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Art in Focus Spotlight: Hiba Schahbaz

By Julie Smith SchneiderJan 29 2021
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New York’s collective heart has broken and healed many times over, during these recent pandemic months and throughout history. And yet, the heartbeat of this resilient city persists like a wild, growing being. For Hiba Schahbaz, a Brooklyn-based artist trained in traditional Indo-Persian miniature painting techniques, the heartbreaks of the past year have spurred her to tend to her own personal growth, as well as turn outward, and create a new site-specific art installation at Rockefeller Center titled “In My Heart.”'

The exhibition unfurls in spaces throughout the Center with imagery that’s lush with the artist’s signature symbol-rich mythology, self-portraiture, and meditations on beauty. Schahbaz’s visual world is an invitation to passersby to slow down. On display through May 4, the public art exhibition is the current installment of Art in Focus, an ongoing art series of rotating exhibitions staged at Rockefeller Center. Schahbaz will also host a digital art-making workshop for children on February 3.

Schahbaz likes to leave an aura of mystery around her work to allow viewers to make their own discoveries. She planted some images in this installation specifically with her neighbors in mind. “That lotus pond was specifically for New Yorkers,” the artist says. “The lotus blooms no matter what. It grows in the murkiest of waters. To me, it’s a reflection of the spirit of the people who live and work here, who have gone on and made the best of things over this last year.”

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Schahbaz studied miniature painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore, before moving to Brooklyn to earn a Master of Fine Arts in painting and museum studies at Pratt Institute. Throughout a decade of living and working in New York City, she has drawn energy from the hum of this city, with its ever-flowing inspiration, constant exchange of ideas, and eclectic creative communities. She appreciates the open and accepting environment. “As an artist coming from a culture which is a little more conservative, I feel like that's really helped me explore who I am and who I am as an artist,” she says.

Schahbaz describes herself as an introvert and “hermetic by nature.” She spends much of her time up in her studio in Bushwick using watercolor, gouache, tea, and handmade papers to make paintings that merge self-portraiture with mythology, symbolism, and explorations of beauty, power, feminine energy, and what it’s like to be a woman. “I want to create space for women,” she says. “I see the paintings as little spaces for them, a space that is beautiful and safe and protected and healing.”

To step into Schahbaz’s studio is to enter a creative refuge rich with natural beauty. Hints of lily, lavender, sage, and black tea waft in the air. Seashells hold the pigmented paints she makes herself following traditional methods. Plants turn toward the sunlight streaming through the wall of windows, which stretches up to the 20-foot ceiling. “Those windows dictate my work hours,” she says. She prefers not to turn on the studio’s artificial lights, instead adjusting her schedule to the seasons’ ebb and flow of available light. The space has enough room to comfortably accommodate her various artistic processes, she says, each of which requires dedicated space and materials, as well as different energy.

Over the years, her art practice has expanded beyond miniatures. Building on the visual language, materials, and techniques of traditional miniature painting, Schahbaz has started experimenting with oil paints on linen and added larger-scale works to her repertoire in recent years. Working both quite small (smaller than a standard sheet of printer paper) and quite large (taller and wider than a human being) allows her to play with both the intimacy and ritual of making miniatures, as well as the expansive scope of the larger-than-life.

In 2016, when Schahbaz sought more levity and beauty following the election, she started making floaty paper cutouts depicting female figures and floral forms to brighten her studio space. These were for her own pleasure, though they often garnered interest from curators. The cutouts currently on display in the vitrines at Rockefeller Center are the first time works in this series have been publicly exhibited in New York. And showing these pieces right now, in this moment of political upheaval? “It just feels right,” she says. “They belong in a public space, where they can hopefully bring joy to people who see them and give a feeling of grace, like I wanted in the studio.”

Meditating is a daily practice for Schahbaz, something she does every morning and sometimes at sunset too. This had been a solo ritual for a few years, but in the beginning of the pandemic she joined a meditation group. “We were meditating with the intention to hold space for the people who were suffering around us,” she says, adding that this concept of holding space for others has shifted the way she makes art and helped her access her heart in new ways.

“It made sense to make something for the city of New York. We're all going through this moment together.”
—Hiba Schahbaz

Now when she paints, she has a keen sensation of reaching outward, instead of inward, channeling her energies to be in service of others and to create a spiritual connection with the people who will interact with her work. “I think one of the reasons why this public art project happened at this time was because my intention has been so focused on the people in my surroundings,” Schahbaz says. “It made sense to make something for the city of New York. We're all going through this moment together.”

“In My Heart” opens at a strange moment in the art world, but humans still need imagination and beauty and sensory experiences. “We're rushing around and not always registering our lives,” Schahbaz says. “By putting these [pieces] in a space where people are passing by, I wanted to create a moment where they could pause and see something which would bring them into their heart, where they could experience themselves through art.”

“In My Heart” is on view at Rockefeller Center through May 4. This installation is part of Art in Focus, a series of art exhibitions produced in partnership with Art Production Fund.

  • Photo by Olympia Shannon, courtesy of Art Production Fund
  • Photo by Olympia Shannon, courtesy of Art Production Fund
  • Photo by Olympia Shannon, courtesy of Art Production Fund
  • Photo by Olympia Shannon, courtesy of Art Production Fund
  • Photo by Olympia Shannon, courtesy of Art Production Fund

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