Red Halo: You have a rich artistic background whether in fashion or regarding fine arts, tell us about your career path.
Irfan Cheema: I used to sketch like most kids from as young as I can remember, but in my case, it became my primary engagement and pastime while growing primarily due to support and encouragement of my parents. Also, I was fascinated by textiles. So, when it was time to make serious career choices I picked fashion that seemed to culminate well many of my interests. I was very lucky that though fashion education was a nascent phenomenon in Pakistan, we had our first fashion school in Lahore, where I lived back then and still refer to as home. As a creative expression working in the field of fashion has been a deeply enriching experience and more since, being a Fashion lecturer, I work with young and creative minds who aspire to leave their mark in the arena of fashion. Fashion is an engaging and collaborative field and as much as I continue to enjoy it, since few years, I felt the need of a solitary pastime. So around 2014 I began painting, something that I had not done for more than a decade and I felt drawn into it more than ever before. There was no rush as it was just a hobby, I thoroughly enjoyed the meditative quality of the painting process.
Did I tell you that I love reading? I can devour books on the subject of my interest. This time this interest was oil painting. I ordered every book I could find on Amazon that concerned techniques of masters of Dutch golden age. There are very few practitioners of that way of working since, the classic realism has taken a back seat in favor of contemporary art. But these individuals, once I contacted them, were immensely helpful. Thus, began my ongoing journey of learning how to paint the old way. I am a hoarder of old things and found objects so still life was an obvious choice for me as I could practice painting using items from my collection as models. Some friends, who happen to be connoisseur of art as well, expressed interest. I started posting images on social media and in 2017 I was asked by a reputable gallery to do a solo show. I must say that my gallerist was a brave person as representational art, that even still life coming from someone who isn’t known in art circles was risky. It was very well received by collectors, the show was sold before opening and, I was suddenly an artist. I have been painting since with more zeal while continuing my work at the fashion department of Shanghai University of Engineering Science as well as at the Shanghai Campus of Paris based International Fashion Academy. I do a solo show of my paintings every year.
Still life with plums and budgie - oil on linen - 40 X 40 cm
Red Halo: Your work reminds of the Dutch Paintings from 17 & 18th centuries. In general, what has been your inspiration?
Irfan Cheema: I feel eternally indebted to the still life artists of Dutch golden age. It was least favored of the painting genre back then and I feel that these virtuoso painters felt the same love towards ordinary and extraordinary objects of everyday life that I have to devout their lives to still life painting. Their understanding of light and the tricks that it plays is phenomenal. Their work is deeply personal and intimate. In my own work, I try to emulate similar ambiance of a somber interior lit by a window. I am imitating the same technique of layering and glazing. However, I have my own choice of subjects. I can only do justice to painting if I can relate to its subjects. Whether it is a porcelain from my collection or a fruit with certain recollections, sometimes it is a produce from my own garden infused with the memory of that particular season, it is there in my work for its connection with me.
You can say that, though deeply personal in subject matter, my work has influences of great Dutch masters and I am trying to achieve same level of finish but I still have a long way to go.
Red Halo: You live in China; how did it influence your work?
Irfan Cheema: My obsession with Chinoiserie is much older than the opportunity to live in China. It gave me greater access to its art and crafts and I am able to travel here without limits. Mastery of technique, no matter what discipline, is honored in China. For this reason the great artists practicing age old techniques are revered, unlike many other places where tradition is lost to changing tastes. Also sense of composition is unique and sometime very different from the classical understanding of the same in the west. I have tried to absorb it and make it a part of my own visual vocabulary. There are direct influences in the form of silkscreens and porcelain and there is theatrical relationships between objects in my work that are inspired from Chinese art and culture.
Still life with Sakura Blossoms - oil on linen - 40 X 40 cm
Red Halo: You master an incredible sense of composition and use of light, how do you prepare your paintings?
Irfan Cheema: I would not go as far as to call my own level of skill a mastery but I do find composition and light to be very important in my work and many of my deliberate decisions work around these two elements. With some exceptions, mostly my workflow is quite consistent. For instance this year I have used strawberries from my garden in some small works. For me it was a deliberate process: I asked myself what I would like to paint in the coming months and my answer was strawberries. So I planted a few in my garden and observed them throughout the early month of the year. The way new leaves emerged, the color transformations in the older, bigger leaves, some eaten by pests, some dark spots from unexpected frost, insects that visited the plants, buds, flowers, fruition and so forth. I paired the fruits with delicate and colorful porcelain bowls from Jiangxi. My light source is natural light from a window and I use either morning or afternoon light. For composition I usually place the objects on a table and block excess light using shutters. A few tonal drawings help me make up my mind and so I place fruits and leaves. I usually have three concerns for my compositions, the line: where light plays an important role to make the eye move along the painting, mass: formed by the object(s) that needs to be balanced and weight: where nothing should be gravity defying. I cut, tape, glue, staple or pin stems to achieve the compositions and make my quick sketches or compositions along with taking pictures. I usually return to all this information after a few days and start the process of finalizing my sketches. Sometimes only one, at others a few ideas emerge that are worth exploring. Thus starts the journey of my painting.
A good drawing is of utmost asset and the more information it has the better. I transfer that on my prepared canvas (I use stretched linen that I prime myself). My initial work is to establish tonality and values using a single color. Once I am happy with that then I start adding color. The process continues with a bit of back and forth till I have added details to my liking.
Still life with Strawberries and butterfly - oil on linen - 30 X 25 cm
Red Halo: How do you work? Do you have a workshop? How do you settle your work space?
Irfan Cheema: I have a room to myself with good natural light and mix of color temperature bulbs. I have my books, computer and my pet budgies with all my painting needs in this room. It is a cozy space, so I try to keep it organized. But I must admit that my painting practice is a messy business so this room may not be a pretty sight at all times. I am not very certain how safe oil paints and solvents are if inhaled so I try that my family does not use this room too much. Though I have an air purifier as precaution.
Irfan Cheema in his painting room
Red Halo: Do you listen to music while you are painting?
Irfan Cheema: Music has always been important to me. I almost always have music being played while I am working. Since I paint at home so usually we compromise on what to listen, between myself and my boys. However if left to my whims I have a variety to pick from. Last week I was reliving my love for Umm Kulsoom and Fayrouz. This weekend it was Aya Nakamura as her catchy tune was stuck in my head. I am a huge fan of Noor Jehan and Iqbal Banoo. I am receptive to western classical music in small doses, but any day can be jazz day.
Red Halo: Your production is quite impressive and the great sharpness of detail in each piece requires a lot of patience, how do you manage to keep such a rhythm?
Irfan Cheema: I am obsessed with painting. Perhaps I am trying to make up for all the years that I did not paint, as I said that I started it not so many years ago.
There are days when I have to deliberately stop myself from sitting in front of my easel to rest my aching elbows. I paint every day for as much time that I can manage. Sometimes I get up early and paint for an hour or so before heading for university. I am usually working at 2 or 3 paintings at various stages of completion. Oil painting can be tedious especially in my technique where a layer or an area needs to be touch dray before next application of color so I usually have another work or preparatory sketches for those days. Not only it has helped me in improving my skill and decision making but also I am able to be more productive.
However I would not recommend it. If I am sitting and painting for too long I should balance it with some walk and exercise too. I am trying that with relative success.
Red Halo: Tell us about your coming exhibitions?
Irfan Cheema: I do one show every year around Chinese New Year time. I have the same plan for 2021, in Islamabad. However let us see how this uncertain time unfolds. I am very excited about it as I have done some larger than usual works featuring Kashmir Shawls. Though these have been a consistent motif in my work but this year the scale and details are more to my liking.
Apart from my annual show I do share new developments on my Instagram account. During past months when ongoing uncertainty prevailed all over the world I found the work of various artists on Instagram to be very comforting. I am trying to do the same for people who have always expressed their love for my works.
Red Halo: What is the rewarding aspect of your work?
Irfan Cheema: The ability and freedom to create is a great reward in itself. I am lucky to have access to materials, and knowledge and also have time to paint. The reception from critics and collectors has been very encouraging as well. However the most moving part is whenever art students come forward and tell me how they would like to pursue still life painting. In many art collages, still life painting is only an exercise that students move past quite fast in the foundation years. I felt humbled when a student opted to explore my art practice for her final project. This is where I see that I have been able to share my viewpoint and it has reached across at different levels.