Worlds in watercolour

Artist Sara Khan evokes magical realism, East and West influences, and an abundance of everyday narratives within her vibrant watercolour paintings.

Khan, born in Birmingham, England and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, will be displaying her newest collection Suraj Kinare, an exhibition focused on migration and movement, at The Surrey Art Gallery from June 29 to August 31.

“Once I start painting I get into a meditative state. My main thoughts are of composition and colour,” says Khan. “When I see the painting after, I see things I hadn’t intentionally thought of putting there that have come out of flow. That’s when the story becomes more of a whole.”

Painting the ordinary world

Sara Khan, somewhere between reality and fantasy.| Photo by Laara Cerman.

From a young age, Khan’s interest in painting and drawing was cultivated by her parents.

“My father would bring us beautifully illustrated children’s books,” recalls Khan. “That’s when my visual language started, which inspired me to tell stories through paintings. I would make postcards and paintings and sell them to my adult relatives at yard sales. I loved making and collecting all my drawings, and my parents were very encouraging.”

Soon after, she attended a renowned art college in Lahore, where she became well connected with art curators and an art community which further propelled her art career. Khan went on to secure a studio with a friend and continued to hold shows post-college with the new community she had built.

Despite this trajectory, it took reflection and time for Khan to realize her potential for creative expression.

“When you go to art school, you can have these preconceived notions of what art should look like. For instance, it should be large, or oil on canvas. It took me a while to get rid of these ideas and to realize what I’m genuinely interested in and what mediums supported that interest,” she says.

It began with her realization that she was interested in the ordinary world around her: the dialogue with friends and family and the books she read and that which directly affected her.

“I’d do sketches, scrapbooking and collage work and put them all together. I stopped focusing on what people would like and focused on what I wholeheartedly wanted to do. I would review all these sketches and collages, find the larger theme, like a world, and then use watercolour to create that theme,” she continues.

Khan incorporates these worlds and themes along with the depiction of everyday life within her work. She uses an example of how faded memories are a mixture of what is remembered and fantasy, and less a portrayal of reality. These types of thoughts are processed through her paintings.

“Because I’m interested in personal storytelling, a lot of my work is almost autobiographical, she says. “Since uni[versity] I’ve been interested in magic realism, the idea that there’s extraordinary in the ordinary. I read [Gabriel García Márquez’s] 100 Years of Solitude. I loved the way things were very real and then there was a twist and strange things would happen in ordinary lifestyles.”

New city, new perspectives

Khan feels that moving to Vancouver has bestowed her with new inspiration and helped in elevating her art to a new level. Drawing on her time in Lahore, she has come up with a new body of work that delves into how she feels having now lived in both places. She explains that the new work focuses on being in two worlds at the same time, and the art of making a new place home.

“There is architecture, windows, and scenery from Pakistan, and a lot of scenery and nature from Vancouver,” she says. “I’d never really thought of florals and nature and foliage as such before I moved here. Lahore is flat city landscape, and Vancouver has so much natural beauty. The splashes of colour in the clothes on figures in my paintings, those come from Pakistan, from the prints we wear and the rickshaw art, through to the mosques.”

Khan emphasizes that there are many elements within her work, from personal monologues, to the themes of migration, everyday magic, fantasy and others that have arisen from being in a therapeutic state. The art in Suraj Kinare aims to conjure varying narratives from the viewers and she says that the pieces are open to interpretation.

“I always enjoy getting feedback to see whether they can see what I’ve tried to put in, or to hear the different stories that people have drawn from each piece,” she says.


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