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Interview with Adil Akhtar

Interview of artist Adil Akhtar by Indrani Saha, conducted September 27, 2012.


Duration: 00:23:21

Date: September 27, 2012
Subject(s): Adil Akhtar
Type: Oral History
Language: English
Creator: Indrani Saha
Location: Michigan

Transcriber: Aditi Kapoor

Indrani Saha (IS) (0:00)
This is Indrani Saha conducting an interview for the South Asian American Digital Archives. Today is September 27, 2012. And I'm interviewing Dr. Adil Akhtar in his studio in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He is a painter who is originally from Karachi, Pakistan, and he will be sharing with us his experience as a South Asian artist in America. So just begin by telling us who you are. And you can start by telling me a little bit about your childhood. How did you grow up? How is your family life and what were your interests?

Adil Akhtar (AA) (0:34)
Well, I was born in Karachi, Pakistan. And, you know, I was born in a typical middle-class family.

AA (0:44)
When I was about...maybe two years old, I lost my dad. So we were three of us— two sisters, and I was the only male member in the family. So, my mom who was probably like 21 at the time, she never got married after that, and that was the mission of her life— to raise us. When she, when she got widowed— she was only, I think— Middle School graduate for she went to her high school that she did her college that our degree and bachelor's degree in education and became a teacher so that’s how we were raised. So you know that, that dad had a major impact on my development because, from a very early age, I felt responsible. I always thought that and only being member of my family, take care of that family. And so, you know, when you go through something like this, you tend to mature early mentally, and then as I was growing up there was a lot of political turmoil because when I think, I was like eight years old— the president Pakistan— Ayub Khan, so, Ayub Khan was thrown out by mass public agitation on the street twice. So back then, in 1971 there was a war between India and Pakistan I still remember that you know, there will, there will be siren and even be scared to go to shelters and stuff. So that had bearing on your, your growing up process and then finally, you know, that there are two pieces of Pakistan— West Pakistan and East Pakistan. So, East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Then, when I was teenager, Bhutto was the Prime Minister whom all the kids in my generation used to love initially and then he was thrown out by a mass movement. So, you know, after that the Russians invaded Afghanistan, so, the whole thing changed. So growing up, I was, you know, very politically motivated, very engaged in the political process. In my college days, I became involved in the student movement, you know, ran for office in my medical school. And then finally I graduated, you know, I don't know, you know— we achieved anything by doing what we did but, but it had a bearing on me; I always wanted to express myself so then I came here and went to my residency at Wayne State in Detroit and I did a research fellowship at Johns Hopkins and that was in the early to mid-90s. And the kind of research I was involved with— it took me to the lab at odd times because we will incubate the cells and then we'll wait for six hours, twelve hours so sometimes you know, you are awake from eight o'clock to two o'clock in the morning. So, during that time I started studying about art history. So I, I went from the Realism Renaissance to finally Impressionism. Never really liked Impressionism or Realism; very quickly got interested in people like Monet, then Van Gogh, and from there, you know, I got interested into Picasso, and then you know, contemporary artist my, my all-time favorite artist is Jackson Pollock. And then another artist who was, who was born in America moved to Rome, Cy Twombly— another one I really like.

IS (6:00)
Okay and where did— this is where your interest started in art?

AA (6:04)
Yeah, that’s how I got interested. So, I studied art first. And then, you know, as I said, I always, I've got so much insight, you know, growing up, I wanted to express myself, I'm a terrible writer, I couldn’t write. So that's how it started you know. One fine day, I bought a canvas board, and then a few oil paints that are solid in oils. And then, you know, I kind of evolved from oil paint— small canvases to large canvases. And now I exclusively deal with the water-based paints.

IS (6:54)
And so you're a self-taught artist. Have you taken any lessons?

AA (6:57)
I’ve never taken a lesson.

IS (6:59)
So all your techniques, they’re mainly from what you've learned in art history and what you've learned from different artists you studied or did you, what have you incorporated that's a technique that you've really done on your own?

AA (7:11)
I actually can be very honest with you— I have really never studied artists’ technique, except the drip painting of Jackson Pollock. So I, I think it just came naturally. And, and I'm being very honest, because I have never seen Jackson Pollock in action, I've never seen any of the artists in action. I really never tried to learn techniques because I think, in my opinion, when something comes naturally to you— that's original. And when you start to copy someone that’s when you— get distracted.

IS (8:05)
And is there a specific person who is personal to you that's inspired you to take up painting or was it just all on your own that you've decided to?

AA (8:15)
I think, I think that inspiration basically came from just you, you want to let stuff out from inside. And the inspiration, other inspiration comes from when you go to the museum and you see things and you look at stuff and say that— you know what? Wow. So I used to read about like, for example, the Impressionists and Picasso and then I went to say, you know, places like National Institute of Art or the map in New York— you use, you're standing in front of a painting, which you have studied about, which you have seen in pictures and you say wow and you know like, I keep on taking Jackson Pollock's name, but his drip painting— just incredible. So then that's how— it just evolved. There one who told me just start painting.

IS (9:36)
And what's the best piece of advice anybody has given you regarding art or anything personal to you?

AA (9:44)
Be true to yourself. Always do the right thing. Always, always in art. Just don't worry about becoming a commercial artist. If you are doing it for expression, keep expressing yourself, you know.

IS (10:05)
And when did you decide to go fully into art and get in a studio and always do your own work? When did that start?

AA (10:14)
So, you know, it's an interesting question because I used to paint this in our previous house— our basement was not finished. And for actually, the lack of a wall, I started just painting on the floor. And I used to paint and then I will go an art gallery where you'll see me work, and you will say that— you know what? I did something maybe better. So about two years ago, I just decided that you know what, if I'm doing this to express myself, I need to, to send it out, show it to people. And that's how I got started.

IS (11:13)
And can you tell me some common themes that are present in your artwork, certain cultural motifs? What, when we see your work— what signifies that, that's your work?

AA (11:26)
I don't know if I can say that because I'm still not an established artist. You know, a theme comes when you're more established. Again, famous names like— you see a Picasso you will say— this is a Picasso, right? You see a Pollock, you will say a Pollock and the list goes on. So, I don't think that I have a theme as yet. See, what I wanted to do is— to keep telling a story. I think art is all about telling stories. And I'm not talking about just, you know, visual art, performance art, you know, you can say this about Broadway shows, dance, movies— it's all about telling a story. So I think if you look at modern art and contemporary art, there is a lump. In fact, there are a lot of stories which are being told about the west. There's a, there's very little in the way of, you know, east, you know, culture from which I came from or dad came from, right. So that's why I, I decided to take the religious side of it. And I said that, you know, if you look at Islamic art, Islamic art is really hard these days— all big museums now have huge wings. But it's all about geometry. It's all about architecture. There is no modernistic movement or contemporary movement in Islamic art. So I said, how can we take a story from religion or from say, Indus Valley and then create a piece of art, which can stand on itself as a piece of art. But yet, it will tell a story. So that piece, behind us— I think will stand on its own as a piece of art. If you don't know the story behind it, it's okay. But if you know the story behind it, then you can really see that there are a lot of details in that.

IS (14:19)
And in the process of choosing what to paint, how do you plan each project? How do you choose a subject to paint on? What's the research process that goes behind your artwork?

AA (14:29)
So, you know, you can really just take up a project and research it. So you keep reading in different areas. So, and then once you say that, you know what, it basically sometimes just comes to you, like this number series which I'm doing, it just came to me. Then I did some research too. Once you know you, once you start to think about something, then you start to do research. Sometimes you just come to the canvas and you start without knowing what you're going to do and it just happens.

IS (15:23)
And are there any other cultural influences? Do you ever draw on Western themes or anything other than Islamic art? Or is it strictly, is that what you want to focus on?

AA (15.35)
No, no Islamic art is just one side of the story. But again, it's just about expressing yourself. So, you know, the world around us, you know, affect us. So you can see something right there, which is very violent. So I don't want to be only a religious artist, it actually, to be very honest with you— this is really not a religious art, it’s just an art with a reference to a story. So I want to continue to tell stories of different kinds, of our time basically.

IS (16:24)
And what were some of the initial struggles you faced as an artist?

AA (16:28)
I think the initial struggle is that, I think, every artist is very insecure. So you don't really know what you've done is good. In fact, till the time I took a bold step of showing, I didn't really know that I even stood a chance. So I took like four or five pieces to an art show in New York. And I, I had a lot of interest, lot of interest because everyone who came to me said that you know what, yours is different; everything around you is commercial, but yours is different. So then I found an art dealer there, he has helped me. Then I found a gallery in Karachi. So with that, I may go to a art show in Berlin, although I don't have time but it's early next year. So I'm still thinking.

IS (17:38)
And speaking of time, how do you manage being a physician as an artist?

AA (17:42)
That's tough, that's tough. But you know, you just have to be committed. So mostly, I do it at night. Mostly, I do it in, over the weekend

IS (17:58)
And the display us South Asian artists is quite limited, I think in the United States and much of the West up until now. So when you started, what was the response like specifically to the, you know, cultural theme, like the cultural aspects of your work?

AA (18:14)
I think it was very encouraging. See, you have to realize— Art world is a totally different world. You know, you've heard of utopia. Art is to me, it’s a utopia, where people don't really care about where you've been on, what's your skin color, what's your religion; the common theme is art. So in fact, I really enjoy when I am amongst artists, because that's a different world. It has nothing to do with the rest of the world and that’s why, you know, culture are bringing people together. And that is a way forward for the world. We should all support and promote art.

IS (19:20)
And what do you hope to achieve with your artwork in the coming year?

AA (19:24)
I want to show my art to the world. I want to be recognized as an artist, I'm really not interested in selling my art actually. It's very difficult to sell for me, because I don't want to give my art to anyone that I don't make sense or not. So I'm not interested in becoming a commercial artist, I'm more interested in telling my story and being recognized as an artist; being a not formally trained artist, you know. So I mean, the history of art is full of established artists who never got failed. In this academic art world, it is, it is very difficult for people like myself to break through, you know, there are people who have work coming out of major programs and they would look down upon you. But, you know, again, if you keep telling your story— we will have to pay attention.

IS (20:50)
And what do you think the future is for South Asian art in America?

AA (20:55)
I think, in my opinion, future depend upon how the senior generation— my generation— behaves or engages with art and if we are engaged with the artistic movement, our children will also be interested in art; like my daughter Amber. That's all hers, you know. So she paints with me; actually my latest painting started because I wanted to spend time with the Amber. And then I take her downstairs and we paint. And I think when our next generation will get involved with art— that's when the future will really become very bright, I think I am seeing increasingly, more and more interest in art in the South Asian culture. So I am hopeful that our future is bright, it has to.

IS (22:19)
And what would you like future generations of artists to learn from you?

AA (22:23)
Um, perseverance— perseverance, you know and so, there are two things...I keep telling Alanna this, my daughter, that two things, one of which comes natural - through relation. So my message to the to the next generation is— be a leader, wherever you go, try to be the best. Try to lead the world and number two, perseverance. Leadership comes natural, perseverance will depend upon how driven you are. So, just keep dreaming.

IS (23:15)
Okay, thank you so much for speaking to us with the South Asian American Digital Archives.

Donor: Indrani Saha
Item History: 2012-10-03 (created); 2020-06-17 (modified)

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