Contemporary artist Hiba Schahbaz has been meditating on love. Love beyond romance. Love as a state of being. Her most recent solo exhibition, at Almine Rech gallery, Paris, was titled Love Songs and featured her painting Burning Venus. An ode to the goddess of love herself, this work references Italian art history, gilded Mughal miniature painting, and Schahbaz’s unique pictorial lexicon. Created in 2016, with watercolor, tea, gouache, and gold leaf on paper, Burning Venus was nestled amongst brand new dreamy pink and red oil paintings on canvas.

Kajal connected with the artist to discuss this bewitching piece — a chronological, physical, and aesthetic outlier in the exhibition that revealed both how long Schahbaz has been contemplating love and the evolution of her inquiry and larger art practice.

Hiba Schahbaz, Burning Venus, 2016, Watercolor, tea, gouache, and gold leaf on paper, 80 x 50 inches. Image courtesy of Almine Rech.

Kajal: The blue in this painting dominated your practice in the years around 2016. Whereas now pinks and reds reign. Can you talk about both of these choices? Why blue then and why pink now? And why this specific blue and this specific pink?

Hiba Schahbaz: I think the blue most likely came from my roots in miniature painting. You know those older Mughal miniatures, they have this gorgeous turquoise. I loved making that color in gouache and using that for the smaller miniatures. Prior to moving [to America], everything I painted was black and white. So when I moved into color, I wanted to use a lot of the traditional colors, and there were so many beautiful shades of blue in historical miniatures.

I think as an artist, every time I do something I haven’t done, or am restarting something new, I like to become fluent in it. I want to master the technique, before bringing myself into the medium. Once I felt a certain level of fluidity painting with color, and it had become a part of me, that’s when the pink started. It wasn’t a deliberate decision. There came a moment where every time I’d try to paint the sky blue, I would paint it pink. I try not to overthink, and just follow my intuition.

Hiba Schahbaz, Blue Dream, 2016, Watercolor on paper, 15 x 11 inches.

Detail from Burning Venus. Image courtesy of Almine Rech.

The flames emanating from your Venus were very interesting to me, the gold leaf evokes both miniature painting and the halos in Christian painting. I’d love to hear more about what draws you to gold leaf, which you’ve used frequently in your practice, and your decision to set your Venus on fire. Why is she burning?

I love gold leaf. It was an important part of miniature painting and illuminated manuscripts and it’s so beautiful, and delicate. I also love the way gold is used in Western art and the painting of icons. In this painting I wanted Venus to have a halo. I see her divinity. I feel humans all have divinity. I don’t believe she has a halo in the original Botticelli painting.

Setting her halo on fire was a parallel to my own emotional process and more of a feeling of what Venus means to me as opposed to the traditional idea of Venus. I imagined the fire transmuting and purifying and burning away what’s unnecessary or not truly her. I also saw her as very alone and burning in her emotions on an island surrounded by water, under the shade of an eternally flowering tree.

Can you expand on what Venus means to you?

I think, in this instance, it was love. Venus burning in love.

I also love the original painting and the word Venus has been in my vocabulary since I was a kid. I remember taking piano lessons when I was really young, keyboard lessons actually, and there was this song on the keyboard, you pressed a button and the keyboard would start singing it. “I’m your Venus! I’m your fire! Your desire!” As an adult I find these lyrics awkward and I see how women are perceived differently in different cultures, expected to identify with different roles and not always truly seen. Sometimes how the world sees us has nothing to do with who we really are.

Hiba Schahbaz, My Selves, 2012, Tea, gold leaf, collage, gouache and watercolor on wasli, (3) 27 x 21 inches.

You’ve referenced a lot of archetypal women in your work, Leda, Eve, the Grand Odalisque, and you always titled those as “Self-portrait as x”, “Self-portrait as Leda.” Why wasn’t this titled “Self-portrait as Venus”?

That’s a good question. It’s possible that I titled her at a later time. Honestly a lot of my titles come when I get an email, which says, “We have the show, can you please give us the titles!” [laughs] and then I start to think about them, so often the paintings are titled at the time of exhibition, not when they are being painted. When I say “Self-portrait as Leda” it’s acknowledging this is a painting that has been made by another artist. Or I’ll say “Women with hands folded after Picasso”, I acknowledge that artist, to put it in context. So whoever has the piece, so many years from now will know that context.

What was interesting about this show was that I let some of the working titles stand, I didn’t change them like I often do. One of the paintings in the show is called Gentle Maya, after Goya. Which was what I called her in my mind. Normally I would have changed the word gentle, but I decided to embrace the vulnerability of just keeping what I was thinking and feeling in that moment when I painted her.

If I’m truly honest, I think part of being an artist, for me, has been an unfolding of sorts and… it hasn’t always been easy for me to reveal what I’m thinking or give expression to it, or feel safe enough to share my thoughts. And as titles often ascribe meaning to a painting, I’ve deliberately removed them or kept them plain. That appears to be changing now. Holding back when I’m afraid has been a recurring theme in my life. My undergrad thesis had no faces and I didn’t start painting faces until I moved here. Self acceptance and denial is part of my emotional process as an artist who paints nudes.

Hiba Schahbaz, Self Portrait As The Grande Odalisque, 2016, Tea, watercolor and ink on Indian paper, 60 x 80 inches.

Hiba Schahbaz, Love Song, 2023, Oil on linen, 36 x 48 inches

Staying with titles, you showed this work in your recent exhibition, Love Songs at Almine Rich gallery in Paris. The rest of the pieces are all in dreamy, love-affiliated, pinks and reds. There’s quite a few dragons as well: a dragon that you’re calmly looking at, a dragon that you’re feeding, a dragon that’s eating you. Are you positioning love as a pet dragon?

I would probably say, I’m not doing that [laughs]. The dragon has appeared in different contexts in my paintings, it has been there for a while. It was also part of my earlier miniatures. If you look at the history of the East, artists moved from place to place wherever they had patronage. It wasn’t like there were art galleries back then. Artists who were working during the Mongol Empire and depicting dragons moved to Iran, and those same artists moved to India during the Mughal empire. So a lot of these mythical creatures that we see [in art] have migrated throughout our Eastern history.

I usually have a different feeling during each painting, there’s often no exact narrative. I don’t see the dragon as scary. To me, the dragon is a very noble protective creature. I also paint a lot of lions, and I don’t see them as scary either. I think often there is an emotional narrative in play and that narrative is sometimes depicted through different creatures, or, depictions of the feminine.

Hiba Schahbaz, In My Heart, 2020, Gouache, tea and watercolor on wasli, 1 x 10 inches

I do think about love a lot, in the context of how to live a life with love, not necessarily romantic love, but how to just be love, you know? If there is a beautiful divine part of us, which is not mundane, then that part is love. I meditate on love, read about it, try to understand what it takes to embody it and the healing that comes from being rooted in love and how to stay in that space when challenged, how to find my center and ground into myself.

If you look at Eve, she’s been slandered to high heaven. Literally. It’s always about how Eve was a crazy temptress or something. There’s such doubt and cynicism associated with love and beauty today, which makes it even harder for these things to exist. So I kept trying to make space for them.

It’s poetic then to have a Venus in a show where you’re thinking about love.

Complete coincidence!

So why embed this “old” piece amongst all the new work?

It felt right to include this painting now. I’ve had her for so long. And I can be a little clingy. I hang on to paintings in my studio for years, especially if there’s a thread in them that I want to continue unraveling. Or sometimes it’s just a certain attachment I have for the painting. And I’d been thinking about her a lot because she is the first large tea and watercolor painting I painted, which is why she’s on a single sheet of paper. The later watercolors are all on smaller papers attached together to make a large surface for painting. I had given her to a friend of mine, who had a gallery in a past life, for a project she was curating. Her name is Hilde but she goes by Jerry Gogosian now. I had given her this painting and when it returned to the studio I was unwilling to part with it again and decided to keep it in my collection. Last year when I was having a studio visit with Almine we both felt it was the right time to show her. I like the balance she brings into the exhibit.

Your reference to miniature is so significant to your practice. There are precedents for modern and contemporary artists that have referenced the miniature tradition and aesthetics and worked on the female form, artists like Chugtai and Hajra Mansur come to mind. Are they points of reference to you at all?

I studied miniature painting at the National College of Arts, Lahore with a master and also contemporary artists. My dad showed me Chughtai when I began studying miniatures and his paintings are very beautiful, but I have always been drawn to the body over all other subjects so I can’t say he was a great influence. I will say he was one of the first artists to break away from traditional miniature and made it his own.

I feel very drawn to the beauty of older manuscripts and historical miniature paintings which can only be seen in museums. They are so exquisite and I feel deeply connected to the tradition after years of dedicated study and training in the art form. Even now, if I go to the Met, and I look at old miniatures, part of me just wants to weep and the other part comes alive with inspiration. They are my greatest teachers.

The artist in her studio. ​​Photo by Meiying Thai.

All images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted.