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Poet, artist and art critic – Ilona Yusuf

Poet, artist and art critic – Ilona Yusuf

With poetry her innate talent and art a form of self expression and creative outlet, Ilona Yusuf has carved a prominent and unique place for herself in the art world both nationally and internationally. Regularly contributing artist’s profiles to prominent publications including Blue Chip, Ilona has emerged as an expert art critic and her analysis is an accurate definition of the art scene of Pakistan. She is also a co-editor for the Alhamra Literary Review. Responsible for collection, collation and final editing, she admits it to be a unique experience that has led to several other opportunities for her as a writer and an artist. She enjoys writing artists profiles and interviewing writers and poets. Interested in documenting poets and poetry she has recently been asked for to write essays for two poetry journals, the journal and commonwealth and postcolonial studies, and Vallum New International Poetics, a Canadian poetry journal.

Her prints along with poetry were recently exhibited at Art Chowk The Gallery in Karachi and it made for a breathtaking display. Her prints and photo etchings are marvelous works of art that use photopolymer printing techniques, featuring collages of her photographs.

You have specialised in print-making. What has been the inspiration behind your prints?

Ilona Yusuf: “I started print-making rather late in life. I never thought I could be an artist because I never had any training as such. I taught craft for many years and I had actually done little lino blocks and used them in design and I thought since I was self taught I could not call myself an artist. But, then I did a few workshops in Arizona and worked at an artist studio that changed my view of things. I started with photo etchings because I take photographs. But in crafts I have always had a feel for texture so one of the workshops I did was collagraphic printing that is printing from a collage board.  I didn’t do so much of it initially, but now I have started coming around more to it. When I am working with texture a lot of it is to do so far with landscape along with conceptual stuff. A more appropriate term for what I like to do is abstract landscape. With photo etching I’ve done a lot of work on truck art, because I think that truckers have very difficult lives but they have made it extremely colourful, so that is what I have tried to portray, although my etchings are usually black and white.  My etchings also feature historical buildings, since history is over layered and and is part of your present life and it shows how people still use it and are in those settings whether they are visiting it or using it in their lives. Those are some of my inspirations.”

You have recently emerged as an art critic. What is your view on Pakistani artists?

IY: “I don’t know how that started actually and I have to credit Blue Chip for it because that is where I started writing artists profile and actually that’s what I think I enjoy more than being an art critic because it’s very forgiving and you explore the creative process with each artist. That was very interesting both technique vise and what the artist is trying to portray, how he has come to it based on his background, which can be your economic background or materials that you have been using or materials you are familiar with. There are some very good artists here and I also think that art has become very market driven; therefore there is a lot of pressure on artists to produce work. And I think that when you are constantly under the pressure to produce you do not have the time to actually internalise your experiences and come up with fresh work and to experiment with new techniques and concepts. The pressure is to sell of course so you very often end up using only one technique or subject which you then keep on doing and I think that’s not healthy. I think that’s again maybe a worldwide problem. But, as I said there are also some very good artists with a lot of depth.”

When did you start composing poetry and when did you realise you had so much creativity within you?

IY: “I think I started out wanting to become a writer and started writing poetry when I was very little. I always preferred poetry in a way and I started writing when I was 8, but that wasn’t poetry. So poetry is a thing that comes naturally to me and probably comes first. And along with it comes a visual because everything I do is very visual and I think about colour a lot and I think about imagery – I don’t deliberately think about it, it comes to me. I think now at this point in my life I’m trying to mix the two and that’s why my preference is towards making artist books. I make prints as well, but I would like to learn more about bookmaking and formalise my skills, because I know of some skills because I’m self taught I would like to learn more about technique.”

What drives your creativity and what is your inspiration to write and create art pieces?

IY: “Anything that strikes me is inspiration. That includes both natural landscapes as well as what I call the landscape of the mind. Some people have told me my work is cerebral and there is also a lot of visual imagery. Actually when I started making lamps it was poetry that inspired me. I did a lot of silk painting and I would do a lot of washes, colour washes with some lines of poetry so that is how my lamps started. I call design my bread and butter, something that I enjoy and earn from, which leaves me the freedom to practice art and writing without the thought of financial gain. I like to sell my art work, but I don’t want selling it to be the driving factor. In my recent artists books, I have combined my poems and prints to make what are called unique, single edition books. It isn’t always easy to combine text and images, especially since both are by myself, but it’s something that I enjoy doing and hope to do more of, as well as, in the future, working on collaborations with writers and artists, perhaps illustrating a writer’s text or writing the text for a visual artist.”

How did the compilation of “Picture this…” come about?

IY: “That was my very first book and it was a compilation of all the poetry I had written for several years. I have been writing since my late twenties. Between then and my late thirties it’s a compilation of the poetry I wrote in that period. Some of them are again landscapes, meaning physical landscapes and places and others are landscapes of the mind.”

What are your plans for the future?

IY: “I have a lot of poems and I have divided them into four different sections. They will be compiled into one book with four different sections to it. Regarding poetry, although it’s not easy to publish it, I have been lucky that my work has been published in several local and international poetry and literary journals. My recent exhibition was at Art Chowk the gallery in Karachi. It was not just individual prints but also several books and most of them have a poem and several prints to go with it.”

How do you balance your family life with running a business, art and poetry?

IY: “My children are grown up so that helps. When they were younger it was a little harder. Being creative takes time and you need time for yourself so you can internalise your experiences. Now I guess it’s easier.  As far as design is concerned I don’t focus so much on doing individual pieces and putting up an exhibition. What I do is that I work on commission and a client will come and see the work which I already have and they can place an order. So that kind of makes it easier rather than me constantly having to produce. As far as the lamps are concerned I’m doing more volume business and I’m selling through the Pak-Turk enterprises so there is a stock that I have to put together every month. That includes plane as well as block printed lamps and shades and I do keep updating the designs. At the same time now I think designing is not so difficult for me. Yes, putting together a new design requires some time so I do put some days together a month when I’m working on new designs and then it is a matter of putting them to practice. I don’t actually block print myself, I stand with the block printer and I make up combinations as I go. So that is very intuitive and time consuming.”

You also edited the Alhamra Literary review. How was that experience?

IY: “It was great for me in terms of teaching me editing skills and it’s also put me in touch with a large group of writers which is very good for me now. Off and on I’m asked to write an essay on poetry and recently I’ve been a guest editor with a friend to guest edit the special issue of a Canadian magazine focusing on Pakistani poetry. So all of those experiences really helped in grooming me and I really enjoyed it.”

You are a very discerning writer and art critic. Who are your favourite authors and artists?

IY: “My favourite would be the Vallum poetry project featuring poetry by 26 Pakistani poets writing in English, came about with an award winning Canadian poet, Blaine Marchand, who was posted in Islamabad when working for Cida. He realised the wealth of talent and proposed the project to the magazine, which accepted it and appointed us as guest editors.
Some of the writers I enjoy – and I read more poetry than prose – are Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Rainer Maria Rilke and Dylan Thomas. Among Pakistani poets, Moniza Alvi, Maki Qureshi, Daud Kamal. I thoroughly enjoy short stories and would like try to write short stories at some point. Some of the artists that I like include Bosch, El Greco, Van Gogh, Degas, Picasso to name a few western artists. Sadequain, Zubeida agha, Ahmed Parvez, Meher Afroze, Moeen Faruqi, Tariq Gill and Iqbal Hussain for his ability to capture expression in the eyes. There are several new artists but I don’t want to mention names for fear of leaving someone out!  All the names I’ve quoted are off the top of my head, there are plenty of others and I can’t pinpoint any particular favourites as I enjoy them for different things. The main thing is that there should be form as well as content – in short, original writing”

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