Our food editor Priya introduced me to Maria Iqbal, an artist currently living in Dubai but a previous Chicago resident. We had a coffee at the Public Hotel and immediately got along… Maria is one of those people that you end up loving from the first 15 minutes you spend with her. Endlessly smiling, her warm yet cracking energy fills the room and everyone takes notice. She talks to me passionately about her pop art, fashion accessories and interiors business and how she made her transition from Advertising to the arts. Originally from Afghanistan, Maria’s semi-Chicago accent and warmth coupled with her bright ambitious eyes gives her that ‘Zoe Dechanel’ persona that makes you want her as your best friend. She’s got so many stories to share with you and you only wish you can see her again and again. Here’s a little chat with Maria- her life, artistry and business.
Hi Maria, we love your pop art. How did it all come about?
I moved back to Dubai in 2011, after a long stint in advertising in Chicago. I wanted to pursue my art full-time and it made sense to do this on home turf because I had all the space, necessary labor, and the financial assistance from my father – I knew I wanted to combine my knowledge from being an art director with my innate fine art abilities, and translate it on furniture design and refurbation. I began transforming chairs and other odds and ends. Next thing I knew I was working with every day items from clothing to cushions, and the result was labeled “pop art” and I became an accidental “Pop Artist.”
When did your passion for art and colors start?
I was a big fan of Bollywood actresses with their fabulous outfits that would change multiple times in the middle of a song and dance number. I would sketch these in an effort to “own” the outfits, at a very young age (5, or 6 maybe). Icons, super heroes, and celebrities, from Kylie Minogue to Madonna later took over later in my teens, and I was mesmerized by the perfection and ethereal glow that they represented to me. I wanted to be a pop star more than anything in the world. Music was my life and my salvation. I wanted to sing, and be adored and loved.
Who has been your role model for your inspiration?
I’m inspired by “famous” people in pop culture from the glamour dolls of old hollywood to present divas. But I’m also influenced by the everyday item, such as a unique menu presentation at a kitsch pub. I’m a connoisseur of the novel mundane to the extreme garish vapidness of fame. In terms of artists, I adore Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. I love the directors, Wes Anderson, and Michel Gondry. Artists like Bjork, and Lady Gaga – even if I’m not a big fan of their music – inspire me with their courage. The fictional detective, Nancy Drew was and will always be my biggest influence in terms of the perfect person/woman/child. There will be a collection on her as soon as I’m ready to present her the way I want to.
When did you move to Chicago? How has Chicago inspired you and contributed to your current success?
I moved to Chicago in the spring of 2001, to start my career in advertising. I was an art director for almost 10 years, working on everything from beer to stove cleaners. The range of clients that I was exposed to expanded my consciousness and taught me that there was always something to learn and enjoy in every tiny thing, yes even fabric softeners have beauty in it. I love things. I love to shop. I love to eat, read, travel, rinse and repeat! My advertising experience in Chicago exploded my brain. I wouldn’t be who I am now if it wasn’t for the discipline of my first career.
Your Afghan background makes you even more interesting, how are you representing your culture and Afghan women?
I’m representing my Afghan background by “not representing” the typical stuff you’d expect from an Afghani born woman. I don’t want to talk about war, and the subservient Afghan woman. There are others who do that and all the power to them. I have to be true to who I am; a strong, vibrant and powerful Afghan woman who enjoys all the privileges that life has to offer. Not just financial, but emotional, sexual, and freedom of speech. Not all Afghan woman are stifled; many of us have been blessed with the right to choose our own path and I would like to be an inspiration to females from my region who have fire in them and need a push to stand up, and accept themselves for who they are.
Your choice of colors are very bright, where did that inspiration come from?
I grew up in the UAE dessert with Bollywood and Japanese Manga via television. My childhood was tinged with neon, and I continue to be the product of that. I love grey too! But with a hint of fluorescence.
What’s a typical day in Maria’s life?
I don’t have a typical day. I work in the realm of interior design, Fashion, and even developing my own lines of accessories. I’m a businesswoman and an artist. I paint directly on objects but I also design on the computer. I meet directly with clients and vendors. I like to change things up by “working” in a Shisha parlor for example and not just in my studio. I get bored easily so I have to change it up and keep things exciting. This also means that I have to constantly move, travel, and change any routine. Routine is death for me.
Do you have any other interests besides pop art?
I think I’m a good writer. I have published articles and I’m presently writing a full-length book. Other than that I can polish off multiple bars of chocolate at one single setting – it’s a baffling talent that I wish I didn’t have.
How do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
Having my own brand of Maria Iqbal concept stores – offering everything from home design to fashion for kids. I see myself being a global icon that is constantly innovating and creating a beautiful world for myself and my friends and family. I see myself as a mentor to all those awkward girls who didn’t exactly fit in. I want to show that beauty and invention comes from those who are not “normal” or the ones who took the easy way out.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to be an artist but doesn’t know where to start?
Just start. I honestly had no clue where I’d be today. I had curiosity and the strength to never give up. There is no easy way out so if you’re looking for that, then don’t bother. If it was easy, everybody would be an artist and not an accountant. I spent my whole life searching for who I was meant to be, when all along I knew at the age of 5 that I wanted to design clothes and make women beautiful. This was in an attempt to be accepted and be beautiful myself. I would advise everyone to go back when they were little and what it was that gave them joy. We always know what we want, but we cover it up with stories and smoke screens, because for some reason we like to complicate our lives, and obscure our truth.
What quotes do you live by?
“IT’S NOT HOW GOOD YOU ARE, IT’S HOW GOOD YOU WANT TO BE.” By ad-man Paul Arden. A great book, full of valuable insights such as the value of being fired!