot cast votes as Muslims and in order to vote, we have to enroll as non-Muslims.

During Zia-ul Huq’s oppressive regime, our Fourth Caliph (spiritual leader) Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad was compelled to migrate to England. Since then many Ahmadis in Pakistan have emigrated to European countries. Most of my relatives moved to USA and Canada.

Zia’s oppressive regime left a long-lasting legacy of turmoil in the country and religious extremism. There were many incidents of animosity that I witnessed, and now living in the US I realize how much we were denied our basic religious rights. Ahmadis were not allowed to practice their faith in public places or build their mosques. So my father volunteered our house for congregational prayers in Ramazan and other Ahmadi meetings. When Mullahs of the local mosque got this news, my father had to face huge threats and warnings that we were using our residential area for unIslamic activities. It is against the constitution of Pakistan to build an Ahmadiyya mosque or use a building as an Ahmadiyya mosque and activities. My father was sued by the local mullahs, but my father took the fine in his stride and paid the penalty.

I find it ironic that the only country where I am a non-Muslim is my own. In the past, I have never commented on these issues in my work. And although I was very willing to address such controversial issues, the general air of intolerance in my society always discouraged me from doing so.

When did you first realize that you were interested in art? Was it a Eureka moment for you or a slow, eventual realization? South Asian societies generally see art as a hobby. From art as a hobby to choosing it as a profession, this transition is especially difficult in Asian societies. Were your parents supportive of your decision? If you feel comfortable, please tell us a little more about your parent’s professions and their impact on you.

From the earliest that I can remember, I have always been very fond of drawing. Every wall, cupboard, and the door was covered with silly figurative drawings and portraits of family members, relatives, and whoever visited our house. I watched the visitors secretly and drew their appearance on the wall, and when they were gone I showed it to my parents and said, “Look, I made the picture of Baba Chokidari, motti Chachi, and Apa ji – don’t they look like this?”

In the beginning, my parents were amused by the drawings, my parents said, “look how creative and clever she is.” They laughed at those silly drawings on every wall of the house. And then they realized that every wall was covered with scribbling and drawings, and it gave them a very untidy appearance. So I was given a blackboard and white chalks to draw on and instructed to draw on the blackboard only. The blackboard had two sides, one for me and one for my elder sister. We were told to do anything on our given area of Blackboard. My sister’s side was always covered with homework, and my side was always covered by drawings. It is funny that now my sister is a Doctor (a general physician in Missouri), and I am still doing those silly drawings.

Let me share one another interesting story with you, my mother was also interested in art and always wanted to be a professional painter. Unfortunately, being a woman, she was not allowed by her family to paint or to pursue a professional career. When she was young, art was considered un-Islamic and a waste of time. She used to make miniature paintings on fabric, newspapers, and vases, from scratch and without any guidance or training. At that time, parents decided what careers the children would pursue and with whom they would marry. My widowed grandmother, who was a teacher and vice principal at a local school, decided that my mother should become a doctor. However, my grandmother died untimely, and the male guardians of my mother disallowed her from continuing her education. So, with her hidden passion for the arts and her mother’s unfulfilled dream for her to be a doctor, she was married away.

Since early childhood, my mother has been mentally and academically preparing my sister and me to eventually become doctors. My sister fulfilled my mother’s dream and became a doctor. But when it came to my turn to choose a career, I disappointed her. She always said: I didn’t get permission to be an artist from my mother, so how can I allow you?

At the time, my progress in school was getting very weak, and she had to face complaints from my school teachers that they had caught me drawing in class. So whenever my mother caught me drawing or painting, she would destroy whatever artwork I had created. The only safe time I had was in the middle of the night. I used to wake up in the middle of the night when everybody was asleep, switched on a torch, covered myself with a big blanket, and pursued my art underneath it. Now I feel funny sharing all this, but I was still caught and received a good beating from Ami. My mother had a special beating stick for me. If I ever said I wanted to be an artist my sister immediately fetched that stick and put it in front of Ami.

My mother was not an anti-art person, but she feared that her daughter wouldn’t have a respectable place in society and that pursuing art would kill my professional abilities. As you know in South Asian society artists are deemed to be mere craftsmen.

My secret decision to be an artist was totally opposite to what my mom had decided for me. What I was painting was an even graver threat to Ami and Abu because starting 8th grade, I started painting compositions on human suffering, persecution of minorities, and women’s issues.

Eventually, after years of persistence, my parents realized the intensity of my devotion to being an artist, and I was granted permission to go to an art school. My Abu was a very big support from the very beginning – he always supported me in whatever I did or chose except we were supposed to be good in our studies and elite in our fields. Like, Kasbeh Kamal khon khe Aziz-e-Jhan Shohri Iqbal

My Ami had her own very strong principles and beliefs. She always taught us it was a rigidly patriarchal society (secondly we were a religious minority) where there was much discrimination against women and minorities, and so women must pursue a career of utmost prestige and which would be considered safe and money-making too.

Another reason for these strong anti-art sentiments in the ’80s was Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship. Every sort of art except for calligraphy was condemned; figurative art was considered un-Islamic. In fact, engaging in any form of art was considered a great sin.

I was careful to never show my work to my family till it was exhibited or published because if they saw the content and imagery of my work, they would never allow me to continue making such paintings or display them. So, belonging to a family from a controversial religious minority and one that didn’t support the arts, I grew more politically conscious by the day.


Why did you choose miniature art? What specific affordances does miniature art provide for your overtly political work?

Even today, Pakistani audiences perceive miniature painting as decorative, a form of art that reflects and glorifies their rich traditional heritage. Miniatures, for me, however, have a more transcendental role; it is a vocabulary for the artist to engage in a sociopolitical dialog with viewers towards a more humane society.

Of late, the miniature has drawn the attention of foreign curators, museums, and art institutions. Yet, in Pakistan, my work was accepted by just one gallery — Rhotas2, the only serious gallery in Lahore; others were reluctant to display anything controversial.

Moving to Chicago in 2003, I gained the artistic and religious freedom that was somewhat precarious in my own homeland. I began responding to my new environment. The post-9/11 climate of fear, scrutiny, and surveillance of Muslims in the West shaped my current work. Global politics has become a consistent theme. Western societies in general — and the United States in particular — tend to be less aware of other societies in the world, particularly about Islam and Muslim culture. This is an era of cross-cultural misunderstandings and misperceptions created by the Western media that are mostly hostile to Muslim societies and Islam. Much of this misperception is attributable to the Western media, which often presents a distorted version of reality and only one side of the global debate. My new works unmask the injustices and hypocrisy of both the Eastern and the Western worlds.

My work has journeyed through several boundaries, from employing the centuries-old miniature format to a contemporary stage where a human drama unfolds every day to cross-cultural forays and political interventions. And the inspirational sources have been many — the courtly propaganda of the Mughals, the grandeur of baroque opera, the fun and enjoyment of circus performances, icons of pop culture, and the glamor of South-Asian cinema.

With Mughal allegorical symbolism, we miniaturists have created our own visual semiotics and metaphors. For example, the extremist mullahs who have hijacked Islam for their own political agendas and manipulate Muslim youth in the name of jihad are allegorized by Greek satyrs, Muslim leaders are depicted as string puppets in the hands of President Bush, Pakistani army generals wearing Hawaiian sandals indicate the irony that this nation is the world’s seventh nuclear state and is spending on a defense budget of over $3.5 billion a year in spite of a national debt of over $40 billion, and the Shia-Sunni clash in Iraq is a bull-fight, and the bogeyman media is a monkey with a camera.

Although they provide comic relief, they are critical of ignorance and prejudice, and the manipulation of governments and religious heads. The ironies and paradoxes of a post-9/11 world permeate my tragi-comic paintings. Mine is a plea for social justice.

Note: The interview was conducted in early 2007. The interview has been extensively edited for style and on occasion for content. Due care has been taken to keep the overall emphasis and context intact.