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Care, repair and the embodied act of painting: Fiza Khatri's practice

STIR discusses the act of painting, space-making and histories of art with Fiza Khatri, one of the youngest artists to be featured in the book Great Women Painters by Phaidon Press.

by Niyati DavePublished on : Jul 07, 2023

I'll start with one of my own stories: as a newly-minted graduate from a foreign land, when I returned to my hometown—Mumbai—I did not know how to insert myself back into the city. Used to the freedoms of elsewhere, I had grown into a shape that felt at odds with the spaces the city offered me. For me, public transport, local loitering, and walking wherever my feet would take me—however sketchy it may be—helped me find my way back into being a real person in the city of my childhood.

I bring this up, because, while speaking to Fiza Khatri, I am reminded how we are constantly making and re-making pockets of space for ourselves, finding practices that help us reconcile our external landscapes with our interiority.

In its engagement with everyday Karachi, many of Khatri’s paintings encapsulate this tension of reciprocal relationships between bodies—human and non-human—and their environments.

Dreaming of Decembristan I, 2022 | STIR in conversation with Fiza Khatri | STIRworld
Dreaming of Decembristan I, 2022, Charcoal on paper Image: Courtesy of Fiza Khatri and Jhaveri Contemporary

We see bodies moving through space, grappling through their proximities, their outward expression, and the landscape of a difficult city.

Shining, 2020 | STIR in conversation with Fiza Khatri | STIRworld
Shining, 2020, oil on canvas Image: Courtesy of Fiza Khatri and Jhaveri Contemporary

On speaking about what drew her to a practice rooted in drawing from life, Khatri says, “I think the way that drawing and painting from observation was so deeply connected to the body of the artist who was doing the observing and that being a way to create a connection with whatever was being observed helps me to relate to the world, to figure out my relationship to the world.”

In images such as Heartbreak Pakoras, in which we see a regular Pakistani kitchen, with a woman in a brightly patterned kurta staring down despondently at a plate of pakoras, or in Aag ka Darya—which paints a meticulous close-up of indistinguishable flesh—is it a calf or an arm—with a flaming tattoo inscribed on it, we see the inner lives and intimate bodily details of the communities Khatri is part of. These incursions into the lives of others aren’t invasive, they are tender—as tender as the cartoon character-ed band-aid that covers an injection wound in the South Asian artist’s painting Morandi Rabies Shot, 2020.

  • Heartbreak Pakoras, 2020, oil on canvas| STIR in conversation with Fiza Khatri | STIRworld
    Heartbreak Pakoras, 2020, oil on canvas Image: Courtesy of Fiza Khatri and Jhaveri Contemporary
  • Aag Ka Darya, 2020, oil on canvas| STIR in conversation with Fiza Khatri | STIRworld
    Aag Ka Darya, 2020, Oil on canvas Image: Courtesy of Fiza Khatri and Jhaveri Contemporary

As we speak, I liken her work to a form of auto-fiction—a record of queer, feminist joy in a city that can often be hostile to that strain of happiness. Not only does her work create a space for this joy to manifest itself, but it also articulates possibilities, images, and speculations that real life may not be amenable to. The idea of fiction is one we both circle back to in our conversation.

“Within painting it is possible to incorporate different timelines, different spaces and layer them. There is so much that a painting can hold that can exist outside of the framework of our reality. I am interested in how within painting, I can make moves and I can make decisions that I grapple with in life, like the self-portraits that I have been making that imagine my body as changing. The permission that painting gives me to enact gestures like that—to imagine myself transforming into my father, for instance, like in one self-portrait or like sort of, my face changing and with like facial hair. These images are both enacted as self-portraits, but also as a fiction within the space of the painting.”

In this fictive image-making, there is safety to experiment with identity and queer possibility.

Self Portrait, 2020, oil on canvas| STIR in conversation with Fiza Khatri | STIRworld
Self Portrait 2021, Oil on canvas Image: Courtesy of Fiza Khatri and Jhaveri Contemporary

Even as Khatri's work stakes out new imaginations of bearing witness to and holding space for queerness; creating pockets of community and camaraderie, what strikes me as quietly radical is her meditation on what it means to be a painter in the 21st century. For her, this choice of medium engages with one of the most historical of mediums in canonical art history—the act of painting and particularly painting from life is one that whirs into place, slide after slide in any traditional art history class. Using this medium, with its legacy—mostly white, mostly European, mostly male —to assert marginal brown, non-binary, non-cis-het male identities appropriates the language and tools of traditional art history to paper over the gaps in this canonical art history, to make space for bodies like hers in the long-standing legacies of image-making.

It is these legacies and thoughts around where knowledge is produced, who gets to be part of a canon, and how meaning is ascribed to bodies and geographies, that inform her more recent work, which deviates in subject matter—if not spirit—from her early work.

Taking an archival turn, her newest work looks at the gharial crocodile—a species of riverine reptile found in parts of South Asia. The genesis of the work comes from her engagement with the collections of Yale’s Peabody Museum while she was doing her MFA at the Yale School of Art. Upon exploring the collection, she discovered a series of gharial specimens—native to Pakistan—stored in the museum.

Return to Water, 2020, oil on canvas| Fiza Khatri | STIRworld
Return to Water, 2023, Acrylic and oil on canvas, 5 panels Image: Courtesy of Fiza Khatri and Jhaveri Contemporary

"There's something about the idea of a 'specimen' that holds a lot about how bodies are isolated and extracted from their landscape and I am interested in this idea of bodies being contained in these jars and boxes made permanently available for the production of scientific knowledge and, what kind of a relationship that is to an idea of the other, in this context, right? I am thinking about that in parallel to ideas of the gendered body.”

In these works, Khatri taps into the colonial scientific knowledge that extracted knowledge from bodies and specimens—human and non-human alike—to create and fix categories of the normative and to decry the non-conforming, queer, non-white body as deviant.

While, on the surface, the works couldn’t be more different from her earlier work (apart from the measured and definite brushstrokes, the sfumato smudges, and delicate colours), in spirit, they ask and answer overlapping questions: about belonging, landscapes, normativity and what it means to be in a reciprocal relationship with the places we are in. At their core, they speak to how Khatri’s practice pays attention and attunes to the palimpsest of histories, presents and speculative possibilities overlaid over spaces to bring care and repair into her images.

Tap the cover video to watch the full conversation.

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