Marilyn in Pakistan

Hosh media’s Sahar Habib Ghazi gets up-close with 24-year-old Summaiya Jillani, the Karachi-based artist behind the ‘Pakistani Marilyn Monroe’ painting, which became viral on social media websites recently.



Hosh Media: An image of the painting received hundreds of shares and likes in a few hours on Facebook and Twitter. Were you expecting such a response on social media?


Summaiya Jillani: I was expecting a lot from this painting, but the response that I received in just one day exceeded all expectations. People know me as a very non-ambitious person and they keep telling me that I always underrate myself by always being over-surprised at the response to my work, so you can imagine how stunned I must have been. My Facebook inbox has gone berserk. Every two seconds, I receive messages from people from different places. The number of times this one picture has been shared in one day is almost magical.

I have always been open to the Internet as it has brought me many commissions (work). I think social media rocks! You can become a star in no time. All you need is something original to say or show and … voila.

HM: How would you describe the Marilyn piece titled,‘Baar baar dekho, hazaar baar dekho’?

SJ: I don’t want to sound pompous about my work, so I will simply quote what other people have been saying about it. For those who are aware of art, it is like a new Pakistani Warhol. Elders love it because its taking them back to their times, while young kids love it for its vibrancy. Mature youngsters are all for it because of its witty sensuality. And I love it for being universally attractive.
Artist Summaiya Jillani with her Marilyn acrylic titled ‘Baar baar dekho, hazaar baar dekho,’ at a recent exhibit at the VM Art Gallery in Karachi.

HM: What compelled you to give Marilyn Monroe’s iconic racy pose a Pakistani makeover, what’s your larger message behind the piece?

SJ: This is not the first time that I gave Marilyn this makeover. I have done this earlier as well, in 2010, during my thesis days. And then, it was not only Marilyn, but with her was an equally celebrated male hunk of her time, James Dean with a “beeri” stuck in his mouth, giving his look a very “local tapori” touch.

As far as the message is concerned, I never try too hard to forcefully foster my work with some deep meaning. Being very honest, all I care about is the “bang,” I want my work to give to the viewers. That is my main intention and then its up to the people whatever they like to extract conceptually out of my paintings. And one can see my paintings substantiating my intentions very clearly as they just hit both the masses and the elites instantly.

HM: Was the piece a part of a larger collection?

SJ: This piece was part of a huge group show, which opened at the VM Art Gallery in Karachi on the
June 4, 2012. I exhibited only two pieces in the show so it is not really a part of some bigger body of work by me.

HM: What is the inspiration behind your artistic style? SJ: There are many inspirations. I keep on surfing through the Internet all the time studying great painters of our times. Artists belonging to the impressionism epoch were my main inspiration initially regarding the technique for using paints. Then gradually I moved forward and started taking inspiration from some living masters of our times like Belinda Eaton, Francoise Nielly, Alexa Meade (although she’s almost my age she’s doing a great job with paints) and a few more using paint very boldly. Young Pakistani artists that really inspire me a lot include Samar Zaidi from Karachi University, Sausan Saulat and a few more crazies like them.
The ethnic touch in my work is part of my upbringing and also a matter of personal preference. I have always had a proclivity for “desi” things and the indigenous colors of Pakistan. It is a blessing to have a rich cultural background as a native of some place. I find it very easy to bring out the Pakistani feel in my work just by being true to the colours we get to see in our every-day routine. Living in a country like this is truly an inspiration for producing such works, where nothing is too basic and plain. Textures and colours play an important role and these two things are to be found everywhere around us; from a cracked door to a rusted bicycle to a vibrantly coloured overcrowded bus and so on.

HM: How was the social media response different from reactions at the exhibit?

SJ: Both the responses had their own fun. Social media response was, of course, very oceanic and it spread like fire, while the gallery had its own charm. People standing in front of your painting for long minutes, then moving around a bit and coming back to it again definitely make you feel very good. I am always interested in seeing young kids’ response to art, which you don’t get to see much on Facebook or Twitter as at this age ‘art’ has not yet become their cup of tea. But when they observe it in a gallery, their body language tells how mesmerised they are to see some original piece of art. That thrill in their conversations is exciting and something very positive. I even find uninterested kids very funny in a gallery because they are honest with their expressions.

HM: How important do you think social media is for young artists in Pakistan?

SJ: I believe it is playing the strongest role in almost any field these days. We all need to be open about our work here on the social network. You never know what strikes the masses here as something very extraordinary. I never understand people who put up their work under severe privacy. What is the point of putting them up then? I mean your family and friends can always come over to your place and see them. Show it to the real world out there. Don’t forget to put dates and watermarks to avoid plagiarism though.

HM: Could you give a little background on yourself: where you graduated from, the different mediums you use, and how long you’ve been exhibiting your work?

SJ: I graduated from University of Karachi in 2010. Having studied there, I can say I have become a much better human being. It certainly is the place to be. People who fret about going there need to start living a little roughly. Despite being a government institute of Pakistan, it offers you the best environment where you get to experience all the different classes of Pakistan: many different religions, sects, and races co-exist. You get to experience “Life is not a bed of roses.” at its best, and you get out of there a tough survivor.

As far as the colors are concerned, I have become an Acrylic-savvy artist. I hardly work in oils anymore although in past I have some of my most favorite paintings done in oil. I have restricted myself to acrylics because they are quick, plus much more vibrant than oils. For the base of the paintings I have been using not only plain canvas or paper, but a wide range of other surfaces, for instance- used coke cans, printed fabric, worn out records (lds), vegetable cutting boards, shoes, bags, jackets, jewelry, actual skin (inspired by an American artist Alexa Meade) and walls.

I’ve been making proper art since 2009, which was the third year of my graduation period. And I started exhibiting right after my thesis from the beginning of 2011.

HM: What are you working these days?

SJ: I am working toward a couple of shows after the summer break. Still concocting ideas in my head and sketchbooks. Apart from that I teach as an Art instructor at one of the branches of the Beaconhouse school system. I also conduct painting lessons to different people of varying age groups.

Sahar Habib Ghazi is a journalist and founder of Hosh Media, an organisation that aims to bring youth voices onto the mainstream media. She interviewed Summaiya Jillani for Dawn.com

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