Artistic licence

Scottish painter Rabiya Choudhry is redefining the concept of "performance art", Ruth Dawkins discovers

Feature by Ruth Dawkins | 03 Aug 2009

“I find the Scottish art scene really dull,” proclaims Rabiya Choudhry. “With the exception of Graham Domke at Dundee Contemporary Arts, I really can’t think of anyone working in Scotland who inspires me. It’s grey here. It’s contrived. It’s comatose. Don’t get me wrong, this is home and I love Edinburgh. But the art scene here is grim. We need a good kick up the arse.”

Fortunately, it sounds as though Diaspora—the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) show that Choudhry is involved with—is anything but dull. Written and directed by Ong Keng Sen and featuring, among others, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Diaspora layers music, video and live storytelling to explore issues of identity and migration. Previous performances of Diaspora have employed personal stories from Vietnamese Americans, Indonesian Chinese and Orang Laut sea nomads of Malaysia. The Edinburgh version uses video art and a live painting performance to explore visual artist Choudhry’s personal story of diaspora.

“It was quite random really,” she says. “I got an email last year asking if I’d like to meet Ong Keng Sen. He’d seen my work in a magazine, and happened to be looking for artists to get involved in the project. Originally I was only going to be involved as a video artist—he hadn’t been planning on using me on the stage at all—but that part of the collaboration just came out of our meetings. It was all quite organic.”

Choudhry is known for her distinctive style of brightly coloured paintings that fall somewhere around the intersection of fantasy, psychedelia and graffiti. The Scotsman described her as "one of the wildest and most distinctive young painters to come out of a Scottish art school," and she was recently commissioned to paint a mural on the exterior wall of DCA as part of the Altered States of Paint exhibition. The resulting work, entitled Rhabdomancy, was a bold maelstrom of pink and gold.

Despite several recent award nominations for her painting—including the British Beck’s Futures prize—Choudhry has expressed her desire to move into other artforms, and Disapora provided a welcome opportunity to do so.

“As an artist, I’ve felt unhappy just knocking out paintings. That one medium was becoming a noose. So it has been amazing working on this project, using video, using sound. It creates a much richer tapestry of work, which I think is what all artists are aiming for.”

Working on Diaspora with Ong Keng Sen has also provided Choudhry with something of a confidence boost. Despite her bold style, critics have often complained that her work emanates "self-doubt". According to Choudhry, that doubt is now less about her own ability and more to do with her place in the art world.

“There’s a lot of doubt in my head, because I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing in the art world. I feel that I don’t fit into it, and I don’t know if I want to share my life with it. Ong Keng Sen has been an angel though. He has made me realise that I’m not bad at what I do, and made me think that I should carry on doing it.”

As part of the EIF education and outreach programme, Choudhry spent April and May working with pupils at Preston Street Primary School. Her work there culminated in a mural, inspired by and including work by the children, which will remain permanently in their playground. She says that the experience provided a refreshing change from spending every day in the studio.

“Kids are my best audience. They just get it. It’s touching how honest they are, because there’s so much bollocks in the art world. With kids you know their interest is genuine and honest. They weren’t afraid to say 'What the hell is that?' or tell me if I’d missed a bit. It was a wee bit like being back at art school with mini-people.”

It was teachers at her primary school who initally fired up Choudhry’s passion for art at a young age, but she also cites her family and background as crucial influences.

“My family were really the starting point, and a lot of my early paintings were about them. I still have an uncle and auntie in Pakistan, and I’ve been looking at a lot of family photos while working on Diaspora. Apparently our ancestral home still exists, so I’d love to go there and visit. The Asian identity is part of my genetic make up, it’s something inside that’s different, and if you’re in that position then it does come through in your work."

However, musing on such themes for this project has not been an entirely nostalgic process for Choudhry:  "It’s a mad world just now. Things like the election of the BNP members to the European Parliament, it makes me feel really sick. Things that used to be distant fears are now a reality. It has been great for me to visit the past in the work I’ve done for Diaspora, but now I almost feel like I need to get myself armed for what’s to come.”

Diaspora The Edinburgh Playhouse 15 & 16 Aug, 8.00pm, £8-30