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The Colourful Dictator

Artist Sophia Balagamwala mixes history with fantasy in her latest show


Photography: S M. Umair Qadir

Sophia Balagamwala’s latest work seems a little like a 5-year-old’s guide to dictatorship. At a time where the crux of most syasi guftgoo fluctuates between the derision of our current “shallow” democracy and past autocratic regimes, Balagamwala has managed to explore the concept of dictatorship in the most charming way possible: through art inspired from illustrations in children’s books.

The 29-year-old artist studied Political Science and Visual Arts at the University of Toronto and then completed an MFA from Cornell University, before returning to Karachi and joining the Citizen’s Archive of Pakistan as a curator, a position she still holds. For her first solo exhibition at the VM Art Gallery in Karachi, Balagamwala showcased a combination of some old and some new works. Here she talks about her inspirations, including sharifas, and how living in Karachi has defined her style.


How have your life experiences influenced your artwork and defined your style?

I think as a city Karachi has always inspired a sense of motion and frenzy in my drawings. I also take inspiration from animations, children’s books, political fiction and magical realism.

What is this series called and where did it begin?

The series called YAY YAH WOH began as a continuation of forms and mediums that I have been working with – pot-bellied dictators, television sets and these organic mutative forms inspired by sharifas.

How did it evolve to become what it is now? 

Over time forms became more abstract, nonsensical and colourful. What became interesting was not just what the construction foam and paint did when they were on the canvas, but also what happened when they were removed or pulled off.


There is a lot of colour in your work now as opposed to when you started. Why?

My favourite medium is pen on paper. Previously my work was primarily black, white and red, from the visual language of political caricatures and cartoons. The colourful palette has a relationship to children’s books, which I also take inspiration from. I suppose the colour came in once it had to.

Why is there the recurring theme of an autocratic figure in your art? 

I’m interested in the idea of an idealised hero or the existence of a national myth. The dictators are a combination of fiction and history. They wear an iconic cap, have a staple moustache, and are decorated dictators, yet their curvy and harmless forms disarm us and complicate their existence.

Is there always a message or sometimes does a mix of colours and textures just work? 

I think my work is usually concerned with a few things simultaneously, but the work is very much about being a painting as well – what the space of the canvas is, and what paint is doing or not doing. With the sculptural pieces, I’m interested in exploring materiality and what can happen to the weight and mood of a thing with a change in colour.


What kind of reactions do you get from people who chance upon your art? 

People laugh and wince. Cotton candy, Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, a really bad never-ending cartoon, and wonderland are some associations that people have had.

What materials do you use and why?

I use acrylics, enamel and spray paint. I also use plaster of Paris and construction foam for the more volumetric pieces. Construction foam is difficult to control as it expands once drawn with, so although the drawing remains in the space it was meant to occupy, it transforms in size and form. I love working with it as it struggles to be confined in the space created for it, and morphs into a form on its own.

Is art your fulltime job? 

It’s one of them; I also work as the curator at The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), a non-profit dedicated to historical and cultural preservation. They do really important work and I come across so many fascinating stories and photographs there. I’ve also been teaching in the Liberal Arts department at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVSAA) this past year, which I have really enjoyed.


This exhibition got everybody talking about you. Why do you think this was so? What were some of your most talked about pieces? 

I think people responded most to the bright colours and strange forms. People were curious about the poofs as it wasn’t clear what they were, so there were conversations about whether they were sheep or candy or television sets. There were a lot of associations with childhood and comfort food.

Which one is your favourite piece right now and why?

Right now it’s the Space Moonch. It’s new and sci-fi, and isn’t part of a series yet.