Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.
Natasha Shoro is a Pakistani-American artist who has lived in Asia, Africa, Europe, and for the last almost 25 years the United States. Not surprisingly, her art is not the product of one culture, but bears the influence of many cultural, artistic and spiritual forces. Her new series of mixed media encaustic paintings, "The Essence of Being" is on view at the Bistango Gallery and Restaurant in Irvine from November 16, 2013 and demonstrates her desire to explore the essence of who she is as a woman, an artist and a spiritual being. The series has taken her back to her roots in Pakistan and the broader culture of the Islamic world. Despite the primarily abstract nature of her paintings, her choice of method and motif reveals a deep, enduring connection with artistic, spatial and spiritual aspects of the Islamic culture of South Asia and the Middle East.
First, there is her choice of the encaustic painting technique, in which pigments are added to beeswax and applied to a surface -- traditionally wood -- to create a rich, unctuous image. The technique probably originated in the Mediterranean region, and some of the earliest existing examples of encaustic paintings are the Egyptian mummy portraits painted onto wooden boards in a Greco-Roman style almost 2,000 years ago. The Middle Eastern origins of this technique were part of its appeal to Shoro, but it is the textured surfaces that she is able to create using this method that has truly enchanted the artist. "I began working on my encaustics this year and am enjoying every moment of it," enthuses Shoro. "Encaustics allow me to do things that oil and acrylic don't." The thick medium of melted beeswax allows an artist to both paint a colored image and sculpt the wax, both while it is cooling and after it has cooled using an iron or other heated metal tool. For Shoro, the medium has allowed her to explore dimensionality in her paintings. Her delicate collages like "Fragmented Illusions" are poetic layerings of color, texture and symbols, which invite us to join her as she reaches deeper into her own being.
Armed with the dimensionality provided by the encaustic medium, Shoro embarks on an exploration of her own geographic and cultural heritage. In "Rugged Terrain" and "Lucid Desert," her allusion to the harsh, arid landscapes of certain regions of the Middle East is evident in not only the works' titles, but in the warm tones she employs and certain recurring elements. In Rugged Terrain, the rough texture of rocks is represented by honeycomb patterns created by metal mesh impressed into the wax. Although the terrain may be harsh, the rich turquoise and ruby tones and gem-like bands suggested treasures both material and spiritual. In "Lucid Desert," meandering lines imply a searching for something, perhaps shelter from the desert heat. This is offered by two connected squares that suggest buildings or courtyards. "Many of my paintings over the years have included spaces that represent the Middle Eastern courtyard garden," Shoro explains. In traditional Islamic architecture, the courtyard garden, or sehan (also sahn) is surrounded by the four walls of the building and has long been considered a safe, peaceful inner space. Traditionally, it has also been a place where women were not required to cover themselves in the hijab. In the "Essence of Being" series, says Shoro, "Inner space represents my feelings. I overlap translucent layers of random spatial imagery and emotion." By exploring the courtyard in these and other works, she is able to access her own innermost emotions.
Another architectural element that recurs in this series is the lattice screen, or jali (also jaali). These perforated stone screens serve as windows, room dividers, and railings around thrones, platforms, terraces and balconies in traditional South Asian architecture. The elaborate geometric pierced designs add elegance and lightness to the interiors of palaces, mosques and tomb buildings. When used in outer walls, the latticework reduces the glare of the sun while allowing air to circulate and casting patterned shadows across the floors. In "Transcendence II" and "Transcendence III," Shoro includes two different lattice patterns that suggest translucency and fluidity of space. "I use the jali that I look through to connect my inner world to the outer world," she explains. In both of these works, elements of the lattice patterns are spreading beyond the lattice itself, suggesting perhaps a gentle crumbling of the barriers separating her inner and outer worlds.
"More than my earlier works, this new series has allowed me to reconnect with my cultural heritage and understand myself better," says Shoro. Although her previous abstract paintings were lyrical explorations of line and color inspired by sources as wide-ranging as Japanese painting and Western Expressionism, they only took her so far in her journey of self-exploration. "Drawing from magical memories of my time in Pakistan and visits to countries like Turkey and Spain," Shoro explains, "has enabled me to experience the sensations of being surrounded by fluidity and embraced by a spiritual space. Being able to spontaneously create these visual poems has helped me to find a space of contentment in my overlapping American and Pakistani identities."