Vancouver Mural Festival: Sara Khan brings vibrant colours of Pakistan to the rainforest

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      The obvious take on the Vancouver Mural Festival is that it’s a way to enliven the rapidly gentrifying East Van neighbourhood, Mount Pleasant, where it’s been held since its debut in 2016. Less heralded, though, is the way that the annual event can also embolden the artists asked to create large works for public consumption, often for the very first time.

      That’s how Sara Khan sees it, anyway. The self-confessed introvert is normally ensconced in her studio, working diligently on small watercolours—but this week she’s working in public, painting an 18-metre-long stretch of wall at 233 East 11th, and she’s loving it.

      “I get so comfortable in my little space, in my little hole,” the U.K.–born, Pakistan-raised artist tells the Straight from her Burnaby home. “So this is a huge opportunity, and I’m realizing how much potential there is in me to do these kinds of things.”

      At first, Khan admits, her mural festival commission was all about logistics. “You have to gather paint, or you have to think about colours and the composition and the scissor lift you’ll use to go up and down, so you don’t even think about the way that it opens up your mind—or the way you look at your artwork,” she explains. Now, though, she’s looking forward to a more direct engagement with the public—and to wider exposure for her vibrant colour palette, a Lahore-inspired aspect of her art that has blossomed since her move to B.C.’s coastal rainforest.

      “I’m really inspired by Vancouver,” she says. “We live in a high-rise, and I can see the whole of the city and the mountains, and it’s just stunning through every season and at different times of the day. But my city [Lahore] is extremely colourful: the way we present ourselves, the clothes we wear, and those crazy, colourful trucks and rickshaws that we have.”

      Khan’s crimson reds, rose pinks, and turquoise blues didn’t always find their way into the paintings she made in Pakistan. One particularly striking image shows rows of burka-clad figures seemingly imprisoned in an institutional-looking structure; it’s a statement, in black and beige and grey, about restrictions on women in Pakistani society. And while her newer compositions are becoming ever more vibrant, her narratives are increasingly impressionistic and, arguably, subtler.

      The painting she’s using as the model for her mural festival image, for example, relies more on earth tones than what we’ll see on East 11th. “It’s become more about this man lying on the ground,” she explains. “You can’t really tell if he’s going into the ground, or if he’s sort of sprawled on the ground, at one with nature. There’s a lot of foliage, a lot of leaves, and the whole concept behind it was being a part of all of this and being one with it.…And there are little humanoid creatures there, too, but they’re more animal than human.”

      It’s a fantasy landscape, Khan adds, but one that’s intended to be both amusing and thought-provoking—for artist and audience alike. “I wanted to have fun with it,” she says. “And it’s already opening my eyes to so many other ways of presenting my work.”