Sara Khan is known for her explorations of magic realism and the blurred lines between the real and imagined through watercolour paintings, textiles, and ceramics. Interested in how something grotesque and seductive can converge to become immensely captivating, she has developed a language distinctly her own. Aside from her solo show at The Reach Gallery Museum, Abbotsford, BC (2021) select group exhibitions include “Let Me Take You There” at The Doris McCarthy Gallery, Scarborough, ON (2023) and “Open Encounters”, Artco Gallery, Berlin (2022). She has been artist-in-Residence at The Burrard Arts Foundation (2021). She was also commissioned by Simon Fraser University to create work for the 50th Anniversary celebration of their Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (2020). She was also the featured artist for The Indian Summer Festival (2019).

Khan holds a Bachelor of Fine Art from the National College of Arts, Lahore. She grew up in Lahore, Pakistan and now lives and works in Vancouver, Canada.

Writings

This recent body of work by Sara Khan reverberates with multiple tensions: between absence and presence, attraction and repulsion, beauty and strangeness. The layers of these twinned forces are woven together through luxuriant compositions, creating emotive and narrative tendrils that draw the viewer deeper into Khan’s fantastical worlds.

The rich colour palate of Khan’s paintings has a magnetic quality that immediately beckons for close inspection. Looking closer, however, often reveals strange and unsettling details: a disembodied head spewing fish; bound feet and ankles suspended from a ceiling fan; human faces growing like flowers out of potted plants. These disconcerting elements may seem at odds with the delicate—even feminine—colours and patterns that dominate Khan’s work. But in effect, the concurrence of these elements together serves as a challenge to some of society’s gendered expectations of femininity and female behavior.

The co-existence of absence and presence provides a conceptual and aesthetic foundation throughout the exhibition. Khan makes strategic use of negative space to maintain this dynamic, using the edges of dense patterns of colour to demark silhouettes of human figures, trees, and other shapes. In effect, she conjures the presence of these forms by rendering their absence, making the eye and mind see what is actually missing.

This material technique also extends metaphorically through much of the autobiographical subject matter of Khan’s work. Having moved from Pakistan to Canada after her marriage, the artist often expresses her connection to landscapes, histories, and people from whom she is physically removed, yet emotively linked. Both formally and narratively, her work questions the relationship between what is there and what is not, finding balance in these elements and resolving that these may be complementary states, rather than conflicting ones.

The identity of the migrant is rooted not in a country, but a memory. Whether first generation or descendant, whether by choice or forced, an ever-increasing proportion of the human populace finds itself displaced from the geography and culture of its ancestors. Across borders, it is often the case that all that remains for these travellers are a scattering of belongings, and the evanescent memories of what was once home.

With limited access to an originary culture, travellers, refugees, migrants, and postcolonial populations must instead turn to other sources to generate a sense of identity. For Sara Khan, art is a means of thinking through an identity suspended across multiple cultures. Born in England, raised in Pakistan, and currently a resident of Burnaby, Khan’s experiences inform the creation of a hybrid world. Vancouver sunsets cast shadows upon the pink-hued arches of colonial architecture in Lahore, distant relatives take the form of mythological creatures, and carefully-placed miniature brushstrokes comingle with abstract fields of shimmering colour. Splicing together painting styles, plants and animals, places and objects, Khan’s art is mobile, constantly moving between our own territory and a place beyond the horizon.

Many of the works on display in Suraj Kinare (an Urdu phrase meaning “at the edge of the sun”) feature a rich symbolism, alluding to the artist’s efforts to navigate between the past and the future, or tradition and experimentation. Silhouettes, for example, feature throughout. These shapes are often vacant, but, in their outline, they tell us of what is missing: perhaps an architectural feature, or a person. In their absence, the memory of these entities touches upon and shapes everything they connect with. On other occasions, balconies, windows and doors open out upon distant vistas, suggesting the dream of escape—or, alternatively, a longing for home. Verdant fields of wildflowers, leaves, and water flow across many compositions, signalling the possibility for growth within a new land; these places form the habitat for hybrid creatures, both unsettling and unsettled in their displacement.

In their focus on specific figures, stories, and places from her own life, Khan’s artworks are intimate and personal. However, in their juxtaposition of the magic and the mundane, they also reflect universally relevant themes: the struggle to find a home, the dissolution of historical and cultural narratives, and the consequent attempts to restore or reinvent them. Drawing from the imaginary allows us to create coherency in our own lives, away from the narratives imposed by others, and generate new ways of negotiating the increasingly fragmented world within which we live.

Sara Khan’s colourful paintings resemble the crazy quilt of your wildest imagination. Khan’s choice medium of watercolours lends a dreamy feeling to her landscapes which perfectly suit her surreal compositions; the translation and transition of materials and application is one thing that makes first-time muralist Khan an especially intriguing one to watch at this year’s festival.

AllWork

RISE

2023

RISE

Art Gallery at Evergreen, Coquitlam BC, 2023

Let Me Take You There

Doris McCarthy Gallery, Toronto ON, 2023