Belonging, Home, and Grief – A Personal Story About Being an Older Woman Emerging Artist

Published On: March 8th, 2022|Categories: People and Places|Tags: |
Paper figurine seated at kitchen table in miniature handmade diorama, surrounded by art supplies, books, groceries, and personal electronics.

Transitions (Unmute), diorama with paper figurine.

Walking down the hallway, hearing my footsteps on the linoleum floor, I kept trying to locate the classroom in a building I was completely unfamiliar with. These were the small steps at the beginning of a new journey. Having been accepted to Concordia’s BFA Studio Arts program several months earlier at the age of 36, in a bid to find myself and my voice, the first day of classes arrived faster than I could have anticipated. Fish out of water? Not really, as it turned out, and I found my people. Three years later, in 2019, I graduated.

To put it into context, my artistic journey sprung from grief. Though I had intended to be an artist at a much younger age, even doing a foundation year at art school, I ended up leaving visual art completely for fifteen years. My father, who had encouraged me to pursue art from a young age, was probably the most disheartened when I announced I was no longer interested.

In 2013, after my father’s cancer diagnosis and his subsequent death, I began to look for avenues to deal with my grief. Art classes, which I could attend in the evenings or on weekends as I worked, provided the perfect therapy. Suddenly I was excited about having some purpose, in that I could attend class after a long working day and just let myself go. Along the way, I had amazing instructors thanks to OCADU’s Continuing Education program: Karen Justl, Ilene Sova, and Michael Antkowiak. It was Michael who encouraged me to consider a degree program because I was so committed during class.

Though I initially resisted the idea, the seed was planted. I had already been looking to make changes in my life before my father’s death, and as I had decided I wanted to move back to Montreal, where my parents lived, I explored the possibility of getting my degree at Concordia. Even if things did not pan out as I hoped, at least I would be able to tell myself that I had tried. I wanted to live without regrets.

Being an older emerging artist usually means being too old to apply for certain opportunities, which have a cut-off age of 35. However, this should not be a deterrent. Applying to calls both nationally and internationally has led to many opportunities for me, despite some of the rejections. Also, being an emerging artist (as this is the only experience I can speak to) is equivalent to having a full-time job, between submissions, grant applications, and of course creating.

Moreover, my lived experience is essential to my work. I am always trying to create an idea of home, as a tangible place or an idea of the mind. As the daughter of a Pakistani father and Chilean mother, I have always questioned where I belong. Though I have a hybrid identity, I would say my dominant culture is Pakistani, since I was born and grew up there. This is reflected in my colour palette. I grew up with sumptuous Pakistani textiles, including the carpets my parents decorated their home. So, I try to reflect that in my work. Bright colours and ornate fabrics remind me of home and that is what I try to recreate, especially as someone who is mixed race and living in a third culture.

As part of understanding where I belong, domesticity is integral to my work. Thus, transforming the everyday into the epic is paramount to me; because of continuous lockdowns and pandemic restrictions since 2020, I work at home. As a result, I never run out of subjects to paint, since I take inspiration from my own life, and so even objects I have looked at for years suddenly look different depending on the day, the light, and my own mood. Also, I have a nuanced relationship to my identity, a relationship which is nostalgic, harking back to a past I try to hold on to as my memories of it recede. So, these remembrances are expressed in reconstructed repetitive elements such as the same domestic interiors and objects painted in different lights on different days. I am reaching out to touch a past which can never exist again.

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    About the Author: shazia.ahmad79

    Born in Karachi, Pakistan to a Pakistani father and a Chilean mother, my practice and research interests are centred on the notions of home and belonging, tied to the broader theme of otherness due to my interfaith and mixed-race background. My practice comprises handmade miniature dioramas, painting, screen print, digital print, book arts, monotype, and drawing. After a long break, in which I pursued other professional interests and worked full-time, I returned to fine art in 2016. I graduated with my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Studio Arts (Painting and Drawing major) from Montreal’s Concordia University in 2019 and I was a finalist for the Prix Albert-Dumouchel in 2018. I am the recipient of a 2019 Canada Council for the Arts Explore and Create grant and have shown my work in Canada, the United States of America, and Spain. I have a previous double major undergraduate degree in Art History and History, and I completed my BTEC Foundation Diploma from Central Saint Martins in London, UK in 1999.

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