Eyes of Insight: Aiza Ahmed on her Unsung Heroes

Aiza Ahmed. Photo by Kerr Cirilo

Within the bustling realm of New York City, Aiza Ahmed shines as an artist, captivating audiences through her exploration of painting, drawing, and printmaking. Her practice thrives on her experience as a South Asian woman, entwined with a deep interest in the visual culture of the region. Through her paintings, Ahmed endeavors to forge a link between the different social hierarchies.

At present, Ahmed is pursuing her MFA in Painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, building upon her BFA earned from Cornell University in 2020. She is also a recipient of the distinguished RISD Fellowship, The Edith Stone and Walter King Memorial Prize and the David R. Bean Prize.

SHREYA AJMANI What sparked your interest in the arts? 

AIZA AHMED I have always been very creative from a young age. Although my father isn’t an artist by profession, I distinctly remember being in awe when he would sketch and draw cartoons throughout my childhood. I think those early memories sparked my interest in the arts. 

Aiza Ahmed, Canvas conversations, pen on paper, 7.5 x 5.5 inches, 2020. 

SA In what ways has the influence of your background shaped and informed your artistic practice?

AA Living in both the East and West has undoubtedly influenced my practice. Whether that’s looking at people, objects, spaces, specific gestures, social cues, and other details, have all fed into my work and brought me to where I am now — in my thinking, attitudes, and opinions. I find myself constantly weaving bits and pieces in from everywhere I have been lucky enough to live. 

However, I find myself gravitating towards the invisible in my hometown. In my series, "Unsung Heroes" (2019), I created paintings that depict the types of people one would see in the streets, performing their daily routines, such as selling fruit, serving tea, and stitching clothes. I felt as though they did not receive the amount of recognition and acknowledgement they should, perhaps because the tasks were deemed “mundane” to many. As a result, this body of work aims to celebrate these people; the “ordinary” who make our lives extraordinary.

Aiza Ahmed, Kayla-wala (Banana seller), oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches, 2019. 

SA What aspects of your work do you find most fulfilling or personally gratifying?

AA I thoroughly enjoy experimenting with color palettes as I often start my paintings with a main overarching color for the background, and then brainstorm ideas for 2-3 colors that will complement it well. Helming ways to activate the background so it holds meaning is another exciting challenge.

Blind contour drawing has become an integral part of my process and its outcome is one that is quite hard to predict given the nature of the technique. The serendipitous moments in which the drawing exceeds my expectations are also really satisfying.

Aiza Ahmed , Barry Perlus, oil and acrylic on canvas, 24 x 36 inches, 2019. 

SA How have things changed for you since the pandemic? 

AA I would say the pandemic has definitely shaped the way in which I approach my paintings now. When COVID-19 hit I had to very quickly abandon the large paintings I was working on in my studio at Cornell and finish up my thesis semester at home in Dubai. Grappling with the emotions of having senior year cut short and being forced into the next chapter of my life, I wasn’t in the frame of mind to create a new set of paintings so I began to reflect inwards and drew in my sketchbook, embracing the small scale. The drawings led me to venture into the unknown: a world full of possibilities, both real and imaginary. It led to the construction of dream-like environments consisting of multiple characters, objects, and settings. I later realized that the fantastical quality as a result of contouring blindly on the page, letting my hand float naturally. By the end of the year, I had compiled a bank of drawings I could refer to when needed. These become the foundation of my recent paintings where I incorporate both realistically rendered figures and outlines of whimsical characters. 

Installation view of Educate  Charity Auction, Christie’s  New York, 2020. 

SA Favorite art memory?

AA Being invited to participate in "Educate," a charity exhibition held at Christie’s New York in February 2020 that raised money for the Luminos Fund, a philanthropic organization which provides education and art to refugee children in conflict zones. It was a dream come true to have my work displayed on Christie’s walls alongside such talented artists including Devin Reynolds, Helen Beard, Sarp Kerem Yavuz, and many more.


December 4, 2021

read also