I am an unconventional person in life, what I value is dominated by instinct and not tradition, this quality naturally spills over into my practice. To first start the use of clay or cement on canvas was not a plan, it happened because I like painting impasto but when I was young I could not afford professional oil paint in large quantities. So I decided to experiment by mixing paints with other materials, there were many failures but one day on my terrace I watched the masons mixing cement to fill up the cracks in the wall and then paint it over, I tried the same on canvas and with their help developed a new technique. This allowed me to create between paintings and sculptures for over a decade never committing to either!
After years of making relief paintings I added other materials to my unusual palette but lost oil paints along the way. Now I use paper, fabric, grass, tea, coffee, leaves, shells, driftwood, text, clay and sand building this unique alphabet more out of experience and a desire to bring nature and an organicity into painting. I find materiality quite integral to my way of thinking as I am able to understand or hear the voice of my material - its also important to me to keep that original feel intact so you will find me putting leaves on canvas rather than painting a leaf, or putting nails in a line rather than drawing a road.
Saba Hasan, Sulehkul, 2012
Clip from an interview on the Kochi sketchbook, 2019
Sometimes I involve nature as a collaborator, by putting sand on my canvas, leaves gathered from the Jardin des Plantes or the Great Wall of China, and by leaving the work to dry in my garden, even through a night of rain, letting it develop in unexpected ways. Like my old parchment paintings spread out to dry on the grass, when it rained at night and they got completely soaked, I found the canvas under water next morning. I thought to myself, nature is giving me a hand, why say no? Sure enough after a few days the canvas curled up like an old parchment with bumps and cracks looking like a beautiful lunar landscape. Some of these paintings are now in the collection of S.H Raza the renowned abstract artist, and of poet and art critic Keshav Malik.
With books however, the material took a larger role. Coming from a family of academics and litterateurs, books have been in abundance always and were an obvious choice of material after having used text. I knew that books brought with them a prior coded meaning for the viewer, a perception of knowledge, something even sacred perhaps and challenging that became these works’ raison d’etre. In some instances I have specifically dealt with the actual content of the book - an example is Ismat Chughtai’s book called “Ziddi” or the stubborn one - I took my mother’s original copy in Urdu and burnt it, locked it in a box and broke the glass lid. This became my work, book inside a smashed box.
Often it is hard to engage deeply with the content of the book and create a visual response and I resort then to easier, less performative or intense treatments, like the book fossil series or the nine book installation where the Books acquire a larger meaning, often converted to suggest something completely different. I read about the ancient embalming technique to represent the preservation of something important to us and embalmed some books using river stones from the Liddar and Beas, food spices, pigments from flowers, adding meaning or rewriting the book. This also allows me to engage more philosophically with the material, as I did with my Haqeeqat Project, which looks at the notion of truth through video conversations with experts in a variety of fields. Here I explore the politics and ethics behind prevailing ideas of truth, introducing possibilities of structuring truths, modifying truths, multiple truths and absolute truth. This video was in the RAQS curated Sarai Reader 09 exhibition, and later in 2014 it was nominated for the Celeste Prize in Contemporary Art at Assab One, Milan and screened by the Films Division India, along with Tyeb Mehta’s video “Koodal”.
When one works with materials and composes installational works, it is only natural for the work to become performative at times. Especially when my technique involves burning. In 2002 when I started burning text before collaging it into my work, an artist friend dropped by my studio in Shahpur Jat and asked me if I ever documented the burning. I rejected it then as a pretentious idea, the artist projecting herself before the work, but 15 years later I found myself actually recording my act of burning a book because that act in itself was an intense and a transformative experience.
Saba Hasan in studio
My burning of books was originally in the category of questioning the validity of text, its divinity and ideas and social prejudices we inherit. Its like saying, all this knowledge and so called profundities make no sense any more, in the light of brutality, hate, prejudice, lies. People have also responded to it as a protest against the censorship of ideas, recently it was equated with Ambedkar’s public burning of the “Manusmriti”, by the author Githa Hariharan, the founder of the indian writers forum.
Text from the books in my work has now moved into the realm of performative voice works, where I write a poem in free verse and read it out. In 2010 on a residency in Austria with a group of artists we were planning proposals for our exhibition at the end of the month. As it happens often, nothing was working right for me - studios crowded, language alien, the city far below and no money to buy materials. I sat for hours in the large courtyard jotting down my thoughts, a diary of feelings, about the cheating grocer, the fast moving trains, the clear sky above, the climb up the mountain, Mozarts pianoforte and mille feuille. One afternoon I just got up and started reading this journal out to nobody in particular although there was a huge Sunday crowd of visitors to the castle museum, and they all gathered around me and listened. I decided then that my work will be just this, and my material will be simply my voice. That was my first sound installation, titled journey of a broken song. It is written in the cryptical tradition of Ghazal and it looks at racial profiling, state oppression, love and mystical journeys. It was followed by several such works like rehearsal for a poem, rain, undeciphered fates, and last month I wrote another poem on dying.
With the pandemic, distancing, death, insecurity have taught us that the earth can go on without us but we can not. I completed a set of digital drawings which are abstract, short videos called salsabil and new book sculptures, all inspired by my idea of a new language we will now have to learn to understand, as we are reborn in a sense. These works are my syllabary, a new alphabet of this new world, which is no longer anthropocentric as we may just as well disappear and it would not matter because there is so much more.