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Zahrah Ehsan

Zahrah Ehsan

Meet Pakistani artist currently based in Finland, Zahrah Ehsan.

Photo by: Natasha Zubair​

 

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am a visual artist from Lahore, Pakistan and currently doing an MA in Visual Cultures, Curating and Contemporary Arts from Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Finland. I have received my BFA with Honours in 2012, with a concentration in Painting from the National College of Arts, Lahore.
I returned to my alma mater after graduation, where I got to design and teach a number of studio-based courses including Painting and Drawing.

 

Describe the city you’re living in and what it’s like to live there.

As I have recently moved to Finland from Pakistan, my home base has shifted from Lahore to Espoo/Helsinki for the time. I live in the city of Espoo which shares an eastern border with Helsinki, so I am normally out and about in between these two major cities of Finland. Espoo is located in the Gulf of Finland – the easternmost arm of Baltic sea which is shared by the outskirts of Tallinn (Estonia), Helsinki (Finland), and St. Petersburg (Russia) – which also means easy and fast ferry rides to these three amazing cities, beautiful seaside views along with many breathtaking islands and natural parks of Finland.

While I have spent some peaceful, and quiet days in the long dark winter of Finland, I have felt that I have been fortunate to be able to enjoy all four seasons in Lahore. Lahore being a hot city, and a home for lively people, great food, rich culture, architecture, and history, it never fails to amaze me how it manages to be the best of both worlds (East and West).

Living in Lahore somehow felt more real as I have been raised and studied up till my BFA, as compared to now living in Espoo/Helsinki. It still feels like I have moved to a city where most buildings or areas resemble lego land or scenes from the video game Minecraft.

It will take me some time to get used to the unrealness of this place.

 

While I have spent some peaceful, and quiet days in the long dark winter of Finland, I have felt that I have been fortunate to be able to enjoy all four seasons in Lahore.

What is the best and worst thing about living in your city?

LAHORE (Pakistan):
Best: Food, people and rich culture
Worst: Heavy traffic, scorching heat, and the male gaze.

 

ESPOO/HELSINKI (Finland):
Best: Nature, sauna and safe & smooth public transportation
Worst: When winter temp goes up to -10c and beyond. And of course, It is the worst when one faces racism, no matter what extent it may be.

 

Give us 3 words that describe what it’s like to be a creative in your city.

Lahore/Helsinki:

Dynamic, Refreshing, Growing

 

How did you start your career in art?

I believe I can say that my career kicked off in a rather subtle yet in a groundbreaking manner when I got to present a few paintings I had produced over the summer of 2011 along with a few other peers from my painting major at NCA (Lahore). We used a space at a public gallery called, Alhamra Art Gallery given to us by a curator at the time, Tanya Sani. We later got the chance to do an exhibition at the end of the summer and sometime before our next semester was about to start. We got good reviews, a lot of our friends, mentors and the public showed up. There was no going back after that. I have been working on producing art and working on my artistic research since then.

 

I believe I can say that my career kicked off in a rather subtle yet in a groundbreaking manner when I got to present a few paintings I had produced over the summer of 2011 along with a few other peers from my painting major at NCA (Lahore).

Were the people around you supportive of your decision on working as a creative?

Now when I look back, I realize that I always kind of had to fight and prove to everyone what I was capable of.

My parents, especially my father like any other parent, was concerned about my future and was not really sure if I was making the right decision. My father and I had thought that I might go for a degree in business, but I ended up deciding for myself as I could clearly see that my inkling towards art seemed more promising (to me). My family was on board when I took a leap of faith and told me them that this is what I want to do, and I can not place myself elsewhere other than going to National College of Arts, the oldest and most known art college of Pakistan.

I had noticed in all the women in my family to be trying or engaging with creativity in one way or the other, but somehow directed themselves to other professions. My family and I sometimes get surprised with the way I took my hobby and made it into a serious profession.

 

What are some goals and ambitions you have for your future work?

My goal is to be more present and make the most of what I have today in order to achieve more in the future. I am not quite sure what kind of goals I should aim for since I now know how life is planned a certain way for each one of us.
I normally go by this mantra, “Ambition is not a dirty word.” I feel comfortable in being ambitious in my everyday tasks/chores (please, not in a manic way), knowing that it only leads me to learn more about myself as an individual.

All my good and bad days are leading me to a future that I am sure is going to be good for me.

Thank you for bearing with me and reading my inspirational speech :P. I shall now move on to the next question.

 

I normally go by this mantra, “Ambition is not a dirty word.” I feel comfortable in being ambitious in my everyday tasks/chores (please, not in a manic way), knowing that it only leads me to learn more about myself as an individual.

If you could collaborate with any person in the world who would it be?

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Wilhelm Sasnal, Martha Rosler, Gerhard Richter, Marlene Dumas, James Turrell are just a few from a long list of artists that I would love to work with.

I told you, “ambition is not a dirty word”.

 

How would you describe the women around you?

Strong, independent, more progressive, more giving, more loving!

 

Were there any local female creatives that you looked up to when you were growing up?

I remember having mostly women art teachers teaching art classes in my school when I was growing up. Farwa Tahir, was one teacher leading O’Levels Art and Design subject, I started looking up her not only as a teacher but as an artist and a friend. She had graduated from the same art college as mine and her collection of art books, drawings, and figurative oil paintings inspired me to learn more about fine arts. I do not remember knowing many female artists because they were glossed over by some prominent male Pakistani artists. It was later in my A levels and perhaps, when I was preparing for college is when I came across works from artists like Shahzia Sikandar, Anna Molka, Zubeida Agha and Salima Hashmi.

 

Are there any challenging aspects of being a female in your industry?

Most definitely. I had assumed that apart from dealing with challenges such as being professional, aiming to be good at your job, maintaining an active artistic research and practice and gain experience in networking and dealing with other professionals, I was not aware that I would come across a deeply rooted misogynistic, sexist and unfair approaches in my industry. I have had such some experiences while working with galleries as a participating artist and as a teacher in an art college.

 

Work it out enough to know what you are signing up for and go with your intuition.

Do you have any advice to young women who are aspiring to work in your field?

Work it out enough to know what you are signing up for and go with your intuition. Let the lows hit as much as the highs, as it would help you stay grounded and honest with your work. Embrace it with open arms and do not be afraid of failure!

I am now ready to give my TED-talk presentation. Where’s the stage?

 

 

Photos courtesy of Zahrah Ehsan.

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