Nestled in the cozy, yet bustling Deep Cove area in North Vancouver, Pakistani-Canadian artist and mother Sara Khan was featured at Seymour Art Gallery where she showcased her exhibit Mitti Ke Teelay in the autumn of 2022—a body of watercolour work that strikes feelings of tenderness, kinship, and of course diasporic yearning.
Entering the quiet, white room, the space is warmed with the adornment of Sara’s pieces. I’m greeted by a soft sense of vibrance in the form of watercolour, guiding my eyes around the room and my feet follow eagerly.
I witness a progression of themes used in her art, primarily under the umbrella of lineage and sense of place—from visual metaphors of ancestry, family, and community, to more literal indications of physical geography and the human body. Juxtaposition and the amalgamation of faces and landscapes indicate to the audience both tangible and metaphoric ideas of home.
Mitti Ke Teelay, or Mounds of Soil, takes the audience through the artist’s experience with life, from the monumental to the everyday. From moving countries—Pakistan, the U.K., and Canada—to spending time in bed with her children.
As someone who actively seeks out the work of women and queer folks of colour, I’ve been following Khan’s’s work on Instagram for a few years now, finding it particularly resonant as I’m fascinated by the way the themes overlap, intersect, and are explored in such intensive and extensive ways.
Viewing her work on a scale larger than my phone screen and with more intention than when I’m lying in bed, doom scrolling, amplified my admiration for the artist’s work.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Khan one-on-one about her work. On a Zoom call with 5X Press, she shared the significance of the multifacetedness of a Mound. It can be something as massive as a mountain, as personal as a baby bump, or as nurturing as a Mound Of Soil in a garden. She likened mounds to a lifecycle as we chatted—describing to me how we are a mound both in the womb and in the grave.
She shared that her more recent work contains reflections on her pregnancies and children because it’s “what [her] life revolves around right now” and therefore is a big part of where she takes her inspiration from. She related this to a sense of place as well, comparing how pregnant people and their eventual babies are supported in Pakistan versus a more individualistic society like Canada, sharing with me “[she] was averse to single family living… but this can be [her] mini village.”
My Island, a painting of Khan and her child in bed, reminds me of when, in my own childhood, I thought my parents were as immovable and grand as a piece of the earth. I’m transported back to when my inexperience of the world meant my parents were my world, isolated in a sea of what I haven’t yet learned or experienced.
The audience is treated to surreal landscapes and intimate moments. Her work transports us not only geographically, but also through time as we are reminded of our own ancestors and descendants.
Khan’s exhibit shows lineage and community as a fragment of its environment and vice versa, exemplified by Pahaar (Mountains): portraits of elders and children superimposed on a landscape.
The ambiguous shapes of older women’s heads and shoulders underneath their chunni represent the titular Mounds, towers majestically looking over some children— silhouette cutouts of various vegetation and skyscapes, which like children are vibrant and prone to change with time. Khan evokes the audience’s spatial, spiritual, and social senses.
In conversation with Khan, she told me about her favourite piece of the exhibit, Obkai (Regurgitating), a surreal stylistic painting depicting a large open mouth with a number of bodies spiralling out of it, accompanied by lush abundant plant life.
She shared how the cultural expectations to have children feels like a regurgitation.
The way generation after generation hears the same pressure regurgitated to reproduce, the way generation after generation offspring are essentially a regurgitation of the self, and the way descendents can mimic their predecessors like a regurgitation. It’s a piece I stared at for a while and my footsteps upon walking away reminded me of the way having kids is like an echo exiting a mouth—one after another, after another.
Drawing inspiration from magical realism authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Elena Ferrante, Maya Angelou, as well as her own reflections and journaling, which included drawing herself at different stages of her pregnancy, Khan finds the special moments in ordinary life and depicts them with surreal, complex, multifaceted visuals.
While Khan shares that there have understandably been challenges in being uprooted from one home and having to build roots in another, she is making an impact, and creating a beautiful, tender and incredibly powerful body of work, spanning across generations and geographies.
Sara Khan’s work can be found on her website, https://sara-khan.com/
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