SPOTLIGHT: ASIF HOQUE
SPOTLIGHT: ASIF HOQUE
The artist on making work that exudes positivity and the trip that made him feel American for the first time.
By Martin Lerma
Asif Hoque is finally feeling grounded. The Italian-born, Florida-raised painter is taking stock of his life and the numerous identities and labels that have been attached to him over the years. And this inner exploration is making its way onto his heroic canvases. In conversation with Platform, Hoque spoke about the importance of depicting melanated figures as powerful, why galleries should invest in the mental health of their artists, and the impetus behind making modern love stories.
You've spoken about being really inspired by classical modes of art and reinterpreting those modes with new elements. How did you first become interested in that subject matter? And how are you hoping to develop it?
I was born in Rome and my parents are from Bangladesh. My dad moved to Italy in his early 20s for work to send money back to the family–the usual immigrant story. My dad eventually went back to Bangladesh, got married and brought my mom to Italy. I was the firstborn and it was a brand new space for them. They'd never really traveled before, so they would take me everywhere whether it was a fountain in the street or the Sistine Chapel. They were tourists, and for me, I was able to get that as my first impression in life. I have an internal magnet for that type of work. The looseness, the draftsmanship and the scale with these figures that are so epic and heroic. Then I moved to Florida when I was eight years old and I was introduced to another array of cultures and foods and music. Dance and sound became really important to me. In my work, I'm always trying to dig out my past, but also fuse what I am–my Bengali side, my Bengali roots, my Italian upbringing, and then my South Floridian upbringing as well. And now, this November is my tenth year living in New York. I've spent a significant amount of my adulthood here as well. I'm combining the places where I've been raised and putting them together and bringing everything out in a visual manner.
In terms of the recent work, how have you seen those different elements come together and express themselves in a new way?
My last show was in London and it came together really strongly there because I've never felt American. In all the years that I've lived here, I was always an immigrant, labeled as an immigrant, and felt like an immigrant although a majority of my life has been spent here. I became a citizen in New York five, six years ago, so I invested my time in becoming an American. My parents have had the hardship of paying lawyers, all that stuff. We've gone through the process but never have I felt truly American.
In London, I spent two-and-a-half months producing the work for Taymor and I was starting to get called an American. My accent and the way I just wore my clothes or anything that I did would automatically get comments like, "Oh, you're an American." And that feeling alone just was so, so powerful for me. Despite politics and all that, I still felt like I was living that dream that my parents envisioned when they moved here. I looked at what would be visually classic American, and I automatically thought about Westerns and cowboys. I took these characters that I've been building, these cherubs, and I put them into a sort of a Western context. So the Pegasus, which has that Renaissance-esque background, I took that and I made imagery under that Western umbrella–the cowboy saves the damsel in distress and that whole scene.
It's also having a conversation with a painting that was commissioned by the East India company. It's an oval-shaped painting that is still hung in an official government building that displays a white figure–a stand-in Britain, basically–taking the power away from India, China and Africa. The figure that's Indian is giving all of her jewelry away. For me, I felt so strongly about it. I needed to respond to it, and it was an Italian painter who was commissioned to paint it, too. I saw all these little connections and I was like, "Oh, I'm about to have my first London show. I'm sort of Italian and I feel like I am in the perfect space and it's the perfect time to have a connection and a conversation with this painter."
In the sort of Western film I tried to create, I took my loverboy character and rescued the brown Indian figure out of that painting and into a love story. I recreated that painting, but then also included little snippets of what would happen after or before. That's how I'm processing my work now. I want to rescue figures or bring Black and Brown figures to light. That's where the work that I'm showing on Platform comes in. The clouds are being hit by light, the figures are being hit by light, and that makes us powerful. When we look up at the sun and we take these really nice photos of ourselves, because we're full of melanin, we shine. I want to expose that positivity as much as possible in my paintings. I'm so happy that I have an audience that is able to follow me on this journey right now.
When you spoke about preparing that work for the show in London, you said it was the first time you felt American. What was it like to have to be somewhere else in order to feel American?
I feel like I moved so much in my early years that I have always felt like an in-between person. It's like I have my body here but my mind's elsewhere. It never goes away. But to be labeled as one thing by a country, it felt like I was grounded a little bit. I was like, "OK, so no one's seeing me as these multiple cultures, but as one culture." I felt happy. I felt like that's exactly what my dad envisioned when he moved here. He wanted to be an American as much as possible, or at least for us to be as American as we can be. I felt safe and strong, in a way. But also, as someone who was working and digging into that stuff, there were a lot of emotions involved, things that I feel I have yet to identify. I'm still breaking down everything that's happened to me in the past. I've been slowly processing what happened in those two-and-a-half months that I was there. It'll probably be in the next body of work.
I was really interested when you mentioned the importance of representing melanated, Black and Brown figures in a different way. Are ideas around that a catalyst for starting new works, or do things progress organically from one work to another?
It's a little bit of both. There's a lot of music that surrounds the work. It's music-heavy with rap and R&B because I'm a kid of the 2000s. It's funny, I didn't speak English till I was nine. I moved here at eight and it took me a couple of years. Until seventh grade, I was still in an ESL [English as a second language] program. So, music was something that I had to work toward being able to understand. It's always powerful for me to hear songs that take you elsewhere. I try to put music into the work. It's little hints of my life and that's what I meant by mentioning the music because a lot of the paintings are titled after songs that I was listening to at the time. For me, it's like time traveling, placeholders of what my state of mind was. And then the work always makes Brown figures as powerful as possible. That's the underlying theme of all my work, to make them stand out and be powerful, and then to add bits and pieces of what I'm currently going through. Sneaking a little bit of my life into the painting is always something that I work toward, but then I'm always open to new things, so I'm always growing and not stagnant, which is what I don't want.
Since you mentioned it, who are some of the musical artists that you love?
Do you know BJ The Chicago Kid? He's a rapper who's kind of in-between in that he raps and also has melodies that he sings. He has a song called The New Cupid. I like to place myself in a lot of these songs. Anything that has Cupid, I see if it works around my work [laughs]. It features Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick is one of my absolute favorites. I'm pretty good with what's current, but then I also gravitate toward the classic R&B songs.
My first show with Mindy [Solomon] was about Lovers Rock, the bar. That whole show was about a Saturday night out, going to Lovers Rock and having a magical moment, but in a very mythological way. The work is always based around music, it's always based around dancing, it's based around love. It's just modern love stories. I would say that The New Cupid song is about the old, traditional Cupid. He kind of left the scene, left his job and is out drinking and having his ratchet moment. And then BJ is left in charge. He's becoming the new Cupid. With his music, he's connecting people and I thought, "What a beautiful way of thinking about this, where you're making yourself the new Cupid by saying that the old Cupid is tired and out of the way." He's this Black artist that's coming in and being like, "Yo, this is me." And in the song, Kendrick is the old Cupid and him rapping about being in the club drunk and looking for love. It's such a new take and I love that. That's basically the essence of my work. I'm trying to be the new Cupid. I'm trying to show love. I'm trying to show a Brown male in a new light, not the 2D version that media usually shows, but a person that has emotional intelligence–a 360 version of our Black and Brown men.
What is it about love stories and those themes that you find compelling and want to express?
I grew up in a Muslim household, and I don't really talk much about that because I'm still exploring and learning about it myself. What I know is that love was there, but it wasn't. My parents love each other. They've always been affectionate, but they've never been physically affectionate. They've never really shown that intimacy that you see in Western television or Western movies, these classic Hollywood scenes. I always loved that and I always want to see my Brown figures representing that. Even though Bollywood did a wonderful job with dances and all that, they would always cut the scene. I know a new generation is changing things, but in my time, you never really got to see them hold hands. I always yearned for that. I was like, "Oh, what happens after? What's going on? Do they hug? Do they kiss?" I try to show that little bit of tension that is between two people who have a lot of connection, but they've yet to connect. There's so much tension between just touching fingers or hugging, and I want to show that energy on the canvas.
Eventually, as I'm getting more confident my work, I want to show real intimacy. I've never gone too sexual in the work, it's always been sensual because I also want to respect those members from my Brown audience who are not ready for that imagery. I want to be respectful toward my culture, too, because they want to respect certain things. I want to walk a nice line between all of it and be able to connect everyone because if I go too explicit–which is fun, I encourage that and I love that–I might lose some of the audience that I want to bring in. I want to connect them to the fine art world where they might have felt disconnected because–and I'm thinking from an immigrant perspective–they have to think about living life instead of luxury, like certain luxuries of looking at art and being in the gallery setting. I don't want to scare them off. It's little baby steps so they can come in and then grow with me and eventually be open enough to look at more explicit, more sexual work that I will eventually have. I'm seeing it as a timeline. I'm just introducing my work right now.
You've mentioned so much during our conversation, like Bollywood films, music, all of that. What have you seen or read recently that has really stuck with you or stuck out to you?
Because I'm in such a planning phase, I'm not looking at movies as much, but there's one book that I constantly draw from when I was an art teacher for about five years at St. Ann's. I never thought I would be teaching but I was always around kids. And that's another immigrant thing. You're always around kids because the parents are out. You have the older brother or older cousin babysitting people. Teaching became such an interesting part of my art because these kids are also part of the audience that I hope to have. I want to inspire them. I want a Black or Brown kid to walk up to my show and be like, "Oh, I want to be able to do that."
One of the books that my mentor Stephanie introduced me to was Fabulous Beasts. And this is where I draw from–the Pegasus, the Phoenix, the Griffins–all these creatures. These beautiful creatures are part of why we gravitated toward Harry Potter a lot. That's why I bring these creatures into my paintings because I want that sense of wonder to continue. We used to use it as a project where students would look at this book and then they would recreate their own version of a beast. I try to take that assignment and put it into the fine art world. Maybe someone else will create a fantasy of their own and this is a catalyst for something.
I want to return really quick to something that that you mentioned. What was it like being a teacher for that period and having students since, like you said, you hadn't expected to go down that route?
I never felt that sense of responsibility even though I've grown up with it. I'm the oldest of pretty much the next generation of my family, so I've always been around kids. But actually sitting there and coming up with assignments and projects that will inspire them was something that felt great. Being a teacher was a lot of work, but I was excited about every project that I did. I was excited about the little comments that the kids would make. I knew I was handling 240 kids per week but there were these amazing little connections that I would make with certain kids. It would just give me a boost in life. I would go to the studio right after school so I would take that youthful energy into my space. I feel like that's why a lot of my work resonates with people. It's just that I'm putting so much of this childlike wonder into the work. It's full circle for me. I stopped teaching last May because it was a lot for me to juggle with all of the fine art work. But I will figure out a way to go back sometime soon to teach or tutor or something so I can be around kids and have that experience again.
Last one: Is there anything you wish you were asked more often?
Just: How are you dealing with this career? You know, the pressures of it, the responsibility. As a young artist, you're never really shown or told about the pressures and what you go through when you're by yourself, which most of us are. And I think about the mental health part. I think young artists go through a lot of changes through the first couple years. And I think in all the interviews there should be a part where the interviewer asks any artist, not much just myself, "How are you doing?" I think that's very important.
I think mental health is really, really important and it should be looked at, especially for artists because sometimes we use that as fuel for art, but how do you live with it? I feel like a lot of artists go through so much, but then they're like, "Oh, it's OK because it's part of my work." But it's not okay. You have to really work on how mentally OK you can be. I think galleries should invest in therapy for their artists or something of that caliber where it helps the artist prolong their life and prolong their creativity.