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Hiba Schahbaz in her Brooklyn studio, photo credit: Cidney Hue
Hiba Schahbaz in her Brooklyn studio, photo credit: Cidney Hue

The Brooklyn-based artist Hiba Schahbaz is best known for her large-scale depictions of life-size beautiful female nudes. A native of Pakistan, Schahbaz began doing self-portraits at an early age, joining the countless women artists working in this genre since as far back as the 15th century, taking up space in various narratives in the process. Part of the allure of her work emanates from the traditional Indo-Persian style she uses, a centuries-old technique that uses black tea and water-based pigments on paper. But Schahbaz has not always painted on a life-size scale. On the contrary, she studied miniature painting for over a decade before turning to larger works and paper-cut installations, in the process transferring the calm but intense presence of all her figures to a genre that suits their fluid dream-like presence perfectly.

Meditative miniatures

Hiba Schahbaz in her Brooklyn studio

Hiba your works are painted with a for western perception unususal technique.
Please tell us about how you started out.

I was born and raised in Pakistan and as an art student I was very drawn to Indo-Persian miniature painting.

I love the beauty and narrative history of miniature painting, as well as the discipline and meditative process needed to paint these intricate, jewel-like surfaces.

It became the center of my creative life.

I painted miniatures for almost fifteen years before the scale of my paintings expanded to larger works on paper and installations of cut-out paper.

Hiba Schahbaz, Self Portrait as the great Odalisque, 2016, tea, watercolor and ink on indian paper
Self Portrait as the great Odalisque, 2016, tea, watercolor and ink on indian paper

Elements from nature such as flowers, trees, birds, animals, and women all carried into my larger paintings, as well as the stylizations of these forms.

Black Tea Magic

Hiba Schahbaz - the cosmos within 1

The qualities and characteristics of black tea have in itself so many layers of narratives in terms of its history but also regarding the effect it has when it is consumed. It can calm you down but also stimulate.

Does the nature of tea feed into your thought process when you paint?

One of the traditional techniques I learnt when studying miniature in Pakistan was painting with tea at a small scale. As the paintings expanded, I began painting the bodies of my life-sized figures with tea.

The process of using tea as paint for these large works felt like a natural progression.

I love painting with tea.

I love its color and scent and the way that it stains paper. And it reminds me of home.

Hiba Schahbaz - the cosmos within 2

The fire within

Hiba Schahbaz - the cosmos within 3

You are using yourself as the ultimate blueprint and model for your very sensual works.

Did it change the perception on yourself or how you feel within your body?

I began drawing and painting myself when I was a girl. I was teaching myself how to draw so I would sit in front of my bedroom mirror and make self-portraits.

This process evolved into my art making later on in life.

In many ways my paintings and my emotions shift together.

I think painting myself has made me braver and more honest and I’ve become more accepting and more connected to myself.

The emotional narrative in my paintings has opened up as my work has grown in scale.

Self Portrait as Sleeping Venus (after Giorgione), 2017, Tea, watercolour, ink and poster paint on Twinrocker
Self Portrait as Sleeping Venus (after Giorgione), 2017, Tea, watercolour, ink and poster paint on Twinrocker

Which of these elements (space, air, fire, water, earth) would you choose in relation to yourself, and why?

I would have to say I identify with fire.

Hiba Schahbaz - the cosmos within 4

I am very attracted to fire both visually and emotionally.

I’ve also been painting a lot with red which is a warm, fiery color.

However, I paint all the elements and I try to feel connected to them; the earth, the clouds in the sky, and bodies of water can all be found in my paintings.

Where do you find inspiration?

Being a visual artist—processing my emotions and the world around me visually—comes naturally to me.

Hiba Schahbaz - the cosmos within 5

I would say that I find the most inspiration when I am peaceful, and I am most peaceful when I’m in nature, or when I’m feeling safe and happy in my mind and body.

What do you enjoy reading at the moment?

At the moment I am reading Becoming Supernatural by Joe Dispenza.

It’s sort of modern day spirituality meets quantum physics meets mediation.

I’ve been reading a lot of books about meditation lately as I’m teaching myself how to meditate and very curious about how it will open up my life and art.

Do you consider yourself spiritual and does it feed into your work?

Spirituality is so different for everyone . I feel as though I am a spiritual person. I feel very connected to other people and to something greater than myself.

My life and work flow from a spiritual and emotional center.

Gathering, 2018, Tea, watercolor and gouache on Twinrocker (handmade paper)
Gathering, 2018, Tea, watercolor and gouache on Twinrocker (handmade paper)

Please tell us what you are looking forward to this year in terms of exhibitions?

I  recently concluded my solo exhibition ‘The Women’ at Chandran Gallery in SF. That was my first time showing in San Fransisco and an amazing experience.

I’ll by showing in ‘Juztopoz at 25: In Black & White’ exhibition at The Hotel of South Beach opening for Miami art week.

And I will be showing paintings at Unit London in their group show ‘Beyond Borders’ which run until Jan 11 2020.

Follow Hiba Schahbaz on Instagram or on her website!

Header Image: Self Portrait as the great Odalisque, 2016, tea, watercolor and ink on indian paper

Author: Esther Harrison