“I am apprehensive to put titles on the work, because I feel like once you take away someone else’s experience of seeing a piece, it loses the possibility to be anything.” A conversation with Zahra Parwez.

Originally from Greater Manchester, Zahra Parwez has been based in Liverpool since graduating from Liverpool Hope University in 2019. Zahra was presented with The Corke Exhibition Award on completing her degree course and subsequently exhibited with The Corke Art Gallery in Liverpool. After graduating, Zahra spent time working as an intern on a Liverpool based TV drama until the pandemic hit, while also continuing her artistic practice from home.

We met with Zahra in the summer, as lockdown restrictions were easing, and chatted while looking at a recent sketchbook that she had been working on during lockdown. Zahra told us a bit about working on a TV set and her decision to come to Liverpool to study Fine Art.

It was all background stuff, scenic art, stuff you wouldn’t even notice. [the TV work]. It was really fun and I really loved the experience. I had never even thought of it as a career choice, but now I hope to get the chance to do it again! I heard about the job through my art tutor Tony Smith, he keeps tabs on this kind of stuff.

I was reluctant to attend uni at first, I find there’s a stigma surrounding having an art degree. Even during my course, it felt like we were told that there weren’t many job options in the art sector for after uni life. Regardless of this, I think going to uni was important for my artistic development and I now have a better understanding of my practice. I chose to study in Liverpool because my brother, who had studied here prior to me, had told me about the art culture surrounding the city and I just wanted a change of scenery.”

We chatted about Zahra’s current working conditions, working from home during the lockdown.

“It was already something that I was doing at uni and I know this sounds stupid because I had a really good studio space there, but I can’t make work when other people are around me. I found myself getting distracted and I got very stressed due to the pressure of feeling like I had to have a reason for what I was painting. I think there was only one piece in my degree show that was made in the studio. The rest of the pieces, all the small ones, I made them on my bed. I can only work in my own space and the more confined I am, the more willing I am to make a mess. So now I’m just in my kitchen sprawled out on the floor. It just works because it’s my living space; no one else can see it and I can paint whenever.”

During lockdown Zahra made a painting in her shared flat, working in this way.

“This page here [image below] inspired the painting that is currently on my living room wall. It’s the first painting I’ve made in a while where I was like, I actually really like that painting … but now I’ve looked at it for too long. We ended up putting the painting up on my living room wall and I just keep staring at it thinking, do I like this? I don’t know if I like this.”

Something about Cowboys (2020), acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 141 x 93 cm

“During my time at uni, when I was making stuff in my flat, there was this huge storage cupboard. I just put the paintings that I didn’t want to see in there and it was fine because I could just walk away and not obsess over wanting to make changes to them. With a sketchbook, I can just put it away or turn over a page and forget.

What I find with my sketchbook is, I’m able to just scribble down these drawings with whatever I’m holding, and it works. I have found that if I try to adapt the pages to the canvas and paint what I’ve drawn already, there are always some restraints – so now when working in my sketchbook, I’ve stopped trying to plan out ideas that I would like to turn into paintings. I become apprehensive because it is working so well on the paper and I don’t want it to lose what it has. I’m not willing to share my sketchbook, I find that it’s a more private form of expression for me. A lot of the work is just random scrawlings, scribbles, experiments and many mistakes.”

Acrylic pen and marker on paper, sketchbook

We chatted about materials and how there is this age-old problem for artists, being comfortable doing something in a sketchbook or on paper and then suddenly more apprehensive when they’re putting it on a big stretched canvas; possibly to do with scale, but perhaps also something about working on paper.  

“When it comes to painting on canvas, I don’t know why, but to me it feels more official in a weird way. So I feel like, if I put something on canvas then I start to view the painting as a proper piece, because this is the material that I have chosen to paint on. I lean towards larger canvas sizes because this allows for more gestural marks and a lack of concern when it comes to the painting’s appearance. It helps me adopt the same approach when painting on canvas that I have when scribbling in my sketchbook. I think, going forward with my practice, I need to find a way to remove my own thoughts towards paintings on canvas in order to blur the boundaries between that and my sketchbooks. 

I sometimes have a conversation with myself about how my primary medium is acrylic paint and why it sometimes feels as though oil paint holds more of a professional status, even if I don’t believe that myself. I feel like this goes hand in hand with that kind of ‘canvas or paper’ debate.”

10 Seconds Later (2019), acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 123 x 93cm

We moved on to talk about the pressure there is on painters to explain their work, to give some sort of information about the ‘story’ behind the work, if it looks like a narrative painting and how artists don’t necessarily know what they were feeling or thinking about when they made something.

“My paintings normally form from something I find interesting. They are not normally made in relation to anything specific, but I find that a narrative can still come about in my painting process. I just enjoy making these weird scenarios. They don’t necessarily need to be something that you have to understand. Whether it’s just the way I paint something or what is being presented in the painting, in my opinion these things shouldn’t be taken too seriously, that’s why I don’t like to offer a description.

I like to work while having a lot of noise around me. I have something on, like a movie, or listen to music. At some point all the noise finds its way onto the painting.” 

Zahra’s paintings often include characters that may be people or animals, or something else. The exact thing you are looking at is not quite recognisable.

“That painting in particular [Untitled no.3 ] does not mean anything to me, but when people were looking at it, they were thinking, it’s a person who has two personalities or showing another side of someone… I was like, fine, fair enough. It was better than anything I could say about the work. That’s why I am apprehensive to even put titles on the work, because I feel like once you take away someone else’s experience of seeing a piece, it loses the possibility to be anything.

I know what I want the work to do, or not do, in the sense that I want it to be ambiguous enough that someone can look at it and see a narrative but this will not necessarily be the same for someone else. My role is to paint what I see; what the viewer then takes from this is subjective to them. If I don’t have a reason for it, it keeps the meaning open for interpretation and I love the different interpretations I get to hear about my work. If I try to start assigning meanings to my paintings then I get very bogged down and I’ll just be thinking about the meaning more than actually painting. Even now I can have a conversation like this and explain my ideas towards my practice, but then I’d also be inclined to say, don’t hold me to it. I don’t want to feel pressure from myself to always make work in the same way. if I make a piece where there isn’t a narrative, then so be it! I am okay with my work changing over time, I’m not really fixed on a specific subject matter at the moment.”

Untitled (2019), acrylic on canvas, 30cm x 21cm

“I like that you can see mistakes in my work because I think that is a truer representation of my approach to painting. If I’m creating things from my mind, I feel like it’s inevitable for my subconscious to find its way onto the painting in some way. But I’m always changing my mind on something, so, my work goes through the process of covering something up and then painting over again. I like that you can also see this process through the layers of paint and that is its own kind of narrative.”

You can see more of Zahra’s work at http://www.instagram.com/zxhrp_artt