From the outside looking in, Arkansas may seem as though the state only consists of trees, farmland and wildlife; and although the state doesn’t receive the title “Natural State” for nothing, Arkansas’ abundance of diverse cultures should be highlighted. Shabana Kauser, an artist living in Fayetteville, uses her vibrant art to tell the stories of millions of immigrant women that came before her.
“In 1975, my parents moved from Pakistan-occupied Azad Kashmir to the Suburbs of London. I was born and lived in the UK for 30 years. They raised 5 children: I have 2 sisters, and 2 brothers. My father worked in the steel industry, and my mother started her own business from home sewing traditional Pakistani clothes. My appreciation of traditional fabrics started there and can be seen in my art today,” Kauser shares.
Before moving to Arkansas from the UK, Kauser worked in the corporate world with degrees in Business IT and Information Management. Not exactly the most traditional background for an artist, but at that time she did not foresee herself to one day be a featured artist in galleries. As life tends to go, things change and new chapters begin.
“My husband was offered a work opportunity in Northwest Arkansas. It was a tough decision for me to leave London, my husband moved here first and we agreed to give it a few months and see how he liked it. Six months later in 2008, I joined him in Fayetteville. Unfortunately, the move came with some restrictions. My visa did not allow me to work for almost 7 years. Leaving behind a productive life with a career made my transition tough. I felt disconnected from the community for a number of years,” Kauser says.
During the first few years of navigating life in America, Kauser tried to keep herself occupied and keep the drive she had back in London alive through volunteering, projects and getting involved in social events in the community, but she never felt satisfied.
“One day, I thought about what I enjoyed doing before I took on financial responsibilities. I went through my childhood, and one thing stood out over and over again, it was art! I used to enjoy drawing and always looked forward to art classes at school. So, I began looking for local art classes and just happened to find an oil painting class starting the following week. I enrolled at the Creative Community Center just off Dickson Street in Fayetteville,” Kauser says. She took classes from local artist Trena Ward, and Kauser recalls how important Ward’s mentorship was in the starting stages. “The more I wanted to learn, the more Trena generously shared her knowledge. We fed off each other’s energy. After a few finished paintings and sharing my work online, I immediately got positive feedback from friends and family. At this point in time, I thought they were just trying to be supportive. I didn’t read too much into it and carried on learning, then I was approached to create my first commission. That’s when I realized I was capable of doing something very different with my future.”
Her art and ability to express herself helped Kauser find her place in Arkansas. From the beginning of her art career to now, she continues to be amazed at what her work can spark.
“After being so disconnected from the community, art helped me to reconnect with people in a whole new way. The rich conversations it opens up, the opportunities, the way people connect with you and your work, I never imagined it to be this powerful,” Kauser says.
Each of her pieces is as intricate and telling as the last in her ability to share her culture on canvas. From colors to faces to clothing to titles, Kauser provides glimpses into a life many Arkansans are unfamiliar with.
“My art is directly influenced by my background and our move to the US. The immigration experience involves uncertainty, changes, and adaptation. Not only do I share my experience through my work, but also of immigrants before me, alongside me and the new generation. My work is inspired by each of these women,” Kauser shares.
She emphasizes the importance of Pakistani women being represented in the art world both as the artist and the subject of the art. Too often, many cultures do not receive enough representation. Whether that be through the media, the working world or the arts, seeing faces that are familiar and relatable can make all the difference.
“I recently had a gallery exhibit in Fort Smith, Arkansas where I met a South Asian woman who had just moved to Arkansas. She was only two weeks into her move, and she felt disconnected from her culture. She and her husband happened to walk past the gallery one day and my work was in the window display. A 3ft x 3ft Original Oil painting, my portrait titled “Bahin.” The word “Bahin” translates to “sister” in Urdu (official language spoken in Pakistan – it sounds similar to Hindi which is spoken throughout India). The South Asian woman in my portrait is wearing a traditional blue dupatta with jewelry. Then she saw my name as the artist, “Shabana Kauser,” a South Asian person she could relate to as the artist. She attended the opening art reception and shared her experience of moving to a new state as a South Asian woman, how my work made her feel connected, welcome and accepted. She felt proud seeing a woman from the same culture now as a work of art in a gallery exhibit. That was a powerful connection with a complete stranger at that time,” Kauser says.
The “Bahin” painting from Kauser’s story is a personal piece of the artist’s. Each of her works is significant in its ability to resonate emotion and impact viewers, but this piece in particular shares the intricate story of Kauser’s older sister.
“[The sister] was raised by my grandmother in Pakistan due to visa complications. When my parents moved to the UK in 1975, my older sister, Samina, was a baby at the time. She was forced to stay behind, her relocation documents unapproved by the Pakistani government, which oversees Kashmir. Samina was raised by my grandmother and family in Pakistan. In 1985, Samina was finally granted legal status to reunite with us in the U.K. I met her for the first time when she was 10 years old. She didn’t speak English and due to her home life with my grandmother, she had been raised as an only child. While my three siblings and I had grown up in both the British and Pakistani culture, her only connection was to Pakistan. I remember her wearing traditional Pakistani clothes when she first arrived. We had completely different upbringings, the way each of us viewed the world varied drastically,” Kauser shares.
Kauser’s sister is involved in her art in many ways, not only as the subject of one of her favorite pieces. The two women travel to the UK together to purchase traditional fabrics from South Asian family businesses for Kauser’s art. This activity is familiar for the women as their mother owned a sewing business when the family lived in the UK, and continuing that tradition with her sister makes this part of her creative process that much more special.
“Going to the South Asian market stalls and shops in London, seeing and touching the fabrics up close never gets old. Purchasing by the yard, looking at the jewelry up close, and absorbing the overall atmosphere around the fabric stores is a crucial part of the creative process. For [Samina] to be a part of this process is empowering,” Kauser says.
The story of their mother has also been featured in Kauser’s work as another influential woman in her life.
“My painting titled ‘Silent Worker’ is inspired by my mother’s story with the British flag, scissors and a dupatta all in a still life setting. We would come home from school each day to find different rolls of fabric in the living room as my mother had worked there while she had the house to herself. Rolls of fabric would enter our home, with some customers wanting outfits for a wedding, special event or day-to-day wear. My mother would take measurements and then carefully cut the fabric, sew and create the end product. She created ‘Shalwaar Kameez’ which is a traditional outfit consisting of a long tunic top, pants and a dupatta. All the women from the Pakistani community in the UK who wanted her custom-made clothes also became friends with my mother. We got to know their families throughout the years, and their personal stories,” Kauser says.
Women she knows personally and women she feels as though she knows through shared experiences are captured in the strokes of her oil paint to continue inspiring women. Kauser shares that oil is her favorite art form because she enjoys the way it mixes and how the drying time affects the small details in the jewelry and fabric she paints. Her new series, titled “Mixed Media,” uses acrylics, epoxy resin and traditional South Asian fabrics for a project unlike any other Kauser has done
“From a distance, the glitz and shine can be seen, and once that draws you in, each imperfect stitch, sequin, thread coming out of place can be studied up close. The imperfections are what makes us all unique!” Kauser explains.
As seen with her newest series, Kauser is constantly learning new methods and techniques that will continue to highlight the women and beauty of her culture. She’s found other artists and mentors along the way to seek advice from, and in turn, she finds herself with the right words to give to other aspiring artists trying to find their voice in their brush.
“Figure out why you are creating. Why do you want to be an artist? What do you hope to achieve? Why is it important to you? Those answers will vary for everyone, so make them unique and personal to you. Once you establish this deep down, use that to drive you forward in any and every aspect of your work,” Kauser encourages. “Have your own voice and identity with your work. There is an audience for all art, just don’t expect that audience to be every single person! Keep growing. Keep learning.”
With her voice and identity found, Kauser hopes to continue making an impression on her audience with the details of her art and the stories on the canvases.
“When people view my work, initially I want them to be drawn in by the details, texture and colors, then absorb themselves in the story of the fabrics and the women. Upon exiting my paintings, my wish is to send the viewer off with hope, courage to celebrate their uniqueness and tap into the limitless possibilities of life,” Kauser says. “Each one of the stories behind my work has a universal message of strength, courage, determination, uncertainty, belonging and acceptance. That resonates with people regardless of their gender or background. The art community has really amazed me with their interest in my culture. America is a nation of immigrants, and it is important for people to connect with the raw immigrant experience and remember the journey of their family and ancestors.”
Shabana Kauser is represented by the Saatchi Art Gallery, and her work can be found in many galleries around Arkansas and the country. View more of her work on her website or visit her Facebook page to stay updated on where she’ll be next.
READ ALSO: Made in Arkansas: Dandelion Home and Garden