Reviving Muslim Aestheticism: An Interview with Areesha Khalid

A couple of months ago, I attended a lecture on the concept of the “Islamic Garden.” Throughout the lecture, the speaker primarily referred to the Islamic Garden as being a structure through which the spirit of God was emulated; a spirit that we do not have today. The speaker claimed that there is no art in our souls today, that we are strung up on becoming doctors or engineers, or pursuing a degree that will give us wealth. The sustenance that the deepest part of ourselves longs for in terms of aesthetics is lacking. There is truth to this idea, but it is formed on a false premise of a conceptual misunderstanding of why aesthetics is unattainable for many. 

Living in a world that is utterly capitalist disallows humans the ability to indulge in art for the sake of aestheticism. If you like to bake, you feel compelled to sell cupcakes; if you’re good at painting – sell your canvases! – and so on. We are conditioned to believe that we cannot enjoy something without the compulsion of needing to make money from it. Furthermore, many Muslim majority areas have been ravaged through colonialism, Western imperialism, contemporary proxy wars, corruption, forced secularism, and wide-scale income inequality. The need for aesthetics is not a necessity when faced with survival. However, even then, art persists – time and time again, there has been consistent poetic portrayal of the trials and tribulations, the finer things, the wispy white clouds on a beautiful periwinkle sky, the reiteration of God, and the beauty we strive to emulate in order to worship him.

There are countless Muslims who create despite being told that their work is unimportant, despite juggling responsibilities, despite corruption, despite barely surviving. This series aims to give light to those Muslims who persevere and create on the basis of aestheticism – of providing a little bit of beauty into the lives of those whose hearts and souls have been hardened persistently: Reviving Muslim Aestheticism.

Areesha Khalid is a 22-year old junior architect and designer based in London, UK. Areesha was born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, but moved to England when she was 11 years old. She completed her Bachelor’s degree in Architecture in 2019, and has spent a year working in the industry in an architectural and design services studio based in London. She is currently studying for her Master’s degree in Architecture at Westminster University. 

Areesha works mostly with digital art, using Procreate, Photoshop, and 3D renders in Rhino. She says “As opposed to creating super realistic images, I prefer to use these mediums to create spaces that actually do look otherworldly or sometimes even “unrealistic” to actually invoke emotions within the viewer and leave them with lingering feelings of some sort, usually nostalgia given the nature of my work.” 

As someone who has spent half her life in Pakistan and the other half in England, the fusion of Western and South Asian culture has become a part of her identity. Her art, thus, becomes an expression of the conflict and harmony that comes with this.

She says, “I illustrate aspects of my heritage that I feel closest to but also most disconnected from, given the geographical distance between me and my roots. I know there are many like me in the wider South Asian diaspora and although I spent 11years in my home country and experienced the culture to some extent, many young people of the diaspora don’t have this experience. Therefore, I hope my art can express this culture and heritage in a way that goes beyond looking at an image and instead, actually conveys warmth for their homeland or invokes a feeling of familiarity and longing. For instance, my “Diaspora Digest” series; “the connoisseur’s magazine of homeland romanticism.” Whereby, I draw South Asian architecture that makes me feel nostalgic. Addressing the feeling of missing home but also acknowledging the guilt that comes with being detached from all the negative aspects of my country.”

When asked how her degree and experience in architecture ties into her artwork, Areesha answered that as an architect, one is persistently aiming to design and draw spaces in a way that makes the inhabitant feel something. 

She says, “I believe this skill almost always come through in the illustrations and spaces I draw. Weather that’s through the actual spatial design of my “autumn backyard” illustration or through its warm colour palette, or even through the small details such as the little cat in the background that the viewer may take comfort or find “home” in.  My architectural education has taught me so much about the richness of culture, heritage and history in design which remains at the forefront of my work. This is especially evident in the spaces I drew for the “diaspora digest” covers. Besides that, there’s an abundance of technical and software knowledge that comes with my degree. I always enjoy doing detailed technical line drawings, which I’ve adapted to freehand digital drawings with an apple pencil and ipad too. And my architectural rendering skills are actually behind all the collages and images I create.”

When reading Areesha’s answers, I was struck with a feeling that what she is doing is what the old Muslim architects were tasked with accomplishing – making the inhabitant feel something inside of a mosque or mausoleum or garden; creating intention with the way that these buildings are constructed. It is quite astounding. She affirms the idea that art has the capacity and the nuance to create and tell stories: 

“Definitely, art is all about telling stories. Whether that’s the artist passing on their own experiences/stories to the viewer, or drawing something radical to invoke specific thoughts/educate the viewers. Other times, even the most mundane art for instance a red square on a canvas can make the viewers feel something and start a conversation (even if that conversation is about why the hell would someone draw a square on a canvas), this act of critiquing the art among viewers becomes a conversation and memory in itself. 

I aim to do the same with most of my art, many people don’t have time or don’t enjoy reading, but almost no one minds catching a glance of a piece of art. That’s all the artist requires from them, just a quick glance, after which it is down to the viewer to interpret and feel on their own. Also, understanding art doesn’t require the privilege of literacy because it transcends all languages. Instead, it’s the dialect of lines and strokes and colours and texture, things that we can all read regardless of our status or background. Therefore, to me, art stands as the most inclusive language to pass on stories.”

I asked Areesha where she draws her inspiration from.

“A huge part of my inspiration definitely comes from films and music videos. I try to watch many Pakistani and Bollywood films, especially if I can tell from the promotional content that the production set and stage design is well executed, regardless of the storyline..I am always able to find an abundance of inspiration from the depiction of those well built sets and locations around South Asia. Besides that, the creative direction and production powerhouse “Lumpens” who is behind most of BTS’s successful music videos is also always pushing boundaries of design and space which really inspires me. Finally, I always have rich conversations with my mum, about her overall life and especially her childhood growing up in Pakistan. She misses it very much so she speaks about it with a lot of passion and emotion, which tends to come through in my artwork. For instance, for my most recent “autumn backyard” illustration, I remember talking with my mum recently about the gloomy lack of daylight and sunshine these days, here in England. She responded with reminiscing the autumn sun in Pakistan. She could recall it so vividly. How eating oranges underneath those autumn sun rays in her yard was one of her fondest memories growing up. So I drew it, putting my own little design twist on it, yet trying to convey the wholesomeness of her emotions when she first told me this memory of hers. I then showed it to her and I could tell I had done her memory justice because she told me she could feel the warmth and embrace of those run rays through the drawing and it made her feel so nostalgic.”

In order to understand the artwork more, I asked Areesha what her thought process is in regards to how she creates an idea and executes it. 

“I feel the spaces you inhabit play such a huge role in the way you feel. If you think back to your fondest memory, I can almost guarantee besides the people, it’s the space you were in, the way it looked, the way it smelt, the way it made you feel that will come to mind.  

I feel this a lot when thinking back to my time in Pakistan, whether that’s my 11 years living there as a child or my annual visits till date. It’s the spaces that leave the biggest mark on my memory, especially since the design aesthetic there is so different to that in Britain, from homes, to schools, to bazaars.

When I usually sit down to draw something, I have an aim in mind of what feelings I’d like to convey and the starting point of being able to express any feelings for me usually comes from the space. 

After I’ve pinned down this emotion, I create mood boards of spaces, whether that’s from my memories, my camera roll, my parents’ memories that they’ve told me of, movie scenes or even Pinterest. Then, more often than not, I spend the longest time detailing the space and making colour choices etc, whereas the characters come right at the end. By the time I’m done with the space, the feeling is actually usually already there without any characters. (but sometimes I do draw just whatever for fun too haha)”

Overall, Areesha’s work stands assured and compelling – it speaks to her identity, but to an identity that others may find solace and nostalgia within. Her artwork succeeds at showcasing innate emotion and feeling; I found myself getting lost in her “Diaspora Digest” series; the idea of yearning for a place that has seemingly been lost in memory, etched into consciousness. Please support her work at her Instagram @architecturebyari and be on the lookout for her shop which is coming soon!