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An interview with Bina Sharif

conducted by John Clay


I spoke with Bina Sharif in April 2002 in New York City. She led the way up a narrow East Village staircase to a nondescript door. Inside is a homey, comfortable quarters filled with paintings: hanging on the walls, leaning on the walls, stacked on chairs, piled on tables. Light and air flow through the window in the kitchen, at one end of the long apartment, and the window in the bedroom, at the other end. Between is a warmly lit room which seems to be the center - literal and metaphoric - of this living, working space. The interview is an impromptu idea and has taken the form of a tour through her artworks. After some 20 years of writing, directing, and acting in the downtown theater scene here in Manhattan, Sharif's dramatic work recently has crosspollenated a prolific output of paintings, in acrylic and other media on paper folios and on canvas. The visual and theatrical work seem tightly woven together. As we pore over swirling, broadstroked images we also move through text, sometimes scrawled, sometimes carefully penned across the ground of the paintings. The text is in English and also Arabic, the formal language of Sharif's native Pakistan.


CLAY: How long have you been doing the paintings and drawings?

SHARIF: A couple of years now. I do all kinds of techniques. I like movement, because I did so much theater and I studied movement, so it comes through in my visual work.

CLAY: What is the text written on these paintings?

SHARIF: It is Arabic calligraphy. It is part of my project called Manhattan Days, about September 11th. This writing means, "I begin with the name of God". And this says, "Allah is great", God is great. In the Western world people only think of these as words coming from the terrorists' mouths, all those people committing jihad and suicide bombings. But the thing is, these words were meant for another purpose: for good, for kind deeds, for generosity, for prayer, for well-being. The words have been manipulated and used for evil. It is very terrifying because we always used these words for kindness.

CLAY: We in the West don't hear the words enough in their proper context.

SHARIF: Exactly. I'm Muslim, so always when we start eating, we say, "I begin with the grace of God". So I thought of that because the days after September 11th were so evil and everything was so violent. Just for my own emotional peace I used these words in my paintings. In this painting you see is a person who is very tortured, very disjointed, emotionally, physically; the heart, the intestines, the legs all broken apart, no face. And then there's another figure on top of your head, like a monster on you, thinking of all these bad things happening in the world. And then it says: No, you must not despair so much, because "I begin with the grace of God", with the kindness of humanity.

CLAY: I see a human form, even if abstract, in many of the paintings.

SHARIF: Yes, because for me in my work there is always a person, there are people, whether you can really see their faces or eyes or hands or feet; there is a human form, even if it's being destroyed. What I'm trying to say is, perhaps we can take all our anger and depression out better in creativity instead of in the destruction of the world.

This painting shows a father and a child, and perhaps destruction is happening around them, perhaps they are in the World Trade Center, perhaps they are in Afghanistan, we don't know. A child should belong to everybody. A child's life should be preserved, no matter whose child it is.

CLAY: When you merge animal and human forms in your paintings, what is that about?

SHARIF: I think what is going on in the world is animalistic, but it's being done by human beings. We are returning to the Middle Ages. We went through so much progress, with technology and everything, and went right back to the killing. It's so Medieval. Now the killing is happening again hand to hand, face to face. In this painting a woman is surrounded by monsters. They were human beings once, but now there is a transformation.

CLAY: There are lots of images of women. In what circumstances do men appear in your paintings?

SHARIF: Men? They aren't appearing much, right now. [laughter] I'm not against men at all. I have a man. But I think, the whole world is talking about Muslim women, oppression of women, women of the Third World, women struggling to come out. Also, I'm a woman and my work is very personal.

These drawings are women in purdah. In Islamic society, women go out mostly together in groups. They are all joined with each other in repression. The thing is, here in the USA there is so much freedom, but it's also not going any place. Freedom is relative.

CLAY: What do you see as the limits on freedom in the USA?

SHARIF: This freedom has advantages and disadvantages. Women are very free, they can go out and have a drink, they can wear miniskirts, show their legs, wear high heels, they can go have sex, but then there is an incredible amount of loneliness.

CLAY: And you don't see that loneliness in Pakistan?

SHARIF: Not as much, not to this level. Even me, I'm scared coming back here to America because all those lonely evenings are coming into your head, and worries about making money, about recognition, about your career. Having a career is good; there are lots of working women in Pakistan too. But over there it's a little simpler. People get married and have children. Life becomes less me, me, me, and they take care of the child. And then the child growing up is their pleasure. In a way that's their career, their happiness. And also the child takes care of them in their old age. Old age is a very big fear here in America I think. In Pakistan your aunt is there, your grandmother, your neighbor. You don't feel so desperately alone that, supposing something happened to you in your apartment, nobody would know. Or someday, let's say, you don't have milk in the fridge—it will never happen there in Pakistan because they always like a lot of food in the house, milk and sugar and everything in plenty - you can always go to the neighbor's house and borrow some. In New York, I will never dare knock at the neighbor's door because that is not how it is done in the West. So you have to go out and buy milk and come back, but who's going to come back? You have coffee in the coffee shop instead.

CLAY: In the USA, then, our isolation limits our freedom. But what about political freedom?

SHARIF: America proclaims loudly the freedom of speech and freedom of thought here. But freedom of speech only exists for those artists who are politically correct - that is the reality. Only for people who would promote whatever agenda America has, who agree with whatever America is talking about at the moment. The career of any playwright who writes in favor of an unfavored cause is finished.

Money is the freedom here. You create work which will be commercial, will please the media, the political fashion of the day, the critics: Do I have any sentence that will offend somebody? Clean it up. The whole thing is money.

What I have learned by living here is that the American Dream is a nightmare sometimes. In Pakistan if you are educated, you get a job. So once you are educated, you know you will never go broke. But the western world doesn't work that way: an uneducated person can be a millionaire and a PhD can be unemployed. Most of the artists here, including me, make very little money from their art. And you can imagine how much time-consuming work I do: my paintings, plus my writing, plus production of my plays. Someone else would have committed suicide, gotten a job with computers, or gone back home. But I kept struggling.

CLAY: And your work reflects that struggle.

SHARIF: I think a lot of my work is about turmoil. I'm going through that myself every minute in America. Back home you don't despair so quickly. Here you despair, it seems, if you don't have the money and recognition—because your whole life went toward that. America is all about money and progress. And when they say progress, it is this kind of progress.

If you look at things simply, if you just think of one thought: We are all going to die. Rich, poor, politicians, commanders, First World, Third World. Everybody is going to the grave without any possessions. If we remember that, we won't hurt so much, and we won't have the greed to accumulate so much.

CLAY: Do you feel that in Pakistan people are more interested in the work itself, less interested in just making money?

SHARIF: I think people are becoming very materialistic there also now. They all want to be Westernized. They love America. People think they hate America, but they love America. And they hate fundamentalism. Here people believe they are all fundamentalists running around with knives. But in Pakistan the fundamentalists are a pretty small minority.

CLAY: So the public in the USA are missing the real identity of most of Islam.

SHARIF: The only thing everyone talks about here is terrorism. The general public didn't care about Muslims before. Many people don't even know who's Muslim, who's Hindu, who's who. They look at me and ask, Are you from India? and I say Pakistan and they don't know about Pakistan. One day I was in the street coming home and somebody was shouting behind me, "You Arab bitch we're gonna get you." I'm not Arab, I'm Pakistani. This was 1991, during the Persian Gulf crisis.

There was no media coverage of Muslims before in the New York Times, New York Post, and Village Voice. Isn't this supposed to be the most cosmopolitan society, the most democratic? Where is the diversity? Now, after September 11th, there are many articles written about Muslims, but they are all about al Qaida and the Taliban. If Muslim playwrights were reviewed in the newspapers, then everybody could not say Muslims are all terrorists. People would know that Muslims can also be artists, writers, musicians, painters. These terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center were Muslims. That was a horrific act and my heart was torn into pieces with sadness. But all the Muslims are not terrorists. There is another part of the Muslim world which is feeling perhaps we shouldn't even have come here, because the Western culture we adopted, the creativity, that is not being recognized at all. Only terrorism is being recognized.

CLAY: Do you believe artists play a special role in teaching and in helping people around the world understand each other?

SHARIF: I think actually the artist is the only one now. The artist is the one who shouts, in the creation of art. The politicians might seem like they are doing a lot for us—but it's all rhetoric. The problem of today's world is that the artists are quiet. I want them to be marching on those streets and, with their work and their speech, end this violence—it's too much. When we see bombs in Afghanistan, we are aware of it, but it's very far removed at the same time. We see it in the news. And then we turn away and say, "I can't look at it, I'm sorry, it's too much for me." Imagine the Afghan people attacked in their homes—all killed. Just imagine the pain of the people whose relatives died in the World Trade Center. Just imagine the people who died—in a second they were living, in the next they were gone. These things have to end. So I think artists are a big part, but I'm very disappointed in the artists—not in everyone, but I'm very disappointed in the big picture.

CLAY: How did you start combining words and imagery?

SHARIF: You know, I feel like it just happened now, but it didn't really. When I was a student in medical school, we used to draw. We would copy a skeleton to learn the anatomy, copy a flower or leaf for the botany classes. And the exams were very tough. We had the British system, so it's not multiple choice exams, it's essays. You really had to write. And for me, in order to learn - perhaps this is how I started to be a writer - just to get the grasp of it, from the textbook, I would write longhand into my own notebook. And then when I wanted to imagine it, I imagined my own notebooks instead of the textbook. That's how things would come to me when I was writing an essay in the examination hall. That might be a drawback in a way now, in the modern world. I write longhand, and then I have to put it on the computer. Because I love to write longhand, I love to write in cafes.

CLAY: Will this writing on the paintings eventually work its way into your plays?

SHARIF: Perhaps. I have to look at it later on. When I'm writing I don't really want to disturb my thought, I just do it. Some of the texts are dialogues, some are monologues, some are poems, some I don't even know what - it's stream of consciousness.

It was so much turmoil in my heart when September 11th happened, and I knew that I would never be able to write a play. My thoughts were not focused—nobody's thoughts were. I had these drawing papers and I just started writing on them and then I thought of the title "Manhattan Days", because that was my turmoil. I started crying. So this is how this series came about.

CLAY: What brought out the high color in some of these works?

SHARIF: I think it's a way for me to not go deep into darkness, because my work—a lot of it—is quite dark. These big things, these horrible things, affect me to such an extent. After the 11th of September, I felt people didn't even want to talk about it; it was just too intense. I got these colors from Pakistan and I thought, let me try it. It made me feel a little bit lighter. For me it's a survival technique.

CLAY: Did you see more color in Pakistan?

SHARIF: Oh, so much color. Nobody there wears black. I think that influenced me too. Since then I've been wearing my very colorful scarf every day I go out. The bright colors are the colors of Pakistan. And these are my colors—the darkness. Creativity is a struggle; it comes through struggling.

CLAY: You seem to feel an urgency about the need to preserve your work. Why is preservation so important to you?

SHARIF: Because I am going to die myself one day. The works can communicate to people. I wish this visual work was all put into book form. It needs to be photographed. It needs to be archived. All the money and all the organization that is involved: sometimes I feel I should not write a play and just take care of these things, but the plays and this go very much together.

It's not only that I want people to see my art; I want them to learn from it. Because you will now have a different view of the meaning and feeling of the words [allah o akbar?] - even just talking to me for a few minutes—than some other people who are not exposed to somebody from that part of the world.

Through my work, I want them to know my history too, my life, my everyday existence. Me, just one person, I have a story because I am an example of a Muslim who came here alone by herself to the First World, to New York, the most liberated place on this earth and became an artist. So now who can say that Islamic women are only covered in burkas and sitting home cooking for their husbands? But no one talks about that. All they talk about is the veil and covered women and oppression of women. Sometimes Muslim people try to break out of that, accept the Western values, but then the West doesn't accept them.

So that's why my work should be preserved, so that future generations of American people or any people will see it and they will say, Oh, there was a Muslim woman and she suffered here, in the Western world, because she believed in the Western dream. And perhaps my work will bring some enlightenment to others.

© 2002 John Clay