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Places real and imagined: A Q&A with painter Zarah Cassim

For the artist Zarah Cassim, the painted landscape is a site for memory, fantasy, and rich, dreamlike speculation. Working primarily with oil and thinners on canvas, each work is a personal reflection for Cassim, what she refers to as ‘a sensitive, romantic memory.’

Having moved to Paris after her graduation from UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cassim has gone on to show in a number of group and solo shows, both locally and abroad. Most recently, after a return to Cape Town, the artist has continued to exhibit new work and has also translated her painterly style into a clothing line.

We caught up with Cassim via email for a quick chat about her paintings.

Zarah Cassim
Zarah Cassim, Pink Skies Keep Me Warm, 2018, oil on canvas.
Zarah Cassim
Zarah Cassim, I’d Rather Live Outside, 2019, oil on canvas

Let’s begin by talking a bit about the style of your works. You work with oils and thinners on canvas which lends an element of dreamlike fantasy to your paintings. What’s the inspiration or reference material for your work, and what is the process of translating this onto canvas? 

I don’t paint from any source imagery, I work from memory and images in my mind. I think this also adds to the dreamlike fantasy quality of my paintings. They are images distorted from memory and exist as dreamlike surreal spaces. My process of painting starts with a very thin layer / wash of thinned-out oil paint on the surface of canvas or paper. The image is created from there; each surface has a unique reaction with the paint, and I let these stains of paint on the surface inform my mark-making and brush strokes. From here, I build up layer upon layer, until it feels just right.

You’re based in Cape Town currently, but you’ve also spent some time in Paris. What was that experience like? Did it influence your subject matter or your style at all?

Zarah Cassim
Zarah Cassim

Paris is a special place for me; I moved to Paris straight after leaving art school at Michaelis. It was a time of a lot of changes, my first time away from home, just married, adjusting to a new language, being in a very big city. I think this has definitely had an influence on my practice. My painted landscapes became nostalgic, imagined spaces full of romanticism. That time was full of excitement and exploration, but also included quiet moments and adjustment to a new life.

You paint landscapes, mostly. What is it about this genre of painting that appeals to you?

I love the abstract nature of painting landscapes. I love that these places can be both real and imagined, and I love the fact that a landscape has the capacity to make your mind wander – into the distance and into the depths of the many layers. Landscapes feel like intimate spaces for me, they hold a unique and personal relationship with each person and this relationship is something I find quite interesting to explore.

Similarly, one of the themes your work explores is the human relationship to nature, yet the figurative, or the human form is rarely present in your paintings. Is this a stylistic choice? 

I don’t include human figures in my landscapes, as I feel that a kind of recognisable human figure or object would break the abstraction of the paintings and ground them in something a bit more realistic. I enjoy the dreamlike, surreal quality of landscapes, and for now at least, would like to keep these spaces open-ended.

You’ve recently translated your skills as a painter into a clothing line through a recent collaboration. What was that process like?

I really enjoyed working in a completely different medium, and exploring my creativity in a different way. The process involved a lot of new skills – translating a concept into a commercial product. It was very different to what I’m used to doing; creating something by hand on my own (my paintings) and then working on something digitally with a large corporate company.

Zarah Cassim
Zarah Cassim, Tears II, 2021, oil on canvas
Zarah Cassim
Zarah Cassim, Colour I and II, 2021, oil on tissue paper

What else are you busy with at the moment? Any current or upcoming exhibitions or projects our readers can look out for?

I am currently working on a new collection of paintings for Salon 91 Gallery (Cape Town, South Africa), as well as some large scale works for Otomys Contemporary (Melbourne, Australia). My clothing collaboration with PicknPay will be released online and in selected stores on the 26th August. Other than that, I’ve been working on something very exciting with my husband, opening a boutique art hotel in Paris – Hotel Hernandez Paris. We will be hosting artist residencies and continuing with our curation of art events. With all that has happened in the past year, it seems like a long way to go but we are on our way!

And before we wrap up: Any advice for aspirant artists looking to make a career in the arts?  

My advice would be to stay true to yourself and to your creative practice and to do what feels right. Don’t be afraid to try and try and try again. Honour your contracts with yourself and with others, and enjoy the process!

Find more of Cassim’s work here and on Instagram.

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