Beyond the realm of creation

Naveen Shakil's work is a cocktail of graphic, traditional and surreal art topped off with a hint of street graffiti.
Published December 11, 2014

By Shameen Khan

"Find what you love and let it kill you."

"I stumbled upon this quote by the German-born American writer Charles Bukowski at a very crucial stage of my life," Naveen Shakil explains.

Caught between an inherent desire to create or pursue a more conventional path in life, Bukowski's words came as a clear flash to the self-taught artist Naveen.

The creative sector is a huge gamble, particularly in a country like Pakistan, where the perceptions about art have not changed over generations and stability and security are still valued over the tendency to pursue an adventurous profession.

"Bukowski had meaning for me because your strongest art will be hard on you in its creation. Physically taxing. Emotionally consuming. You want to claim you die a little death at the end of each major completion," Naveen says.

She had found a connection internally but it seemed it was going to be a solitary pursuit.

 ((L) Naveen Shakil pictured at the Dundee School of Art and Architecture. (R) The artist is pictured adding the final touches to one of her paintings, which was also displayed at the Creative Karachi Festival 2014.
((L) Naveen Shakil pictured at the Dundee School of Art and Architecture. (R) The artist is pictured adding the final touches to one of her paintings, which was also displayed at the Creative Karachi Festival 2014.

Much to their surprise, Naveen's parents were informed by her Montessori teachers that their child was going to be an artist.

“Apparently, it was very evident by the way a two-and-a-half-year-old held a paintbrush,” she chuckles.

It turns out, the teachers were not premature in their assessment of the young 'artist'. Naveen received a 99* Distinction in her A-levels art thesis while attending Karachi Grammar School.

She proceeded to move to Dundee, Scotland, on a scholarship to pursue an undergraduate degree in art.

However, after obtaining a diploma in art and design, Naveen made dramatic and somewhat grudging shift to architecture.

“'Painting is for sissies, you want to make money after you're dead?, my father had said."

The 19-year-old had taken her father's look of reproach personally.

For the next few years, she was greatly encouraged to engage her artistic background into her architectural process, and was one of the few graduating students who were chosen to exhibit their project for the Dundee School of Architecture Degree Show.

After graduating, she moved back to Karachi for just under a year, during which she worked for Tariq Hasan Architects, and pursued her own art simultaneously, maintaining her work as personal and only selling to close friends and family.

In August 2010, she moved to Australia to work with the world renowned Grimshaw Architects, where she was part of various large-scale projects such as Maribyrnong Defense site master plan (part of competition team, winner, 2010), Brisbane Airport property master plan (part of competition team, winner, 2011) and 664 collins street, commercial project, 2011.

While working and living in Melbourne, Naveen was exposed to a melting pot that she adjusted to in a heartbeat. From the epic street art culture, to the laid back sunny lifestyle to discovering hidden gems in the gritty laneways of the city, it became home.

“I was absorbing everything around me. I was still unsure whether I wanted to be an architect forever. I wasn't trained formally as an artist, and while it was evident I was good at illustrations and graphics, I didn't think it was enough to take me further.”

It was the unplanned move back to Karachi in 2013 that forced her to take stock of her battling internal dialogue.

“It became apparent that my urge to be creative spanned beyond architecture.”

“Perhaps there will always be a constant shift in paradigm between art, architecture, and graphics, where each element informs the other and neither can exist as a sole entity; giving birth to a symbiotic union,” Naveen says.

She joined Studio Subtractive, a boutique architecture and design company operated by Ahmed Mian and Seher Aziz, both of whom she met while working at Tariq Hasan.

It was the most ideal work environment, a combination of architecture and graphic art, bosses who were friends, mentors and biggest promoters of her work.

Working as a designer for Subtractive offered her a platform to exercise her graphic and art skills to create large-scale murals for various projects including Arpatech Head Office and the Hobo (by Hub) Retail Outlet at Ocean Mall in Karachi's Clifton area.

She was also commissioned by the same client to create artwork for Hobo's marketing campaign, including billboard designs.

During this time, Naveen also taught at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture alongside Seher and Ahmed, “Yeah, we worked together, we taught together, and hung out together.”

She began creating pieces exuding everything that she had absorbed in 26 years.

In July 2014, Naveen went to New York to attend a friend's wedding and landed a job as a Graphic Designer for Allegravita, a marketing and public relations company. Driven by the creative rush of being in this massive hybrid, she continued her own side projects, and began gaining confidence to finally exhibit her work publicly.

It is no wonder then, that Naveen's work is a unique intermix of natural instinct and the method architecture gave her.

Naveen caught up with recently to give an insight into her roller-coaster journey, inspiration and the most unsparing critique of her work which is a cocktail of graphic, traditional and surreal art topped off with a hint of street graffiti.

Shameen: Describe a real-life situation that inspired you?

Naveen: So when I came to New York in July for my friend's wedding, I had no idea that I would end up staying and landing a job here. After the festivities were over, I stayed back for a few days, which turned into a few weeks, which turned into months.

I spent hours just walking around and getting lost and watching people and absorbing the electric energy that exists here. And slowly I felt the negative blanket that I had been dragging around dissipate.

I asked myself, what am I waiting for? What is anybody waiting for? You want to do something, do it now! Let it come pouring out of you till it reduces you to ashes. What do you want to do?

My brain was saturated with 28 bizarre years of life and the feeling of being internally free. Doesn’t come often to someone like me.

So I began getting a vision of life again. I was plugging in all the creative elements that have ever spoken to me, I was capitalising on the years spent living in different countries, and more importantly, I was closing the loop.

The presence and disintegration of human existence; textures, street art and experimenting with geometric shapes in a way to define space due to my architecture background.

I think my hands struggled to keep up with the overpowering speed at which it all needed to come out.

It was chaotic, I had no idea where this was going to lead, I didn’t have a back up plan, I was broke. At the core, I felt like me again.

Shameen: What has been your greatest inspiration?

Naveen: The element of the unknown. The bottomless pit that I manage to dig for myself and then voluntarily jump into it. So when I’ve been faced with this uncertainty of 'what next? What do I do now? Where do I go now?' Shit, it’s really dark down here man.

Should I do abs? Let me smoke a carton of Marlboro lights first. Is there Facebook down here?”

When nothing makes sense, when I have no plan for what is my next step in life. That’s when I rely on the one skill that somehow nourishes the soul - I create.

It’s instinctive. It validates my existence. And throughout the process, you begin to laugh at the confusion and the odds. Forget the odds. Buy tacos instead.

What else inspires me? Music – lyrics, a particular quote, a hauntingly beautiful song. I do this thing where I’ll discover a song that I fall in love with and proceed to murder it by listening to it on repeat and then things start emerging on the blank emptiness.

Someone somewhere has said the words that resonate the chaos inside and what ends up being produced is a marriage of those 2 elements.

Shameen: What do you dislike about the art world?

Naveen: Price.

Shameen: What do you dislike about your work?

It’s not constant; It’s sporadic and volatile; all over the place and more often than not I fear like I lack the discipline to really focus on one particular underlying language that connects everything together.

I think it impersonates the lack of consistency of my life.

Shameen: What do you like about your work?

Naveen: That it impersonates the lack of consistency of my life, hah!

Shameen: What memorable responses have you had to your work?

Naveen: My two younger brothers: “This is shit Naveen.”

My father: (long silence while he looks at a painting) and then…. “Ok” The men in my family keep me grounded.

Shameen: What art do you most identify with?

Naveen: Anything that stimulates my senses. I love touching textured artwork. Also, there's something about the presence of the human element that greatly appeals to me. To see a piece and be able to strip away the outer layer to discover the sensitivity of the raw human emotion

Shameen: What’s your favourite art work?

Naveen: There's an Italian artist called Paolo Troilo who paints figures in monochrome using only his fingers. Mind blown! I drool over the theme of human disintegration, which is very prominent in most of his pieces.

Shameen: What is your dream project?

Naveen: To redefine time / space travel. Wait has that already been done?

Shameen: Favourite or most inspirational place?

Naveen: Gotham City

Shameen: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Naveen: “For the love of God, do not feel the need to force your terrible sense of humor upon the US immigrations. No. No one finds you funny. Keep your mouth shut. Because no one likes you and no one will come to save you if you get yourself in shit.” – Muzzamil Shakil (brother)

“Don’t cry. You look really ugly when you do.” – old housemate in Scotland

Shameen: Professionally, what’s your goal?

Naveen: To get away with being as unprofessional as possible.

Shameen: What is your most important artist tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?

Naveen: Coffee!

Shameen: How do you know when a work is finished?

Naveen: When my brain starts hurting.

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