Alyina Zaidi's intuitive paintings of natural scenes populated with flowing rivers, flowers, and plants have caught increasing attention since her graduation from the Royal College of Art in London with an MFA in 2021. Influenced by her time spent in Kashmir, along with the traditions of miniature painting, Zaidi's porous paintings respond to her surrounding environments.
Having lived in India and the United States, Zaidi is now based in the United Kingdom, where she held her first solo exhibition at indigo+madder in 2021 and will be included in a group exhibition opening 22 April 2022 at Newchild in Antwerp. The artist introduces her fantastical painted worlds in this interview.
You've recently had a solo show with indigo+madder in London. It was called Planisphere, which is also a name shared by one of your larger works. What does Planisphere mean to you?
It's really plotting a terrain of various worlds I create. I like playing around with perspective, and I love the idea of not trying to map something in its entirety.
I find early Renaissance and medieval maps a bit more realistic in a way. You get more of a sense of a place by describing it from multiple perspectives rather than from a purely birds-eye perspective.
Within your mesmeric landscapes, animals converge with vegetation and there's a mix of species. Do you ever include human elements?
As of yet, no. I don't know if they'll ever come, but for now there are hints of various animals and mythical creatures.
I usually take references from pop culture, dreams, stories, and from miniature painting as well. It doesn't come from any one particular place.
There are angels in some of my works, and I decided to make the bodies not human in any way, so I often use the same vocabulary that I use for rocks for the angels. It could be that the angels are becoming a part of the landscape. Or it could be that I'm giving life to the rocks.
Abundance and fertility run through the scenes symbolically in a variety of ways. I never intended this—it just sort of emerged.
You'll see an image of an egg reoccurs across the canvases, along with free-flowing streams filled with fish. Those are somewhat related to my time spent in Kashmir.
Do you see these scenes as being part of a continuous world?
They're not just one world—it's a universe with different worlds in it. In one image, Anar Juice is a Cure for All (2021), you have a radish being throttled and squeezed by a snake.
My worlds have different rituals, internal logic, colour schemes . . . all sorts of things. In Anar Juice is a Cure for All, for instance, a pomegranate has been shot with a bow and arrow to rebalance everything that's out of whack.
As much as the perspective is hybrid, you switch between painting modes. You combine thick block colours with highly detailed sections that look indebted to miniature style painting. Are you consciously working between painting styles as you are working through perspectives?
I think so. I did train for a little bit in miniature painting and studied the art history side of it as well in the States.
I also interned at the Met one summer in the Islamic art galleries, which was informative for my style. I got to spend time with the artworks one on one, early in the morning before the public arrived.
I then went back to India and briefly apprenticed under a few miniature painters, but they were very hesitant. It was like they didn't trust me as an outsider and doubted my seriousness. Two teachers I apprenticed under each spent a week just asking me to sit there and observe what they were doing.
But then I got the brush. And I was instructed to draw hundreds of lines—straight, zig-zagged, wavy. I know it takes years to develop full mastery, but I got the start I needed.
And from there, what are the other references do you draw on?
There are early paintings by Raqib Shaw at the Met such as Death Beauty, and Justice V (2008), and at MoMA, Garden of Earthly Delights X (2004), which made an impression on me. And there have always been South Asian and Safavid miniatures.
I've also been influenced by Hilma af Klint and her approach to letting the brush guide the work in a spiritualist way, because sometimes I don't know what the meaning of the work is until later.
I've been working in this intuitive way for a while and am currently exploring more cosmological themes. —[O]
Main image: Alyina Zaidi, Anar juice is a cure for all (2021) (detail). Acrylic on canvas. 150 x 130 cm. Courtesy the artist and indigo + madder.