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Rumana Husain: Storytelling through Art

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Rumana Husain trained as an artist at the Central Institute of Arts & Crafts (CIAC), Karachi. She has been working as an artist, illustrator, photographer, educator and writer and has participated in several performance art events, including at the Karachi Biennale (2017) and the International Public Art Festival (IPAC) in 2020. She has authored two coffee-table books about the city of Karachi: ‘Karachiwala – a Subcontinent with a City and Street Smart – Professionals on the Street, which taken together documents over 150 people and includes several photographs taken by her. As a Founding Member of a citizen’s social movement, I Am Karachi (IAK), she championed the Walls of Peace initiative that became a runaway success. IAK chose to say no to hatred, intolerance and vandalism of public property, and as its project champion, Husain oversaw the design and execution of hundreds of walls across the city, which were being painted by different artists in partnership with Vasl Artists Collective. Husain herself also painted one wall. She has authored and/or illustrated over 60 children’s books and was the co-founder of the erstwhile international art magazine NuktaArt as its Senior Editor.

Covers of NuktaArt

Street Smart – Professionals on the Street and Karachiwala– a Subcontinent with a City

(coffee-table books)

1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?

RH: I believe every child dabbles in art, and I had been no exception, but perhaps I enjoyed drawing and painting more than many other children at home and at school. My art teachers were most encouraging and inspiring. At home I hugely admired the drawing skills of my second cousin who had moved from Mumbai, and lived with us for a decade when I was a child. However, since my family was full of doctors, I was persuaded to take up the pre-medical group of subjects at the intermediate level in college. I was keenly interested in biology, and the subject provided a chance for me to make detailed drawings. The assignments for zoology and botany therefore made my journals look great, but fortunately or unfortunately my understanding of physics and chemistry was quite pathetic. Ultimately, after a lot of heart burn and tears, I joined an art school in Karachi, the Central Institute of Arts & Crafts (CIAC) located within the premises of the Arts Council. I must mention that I always had my father’s backing in all my pursuits, but my mother refused to allow me to go to Lahore and live there for four years where I wanted to study at the prestigious National College of Arts (NCA), which was established by the British as the Mayo School of Industrial Art in 1875. Compared to the NCA, the CIAC was very new, having been established in 1966 by a private body of distinguished personalities, including Faiz Ahmed Faiz. However, we had some great teachers who were well-known artists themselves, and the four years spent there were some of my life’s best years.

Rumana Husain (right) with her teacher and playwright Haseena Moin (left) who was at the annual Karachi Conference in 2019 as the Keynote Speaker. Haseena Moin passed away on 26 March 2021.

2. What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?

RH: For several years now I have dedicated my creativity to children. I’ve been writing children’s books, and when I find the time to illustrate, I like doing that.

Since March 2020, my husband and I have been spending the pandemic with our son and his family in the United States, and besides making 200 storytelling videos for children and posting them online without a break, I wrote and illustrated three rhyming stories, two of which are bilingual (English and Urdu).

The videos have been my small contribution towards making online material available for children, as early on, I’d realized that parents and teachers wanted to find more and more relevant digital material for their children during the lockdown. The first rhyming story, ‘Etienne and the Angry Dot’ was also my first story available on Kindle/ Amazon. Etienne is my young grandson who was born in Paris and lives there with his parents, and the ‘angry dot’ is of course the Corona virus. My second story is about a meeting between a crocodile and an alligator. The inspiration for it and for the illustrations I used a two-and-a-half-feet long plastic alligator that I’d been eyeing in the garden here, which urged me to work on this rather humorous project. And my third one is a journey through Pakistan. I’d written and illustrated a book on the same subject several years ago, but this latest one is a rhyming, playful as well as informative story, mostly about heritage sites, which I’m sure is going to be quite compelling and appealing. It is accompanied by illustrations inspired by Pakistan’s “truck art” – a genre of its own that is now very popular. Truck art has origins dating back to the 1920s, and over time the designs have become more colorful, ornate and flamboyant. The trucks are used for carrying goods from one end of the country to the other, and ever since the 1950s Karachi has become the hub of truck art.

Cover of the book Etienne and the Angry Dot on Kindle-Amazon

An illustration from the rhyming bilingual story about an Alligator and a Crocodile

Inspiration for the bilingual story about an Alligator and a Crocodile

A character from Rumana's most recent book for children on Pakistan

3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?

RH: Yes, I do welcome it, as I see art as all-encompassing. Instead of compartmentalizing everything, I find the openness very stimulating. There is and can be a meaningful connection between all the different fields of art (including digital art), literature, music, film, and so on. For me, performance art has been a wonderful experience. Beginning in October 2017 for the first Karachi Biennale curated by artist Amin Gulgee, I participated as ‘The Karachi Woman’ donning some eight different outer clothing items multiple times during a three-hour performance. Then in November 2018 as a visual storyteller of a living tradition, the Manghopir Mela, which is the most celebrated occasion of the year for the Sheedis of Karachi and that reflects the community’s African origins. This was for ‘No Filter’, a show curated by Pomme Amina Afzal.

The Karachi Woman at the Karachi Bienalle, 2017

The Karachi Woman performance art at the Karachi Bienalle, 2017

The Karachi Woman performance art at the Karachi Bienalle, 2017

Visual storytelling at No Filter in November 2018

In March 2020 the International Public Art Festival (IPAF), of which I’m an Executive Committee Member, hosted Lal Jadoo (Red Magic) – a two-hour Performance Art show. My performance was titled ‘Kaano may Andhi Rani’ (The Blind Queen Amidst Her One-eyed Subjects). To quote its curator, Amin Gulgee, “It (Lal Jadoo) was an experiential journey engaging the five senses. However, because of the spread of the coronavirus, the audience was requested to stay away and instead view the show on live feed.” I was in the US four days after that performance. In April 2020, Gulgee and his co-curator Sara Pagganwala contacted me to participate in ‘The Trojan Donkey’— a virtual, international performance event. The concept behind my performance, of holding one end of a long fabric piece, with the other end tied around a tree trunk and going round and round that tree symbolized a donkey going around whom the Covid noose will tighten and ultimately all those acting mindlessly will end up as the Trojans did: destroyed.

Lal Jadoo performance

Two shots from Rumana's performance art video of The Trojan Donkey

4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?

RH: Both. For me personally, it has a social purpose, but I don’t judge people who use it entirely for self-expression.

5. Where do you create your art (workplace / studio)? What is your process?

RH: In my Karachi home I work on a large table either perched on the mezzanine floor from where I can see a few other areas of the house and also the street outside or I work in the basement which I share with my husband’s architectural office. In the USA I was previously working at the dining table in-between meal times, but after we moved to my son’s beautiful own home, I’ve been working in the large children’s library set up in the basement by my daughter-in-law who has been collecting thousands of books for our two granddaughters ever since they were born. Good light, comfortable furniture, a conducive indoor ambience, an interesting view of the outdoors as well as a few cups of tea are essential. I am fortunate to have all of them.

Illustrating a book in Karachi

Working on the dining table

Using her granddaughter's library in Maryland USA as her studio

6. To what extent will the world of art change in the post-Covid period – both in terms of what is created as also the business of art?

RH: Perhaps art-making during the pandemic did not get affected as much as the business of art may have been impacted. But I’m sure not everything that gets created post-Covid will revolve around the experience of living through the pandemic. No doubt the pandemic has provided a lot of experience and material to creators around the world, and it will manifest in various ways, but then we also know that human memories are short-lived . . . I think that post-Covid people will move on and it will be business-as-usual.

7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice. Does it get reflected

in your art?

RH: I love to have conversations with people from all backgrounds, travel and experience different cultures and learn about the history and heritage of various places. Books, music, films, animals and trees enthrall me. Working for and with children gives me a certain high. As an Advisor on the board of the Children’s Literature Festival (CLF) as well as one of its resource persons, I enjoy participating in the CLFs held in different cities of Pakistan (over seventy have been held so far since 2011, and I have attended about half of these). Children are a constant inspiration, and I’ve used my own children as book characters when they were young, and later my two granddaughters for a series of four books, and more recently my three-year-old grandson that I mentioned earlier. The ordinary, extraordinary, built and natural environments all help in creating something, as there is plenty that can provide inspiration and material. However, I don’t know how successful I am in combining my own feelings, imagination and skill in making all that reflect in my art. In book illustration, for example, over the years I have tried to use different mediums such as water colours, poster paint, colour pencils, crayons, markers, photographs, collages, fabric, etc. I have also created small sets for a book as well as a stuffed doll as a character for another one. In the past I used to create a lot of fabric toys and soft sculptures as well.

At CLF: left to right - Ameena Saiyid (co-founder CLF), Rumana Husain, Baela Raza Jamil (founder CLF)

Meeting the students of Dawood Public School

Storytelling and singing session at the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre

Chaiwalas, The IAK Walls project at Rustom Bagh, Karachi

Painting her book cover on a wall for the IAK Walls project around Karachi city

Small sets created for a storybook

Layla aur Munni Gudia, a children's book written and illustrated by Rumana

with the stuffed doll created by the artist

Illustrated book in fabrics and embroidered pieces

(All images are courtesy of the artist, Rumana Husain.)


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