“I’m never satisfied with a flat surface,” says Pakistani grad student Sanié Bokhari MFA 18 PT. Before heading home for the summer, the first-year Painting MFA was immersed in experimentation, using photographs, wooden panels and sheer fabrics to make her work—which she describes as “not quite collages, but assemblages”—more interactive.
The Arranged Marriage Luncheon, for example—a 3D piece she showed last spring at the Painting Graduate Biennial—shows the artist in traditional Pakistani attire entertaining suitors seeking her hand in marriage. The concept of arranged marriages is just one of the everyday realities the Pakistani woman addresses in her work.
“I’m 25 and not yet married,” Bokhari explains. Though her parents initially wanted her to get married before studying abroad, she has “known since Grade 7” that she wanted to study at RISD. So eventually they supported her decision to travel to the US for grad school as a single woman. Last year her family was especially delighted to learn that she’d been awarded one of the first Somerson scholarships. The new fund is named in honor of RISD President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID, an alumna herself and the first to lead the college.
“The Somerson Scholarship is crucial for me,” Bokhari notes. “I worked in Pakistan for two years after earning my undergraduate degree—doing everything I could to save up for grad school—but it wasn’t enough. This scholarship allows me to concentrate on my studio work instead of worrying about finances.”
Finding her voice as an artist is trickier than Bokhari imagined. “The first year [of the two-year Painting program] was an overwhelming experience,” she recalls. “But the feedback has been super helpful in developing my work, and I’m understanding and articulating my own concepts much more clearly than when I started. Everything is beginning to make sense.”
Bokhari took full advantage of the department’s flexibility to branch out and cross disciplines during her first year, taking classes in Sculpture and Photography, too. Since street protests in Pakistan seem to come together spontaneously on a daily basis, she’s in the habit of bringing her camera with her whenever she leaves the house.
“I want to bring that unrest to the surface by working with other materials in addition to paint,” Bokhari explains. “Paint has always made its way into my process, but I'm excited to experiment as my work takes a more three-dimensional route." At RISD she has been studying animation tools like After Effects and Premiere and using them to create video montages incorporating her paintings and the Pakistani street scenes she photographs.
This summer Bokhari is gathering more “reference images” while also creating pieces about what it’s like to be a woman in Pakistan. “I'm still trying to understand my role as a woman in Pakistan who has experienced different cultures," she says. "While Pakistan may be male-dominated and patriarchal, there's something exciting about being a woman trying to change that.
“Women are not supposed to drive, so my brother drives me," Bokhari adds. "And men stare at you and make comments, even if you’re completely covered. You feel unsafe. I want to use my work to talk about that.”
When she returns to Rhode Island in the fall, Bokhari will begin a graduate assistantship at the RISD Museum with Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art Dominic Molon. “I’m really excited about it,” she says. “And I’m also looking forward to being part of the Painting department’s Visiting Artists Committee.”
In fact, for Bokhari part of RISD’s allure was the fact that fellow Pakistani-born artist Shahzia Sikander MFA 95 PT—an alumna and winner of a MacArthur “genius grant”—was back in Providence sharing insights as RISD’s 2016 Kirloskar Visiting Scholar in Painting. “She also studied in the miniature department at my college—the National College of Arts in Lahore—and I’ve been following her career for years,” the artist says. “So when it was time to consider graduate schools, RISD was the only one I applied to.”
—Simone Solondz / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH