Artist Soraya Sikander on painting: ‘No city could be more rewarding than Ras Al Khaimah’

Arts&Life launches a weekly summer series of artist profiles with Pakistan-born Soraya Sikander, whose paintings strongly reference Ras Al Khaimah, where she lives and works.

Pakistani artist Soraya Sikander. Ravindranath K / The National
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Soraya Sikander, who was born in Karachi and moved to the UAE two years ago, has always been immersed in art and her mother founded the Unicorn art gallery in Pakistan in 2004.

Sikander, 33, tells The National about her thoughts on abstract art, and why Ras Al Khaimah's beautiful landscapes and seascapes continue to inspire her.

What inspired you to become an artist?

For my family, work and travel are interlinked. I grew up in many different countries and, from a young age, I visited every major art museum in Europe. I remember studying the work of the French impressionists keenly, particularly their use of light. I began my formal training in Lahore and then I went on to study in London. I remember always wanting to paint places I had travelled to, but in my own particular style, as narration, a way of telling stories through pictures.

Do you find the UAE inspiring?

For a landscape and seascape painter, no city could be more rewarding than Ras Al Khaimah. I first visited in 2011; my mother was curating an art exhibition here, and I remember being stunned by the landscapes, the desert, mangroves and the ­Jebel Jais Mountains – the visual imageries. I knew I would come back. Since we moved here, I have exhibited at the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival at the National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah. The art scene is emerging, with the most engaging, dynamic, and ­diverse group of fine-art ­practitioners making their ­presence felt.

Would you agree that your work is mostly abstract?

I don’t see my work as abstract. These are contemporary landscapes and they are simplified. When I paint a picture, for me, I see it first as simply light and shade – and then form takes over. Traditionally, landscape paintings are almost always ­classified as either semi-abstract, or semi-realist. As far as my practice goes, I think the work may perhaps best be described as ­unclassifiable.

You work in many different ­mediums – what is your ­preferred medium and why?

I enjoy the rich quality of oil paints. One can really create mood and dramatic lighting and, having studied the old masters, I think oil paints reign supreme. Acrylics also have a luminescent quality and they’re convenient. For sketching, I work with pencil or charcoal. I consider my ink work to be paintings and not drawings.

You have said that the flower paintings you did in Pakistan helped to promote tolerance and non-violence. In what way?

I think for anyone concerned about social issues, it is difficult not to respond. When you live in a country fighting a war, you cannot be ignorant of the effects it has on society. Being a painter, my response was visual – but I wasn’t interested painting images of death, blood and gore. That achieves nothing. Rather, I wanted to use my work to start a dialogue and, at the same time, send a message. I thought the symbols of flowers were most effective. It is non-preachy, subtle and has a universal poetic quality to it. Flowers act as a positive reinforcement to get the audience’s attention, and at the same time offer sanity in the midst of crisis. And most importantly, since most art is deeply personal, ­coming from a personal space, for me, painting flowers in the midst of chaos and destruction was a self-­preservation thing. It’s how I expressed and saved myself.

Where can we see your work?

My upcoming exhibitions ­include a showing at the Pakistan High Commission in London and a solo exhibit at Unicorn Gallery in November 2016. Other shows are in the pipeline, and dates are yet to be announced. I regularly post news, info and updates on my website – I find the internet to be one of the most accessible and democratic ­mediums for artists.