Of Dupattas and Immigrant Journeys

dupatta

Capturing the dupatta and its inherent impact, Shabana Kauser only began painting as an adult.

When she was in the UK (where she was born and raised), she worked a corporate job until her husband got a work opportunity in Northwest Arkansas, where she now lives. Unfortunately, visa restrictions meant she couldn’t work for almost seven years. But there was a silver lining: she found art.

Since 2017 Kauser has exhibited her art throughout America, and this year brought her her very first solo museum exhibition, where she has over 65 original works of art on display. Her work falls in the realm of contemporary art, a tool she uses to capture and express South Asian culture. She is best recognized for her realistic portraits of South Asian women in her series, “Dupatta.”

“My work represents beauty, strength, and determination, just some of the traits I saw in the women I grew up around,” she says. “Many immigrant women I knew tapped into all the skills they had to make their new lives in a new land. While learning English, and therefore being limited with opportunities, my mother started her own business… Sewing traditional clothes for the community with her own business allowed my mother to contribute in numerous ways. She is one of the many forgotten women that continue to contribute to society, the economy, and communities.” Kauser sees her work as honoring oft-overlooked South Asian immigrant women like her mother.

SEEMA got down to a chat with Kauser to learn more about her life and her work.

Tell us a bit about yourself – what defines you as an artist? How did you become one?

In the 1970s, my parents moved from Kashmir to the suburbs of London. Here, they raised five children,. My father worked in the steel industry, and my mother started her own business from home, sewing traditional South Asian clothes. My appreciation of traditional fabrics started there and can be seen in my art today.

I enjoyed art classes at school in the U.K., but I never thought about it as a career.

Creative career paths were discouraged in my family. I gravitated toward the business world and kept going. It was only until I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and through the frustrating immigration process and inability to work, that I discovered my love for creating again. While I could not work, I tried hard to stay busy and keep my mind active. One day I thought about what I enjoyed doing before I took on financial responsibilities. The one thing that stood out over and over again, 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 found an oil painting class starting the following week. I took lessons from a local artist, Trena Ward. She was – and still is – a fabulous mentor and friend. I approached the art class with little expectation from myself, and my main aim was to learn and enjoy my time. 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, I thought they were trying to be supportive. I didn’t read too much into it and carried on learning, until I was approached to create my first commission. That’s when I realized I was capable of doing something very different with my future. 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. Art gave me the courage to share my culture and journey.

I love your work in the exhibit “Dupatta: Journeys of life and cultural identity.” Why the dupatta? What does it mean to you?

The dupatta is universal throughout South Asia and a powerful visual that connects to my personal background and resonates with a diverse range of people. It’s been very powerful showing portraits of women wearing the dupatta in the arts. When my work is initially seen, many people instantly know I am highlighting South Asian culture.
The art world needs authentic portraits of all backgrounds and cultures. My work has opened up so much dialogue within communities. Before I discovered my passion for creating, I didn’t fully understand how art educates and connects people. I think it’s crucial for South Asian creatives to have a voice in the arts. It’s especially important that young South Asian children see someone with the same skin color as them in the art world. They need to realize at an early age that they can be future artists, there is a place for them. I’d also like them to see that their culture is celebrated through artwork and people enjoy it. The dupatta and traditional fabrics have been a joy to use throughout my work. They have been effective in many ways.

What are some of the pieces you have done that you’re really proud of?

I’m proud of myself for taking the leap and creating self-portraits to add to my body of work. It was a daunting thought to begin with. When I create portraits, it’s far easier to study someone else’s features and capture them on canvas. Having to look up close at mine and do that took some courage. “Dupatta #1” is my first full self-portrait.

What’s coming up for you in the future? Is there anything specific you’re working on or looking forward to?

I look forward to keep sharing my work, my message with communities throughout the US and hopefully further. I’ll also be working more on my mixed media art, that is abstract paintings that mostly include traditional fabrics, acrylic and epoxy resin. My focus here is on patterns and textures. Each painting initially draws you in with the shine and bold colors, by studying it up close you notice the imperfect details. The threads coming away from the fabric, the jagged edge of the fabric where it was cut off, the slight crease, the missing sequin, the unique imperfections are what brings the painting to life.

My energy is mostly fueled by in person art exhibitions and events. Isolation is great while I am creating, the outside world enhances my inspiration and passion. Like many people, the pandemic made me refocus on many aspects of my art. In the unpredictable chaos in 2020, I realized it was a perfect time to learn a new medium and plan ahead. That’s when I started the R&D phase of my mixed media paintings. I went back to learning and discovering new things during the process. Moving forward to 2022, my mixed media artwork has now been shown in galleries and a museum. I am also pleased to share that this work was awarded a grant and artist residency, which will commence in January 2023 and run until the end of March.

Follow Shabana Kauser on Instagram and Facebook @shabanakauserart, or check out www.shabanakauserart.com