Samya Arif – Part I

By Payal Khandelwal

Karachi-based graphic designer and illustrator Samya Arif (OCEÁ) graduated from the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture in Communication Design in 2010 with a deep love for illustration. Over the last few years, Samya’s work has been deservedly recognised in her home country and across the world, and she has become an integral part of the proliferating contemporary visual arts scene in Pakistan.

We are so excited to present our last interview of the year with this terrific artist. Divided into two parts, the interview, conducted over a long Skype call, delves into various aspects of Samya’s work and life.  Here is the first part where we talk about her childhood, the art school scene in Pakistan, the perks and pitfalls of working independently, her collaborations with her husband Talha Asim Wynne who is a musician, about music, and about ‘Escape’. Read on:

Samya Arif (Photograph by Pablo Lauf)

Could you tell us about your childhood and early creative influences?

One of the major highlights of my life is that I was born in La Coruña, Spain, and spent my formative years (till I was seven) in Malaga. My father used to work there. My parents moved their after getting married, and both my brothers were also born there.

When we moved back, I was good in Urdu and Spanish, but was really struggling with my English. Coming back from Spain is something I always hold against my parents (laughs). However, I recently got to visit Malaga after 25 years. We have family friends there who still live in the building where I grew up. It was a very strange and nostalgic experience.

In terms of artistic influences, my mother is a very artistic woman. I have seen her being creative in everything she does, whether it is the interior design of whichever house we have lived in or the games she played with us. We would often paint and make art, and she instilled this in me the most since I was the eldest child and daughter. I was also personally interested in art since my childhood. I think this happens with most artists, they usually start at a very young age.

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue art seriously?

My parents were conscious of my wish to pursue arts because I was always interested and good at it. However, I come from a middle-class family and we had a bit of financial struggle while I was growing up, and then you know how most desi (South Asian) parents want their child to either be a doctor or a banker, someone financially stable basically. So my parents felt that if I enter into arts, I should at least be an architect, and this idea was planted in my head from a young age. When the university time came, I wanted to go abroad to study. That was my biggest dream as a teenager. I always had this rebellious streak, and I just wanted to get away, be on my own. But my parents didn’t let me, and that was quite devastating for me in the beginning.

Then the only other option for me was Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, as we only have two reputable, good art schools in Pakistan – one in Karachi and one in Lahore. And I was not looking forward to it! I went there to study architecture, but within three months, I was just really lost and it was in general a hard time in my life personally. I eventually started skipping university, and one day when my dad went to pay the fees for the next semester, he got to know about this. It was a pretty big blow to my parents as I was always good academically. It was just a very bad phase in my life. Then finally I told them that if I have to stay here, I should at least be allowed to study what I want, and they reluctantly agreed. I would have gone to Fine Arts if I had a completely free choice that time, but that would’ve been just too much for my parents, so I decided to study Design.

So did you go to the same school?

There are barely any art schools here. Art is just not encouraged in Pakistan. Most students who come to art schools have come through their own choices and are therefore entering into this field very consciously. So yes, I had to go to the same school and had to wait for a whole year to start again.

Creating Heroines

What were your initial years like after you passed out?

My real interest definitely lies in illustration, but there were no jobs related to illustration when I graduated. The other option was to join a big advertising agency but the ad agencies here are not evolved at all. The industry was especially very stale when I was starting out, now perhaps we have one or two good agencies. So I finally joined a web design agency as it was something new for me. I was there for two years, and worked at two-three more places after that including an NGO for disabled people and a Pakistani chocolate factory. Then about two years ago, I got enough work to finally be able to sustain as a freelancer.

What have been some of the advantages and disadvantages of working independently?

I definitely prefer working on my own. In the beginning, the biggest disadvantage was the unsurety factor. I have always been financially independent and now that I am married, paying bills is an even bigger concern. For the first couple of months, I didn’t get any big projects. Then eventually, when more people started finding out about my work, things got better. Now I get a lot of illustration work. This year especially, I have worked on film posters, book covers, websites…different kinds of projects. I feel way more settled now.

However, some of the disadvantages that still remain are running after clients, taking care of everything on my own, negotiating budgets, invoicing, talking to the clients, etc. I still hate writing emails. It takes me almost an hour to compose emails as I am always second guessing (laughs)!

Art is just not encouraged in Pakistan. Most students who come to art schools have come through their own choices and are therefore entering into this field very consciously.

Music plays an important role in your work. And though we have spoken to you about the role of music in your work earlier, we want to know more about how did it all start?

I would give my then boyfriend-now husband Talha Asim Wynne, who is a musician, complete credit for that part of my life and work. We met at art school where he was my senior, and I made album art for his electronic music where he goes by the name – Tollcrane. He was this guru of design and typography for me and taught me those skills, and I think that’s how we fell in love (laughs). He is a great designer, and it was really inspiring to meet him. He introduced me to so much of the music I listen to now.

When we had started dating, he was forming a band which played this obscure and beautiful genre of rock music called ‘shoegaze’. So I started making these trippy illustrations for them, inspired by psychedelic art, movies, fantasy – all of which was an escape for me from everything and was the perfect outlet for my teenage angst. And it was a great way for us to connect.

This was also when the underground music scene was picking up in Pakistan. Talha was friends with a lot of musicians who were starting out at the same time. The degrees of separation are minimum here because there are only so many artists, so you end up knowing everyone related to your field. We have this place in Karachi called ‘The Second Floor’ where a lot of musicians perform and we used to also have these small art bazaars there. The music and visual arts scene has kind of been growing together in Pakistan, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.

We have this place in Karachi called ‘The Second Floor’ where a lot of musicians perform and we used to also have these small art bazaars there. The music and visual arts scene has kind of been growing together in Pakistan, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.

How has it been collaborating with your husband on projects? Do you guys ever experience any kind of friction?

We do work on projects together quite often. Now that we are living together, I have been after him to create more personal collaborative work. I think he was experiencing a sort of music block since the past one year, but he is out of it now, so we will collaborate again soon hopefully.

In terms of friction, I am a bit of a perfectionist because of my mother’s extreme level of expectations and my husband likes to get things done quickly. Sometimes, it leads to a bit of friction over there. But eventually, it adds to our respective works. And it’s great to have someone at home to give you feedback.

Let’s talk about the idea of ‘Escape’ – the fantastical, psychedelic elements which are so prominent in your work. How did it begin and when did you become conscious of it?

People always expected me to make something trippy and psychedelic. When someone once asked me why is that such an important part of my work, I started thinking about it consciously. I have always loved watching movies – in fact, I would have gone into films if not visual arts – and I have been watching these crazy animations for a long time now like Mind Game, Spirited Away, etc. I have also been reading fantasy novels and books (like Enid Blyton). Basically anything that wasn’t set in this world excited and fascinated me. I would really wish something like that happened to me. I remember being inspired by the old Chronicles of Narnia show. It was such a surreal experience to watch it.

For me, that was always a way of escaping. I wouldn’t call myself a lonely child, but since I was the only daughter and my brothers were much younger and closer to each other in age, I was always alone in my room – reading or painting. So imagination played a big role while I was growing up, and it was bound to come out in my work.


Cosmic Ninja

Stay tuned for the part two where we talk to Samya about all the amazing women featured in her work, the design scene in Pakistan, her 2018 projects, about censorship and fear, about being called a part of the Illuminati on social media, and much more. For now, here are some ‘Quick Questions’ we asked her: 

If you could travel back in time, which time period would you go to?
60s hands down!

What is your most favorite music genre?
I love a lot of genres, but keep coming back to techno, electronic music, rock, shoe-gaze, some pop stuff too. You could say that I like all genres except for death metal and dubstep.

Favorite movie? 
I love too many films, some that come to mind now are ‘Paris, Texas‘, ‘3 Women‘, all of Jim Jarmusch’s films, and ‘A Space Odyssey’. I have about 500 films saved on my hard disk that I love.

What’s the first thing you usually want to do when you reach a new country?
Have a cigarette!

What’s the single weirdest comment you have got about your art?
That I am part of the Illuminati/Freemasons!

How do you explain what you do to your relatives?
LOL. I think by the amount of stuff I share on my social media, they have finally come to some sort of understanding.

Three things you would recommend to someone visiting Pakistan for the first time.
1. Visit the mountains up north or the desert and mountains in Balochistan.
2. Eat Biryani, Nihari, Tikka, Daal, Chaat.
3. Walk around and talk to people, we’re not as scary as we’re shown on Fox News!

Do you have any quirky work habit/ritual?
I need to have music or a movie playing in the background when I’m working, even though I often tune out in the midst of it.

The last most interesting thing you saw/heard/read/felt…
I’m reading Mœbius’s graphic novel Edena these days. It’s one of the most beautiful things I have come to own.

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