If you had to assign New York-based Pakistani artist Aiza Ahmed one color from the vast spectrum that exists, it would have to be rose pink. That’s not to say that Ahmed does not experiment with green washes or blue backgrounds or reds or oranges, but of all her work and multiple series spanning the few years since she graduated from Cornell with her BFA, it’s the rose pink that stands out as the thread linking her work.
It’s the sort of pink that’s not quite a marketable wash of millennial or quartz. It’s more that wedding pink or mithai box pink. It’s bright, almost obnoxious and definitely eye-catching. And it speaks to a sort of aesthetic that is decidedly not of the West.
“Being from Pakistan originally, color has always been a part of my life,” Ahmed told Kajal. “It’s just extremely vibrant. And I think subconsciously it’s been with me, but I was able to notice that difference when I moved to New York and London. How the West treats color is very different to say South Asians in general.”
Ahmed in fact builds her pieces off of a first jewel-toned wash and from there chooses the color palette. It’s in this way that she takes the images of Pakistan which are often bleached out or over-saturated in turn by that brand of poverty photography that’s replete in diaspora art of the chai wallah or the man playing his flute for a dancing monkey, as in her series Unsung Heroes, and injects them with an almost fantastical set of colors. They are at once mundane and surreal.
Her characters too have a whimsical quality to them. In various paintings, Ahmed pulls out the stark contrast between working class and wealthy Pakistanis. As wealthy people are positioned over a hookah or celebrating a birthday party, their faces are rendered in an almost cartoonish way in outlines that invoke the classic style of miniatures. Their servants and hired help operate in the foreground and are given definition and an expansive color palette to illustrate their complicated, layered expressions.
“Class differences are very prevalent, especially when I visit Pakistan. What I’ve really been exploring in these past few bodies of work is this idea of portraying the relationship the working class has to opulence and refinement within Pakistani native culture,” Ahmed said.
“Living in a place like Dubai, for example, you see these skyscrapers and all this wealth and opulence around you. And it’s like, you know, who built this?” she continued.
As Ahmed says, her work focuses on “activating the background,” whether through color or by bringing those usually stuck behind the scenes to centerstage. Her interest is in focusing the viewer’s gaze and offering up emotion freely. Nothing is hidden here.