INTERVIEW WITH KHALIL CHISHTEE
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Khalil, how did you come to see plastic bags as a medium for expressing your ideas?
Khalil Chishtee: In art, one has to be the voice of one’s own time, not an echo of another era. We live in the age of plastic, and plastic bags are the most ordinary form of this material. It goes back to the Sufi approach of my upbringing where worth does not depend on what you inherit, it depends on who you are. Anything made out of bronze, wood, stone or painted on a canvas carries the appearance of being worth looking at, because of its history, but if one can change the impact of that history, one is an artist.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: You studied bronze casting at the Art Foundry Gallery in Sacramento, California. Do you still enjoy working in this medium?
Khalil Chishtee: The material that I choose to use depends on the content of my work. I love bronze if it goes with the nature of my content. For instance, for one of my shows in Lahore, I made all the images on the paper by using sparks of welding and stains of rusted metal.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Can you tell me about this piece, Khalil? Is this a dancer?
Khalil Chishtee: I named this life-sized piece after Milan Kundera’s book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It’s suspended from one point with fish-line, and it is always moving.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: And the movement suggests freedom? Peacefulness?
Khalil Chishtee: This piece is never at rest.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What makes a work of art powerful?
Khalil Chishtee: The simple intention to create and question is what makes art powerful. These days, when many countries, leaders and circumstances are playing with the lives of ordinary people, we need more and more artists to help us look and question. This is more important than anything; as better individuals form a better society.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: I lived in Dhaka for the first years of my life until my family fled to Taipei, Taiwan, when the Bangladesh War for Independence broke out. Were you living in Pakistan during this time also? If so, how were you and your family affected?
Khalil Chishtee: I have lived in Lahore, which is a few miles away from the India boarder, for most of my life, until November of 2002, when I left my country and moved to California, where I then lived in many different places. I earned my masters degree from California State University, Sacramento.
Khalil Chishtee: I do remember the War of Independence for Bangladesh, but I was too young to have any political awareness. For us kids, it was just a fun time: no school, no homework, just blackouts and the sound of sirens. For me, sleeping among all of my cousins was like a vacation, and as Paulo Coelho writes in his novel, The Fifth Mountain, kids have a great ability to turn graveyards into playgrounds, so as a kid, it was not bad. But then, growing up in a politically-aware family, it was heartbreaking to know the wrongdoings and unjust actions of the Pakistani government against the people of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Deanna Phoenix Selene: The American historian, Charles A. Beard, once said, “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” Were there profound events in your life that shaped you as an artist?
Khalil Chishtee: Art is a gift to me from my elder sister who passed away when I was seven years old. I remember not feeling anything, but then I started making drawings from my life, remarkably skillful drawing, and then oil paintings. I believe this made me live in the present, and whenever one lives in the ‘now,’ one discovers oneself.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you think it is possible for us to feel another’s experience through art?
Khalil Chishtee: That’s what we do most of the time; our imagination flies everywhere. Image, color, sound, fragrance, words, become the vehicle to go back to our previous experiences. When any artist paints or shares his/her experience effectively, then that sharing somehow connects to the similar moment which resides in our own memory. For instance, in the novel, The Kite Runner, when Khalid Hoseni’s main character goes through the feelings of deep regret, his reader relates to the situation because of his/her own personal regret. When one becomes sad after listening to a sad musical composition, that does not mean one understands the exact sadness of the singer or composer, it means the creator’s experience relates to your own experience.
Yes, I do think the fine arts are the best way to share your experience with others.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: The Irish poet and writer, Oscar Wilde said, “No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If they did, he would cease to be an artist.” Do you agree? What is the role of the artist in society?
Khalil Chishtee: No, I don’t agree with Oscar Wilde. I believe, to be an effective artist, one has to see more, see more in-depth without wearing glasses of pre-conception. To look at everything like a newborn baby every now and then helps one to become better artist.
Art help us to see more.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: In traveling back and forth between Lahore, Pakistan, and Brooklyn, New York, what are the most glaring cultural differences you’ve noticed?
Khalil Chishtee: Because of our global culture, franchises have eroded the uniqueness of each city. While sitting in any coffee shop in Lahore, it’s difficult to tell where you are; the U.S. or Lahore. The use of Photoshop has also made every magazine cover look alike, flawless pictures makes every landscape the same.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Are there things you miss when you’re away from your hometown and country? And are there also aspects of American life you treasure?
Khalil Chishtee: After traveling so much, the whole world seems like home to me. The only problem I have with American culture is that many things are based on fear; watch every TV commercial, every ad is based on fear.
The aspects of American life that I treasure is that people are hard-working, and most are very honest. I met many who would go out of their way to help you.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What inspires you as an artist?
Khalil Chishtee: The times I live in is my first inspiration, but there are a few other things as well: good food; a nice or even a bad movie; a good song; a nice touch of breeze…anything can work like a seed towards the process of my art-making.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What is the most satisfying aspect of creating a work of art? Is the pleasure for you in the initial envisioning, in the process of creating, or in receiving reactions when the work is completed?
Khalil Chishtee: The sheer act of making art is very satisfying to me, but I believe every stage has its own pleasure, from envisioning a piece to seeing it emerge in the space, and then sharing it with people. I also enjoy that stage when there is for me a dialogue between believing and doubting, one part of me says it’s going to be fine, and the other wants to run away from the project and start something new.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What would you like to explore next?
Khalil Chishtee: I am still under the spell of plastic bags: its ordinariness is holding my breath and the way it responds to my deepest emotions so respectfully. I am charmed by its vastness. There is yet to explore more. It seems like I am just started.
To view more of Khalil’s works: http://www.khalilchishtee.com/