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Future Watch: Asif Hoque

Asif Hoque is a Brooklyn-based figurative painter who is duly and rapidly gaining notoriety for his work which notably draws from art historical impressions from his childhood, in what are displays of brown figures and bodies. Born to Bangladeshi parents and raised between Rome and South Florida, he expresses a wish and intent to address the unique experience of living in the “in between”. “I am a product of my parents’ travels. If you put all those things and all those years into a blender, this is what would come out”, says the artist whose stardom is only a matter of time.

Asif Hoque, Everything Is Love, 2021

C-P: How are you? Have you been busy?

A.H: I’ve been just a little busy, yes. My new show (First Flight, viewing room, Yossi Milo Gallery, NYC, ed. note) opened up Friday and I’ve had school going on as well.

C-P: Congratulations on your show! You really do have a lot of things going on.

A.H: Doing multiple different types of tasks helps me come up with better ideas. I need that sometimes. I tend to get inspiration from something that I don’t think I would get. I feel like teaching does that a lot.

C-P: What do you teach?

A.H: I teach first through third grade art, and that experience brings back certain techniques or artists or a certain style which I may have forgotten. There is a book about mythological creatures which one of my teaching mentors gave me to help kids develop their imagination by using different types of creatures and combining them. That book inspired me to think; if the kids aren’t creating mythical beasts themselves, what could I do? As I am teaching, at the same time as the kids are learning and are aware of new things I am relearning certain things. I get inspired off of the synergy that comes from both the kids and myself learning and it circles back to how I can improve my work. I am always hyper-aware of the surroundings. So, I am constantly reflecting on what I saw back then when I was younger, how that has inspired me and how that will translate into my work now.

Asif Hoque. Photo: Austin Willis

C-P: You're born to Bangladeshi parents and grew up in Rome and South Florida. You have previously stated that you wish to address the experience of living ”in between”. How does this find itself in your work?

A.H: Since we’ve travelled to many different continents, I’ve been able to grab ingredients from here and there. I see all these ingredients and characters and how I can shape them into something that is me with the information that I’ve been given. Prior to this current show I returned to Florida after being away for some time due to the pandemic, and had a new appreciation for the ocean, something which translated into my work. In my practice I take experiences from my past, the present and from historical references that I would like to be connected to all in one, and I am putting it out there with those figures. It’s like journaling for me. Then there is the theatrical side to me where I want to have paintings that resemble paintings I saw when I was younger.

During the time that I lived in Rome, until I was eight years old, I was in a way imprinted with very beautiful, very Western grand-type of art which at the time I perceived as the epitome of fine art but as I was growing as an artist, I realized that I did not feel the connection, because to begin with; the colour. I never felt I was represented in those angelic figures and grand and important paintings. I thought: how would I be able to feel like I am connected to a painting like that and feel like that figure is important. That is what I am doing; I am trying to create paintings that represent brown figures in that type of essence that I felt with those church-like paintings. So I am constantly carrying around this global mindset and I am trying to connect the dots. I am sort of making art that is immigrant art and by that I mean art by a person who has moved around a lot in the world and has a different perspective.

Asif Hoque, The engagement; a duet of lovers, 2020

C-P: You have an outlook that in its way is unique but also has this sense of inclusiveness.

A.H: I am a product of my parents’ travels. If you put all those things and all those years into a blender, this is what would come out. I may be a fully-fledged Bengali, but my experiences are multicultural, and I am grateful that I am sometimes able to articulate it in a visual image. I am not trying to be a scholar. It is just me giving a visual representation of my learning experience. And that is why my paintings are getting more detailed and more intricate as I am learning more and getting more deeper into these cultures.

I tend to connect pieces and information from five years ago to something that I just learned today and that ability I think has helped me take pieces from different cultures and put them together because there’s similarities between them. For example I am learning about my Bengali culture that I didn’t grow up with. I was born in Italy, my parents moved there, and we would maybe visit Bangladesh a few times but nothing that made a real impression on me other than the language I learned from them. Then we moved to Florida when I was eight and that is where I was raised. So, I never really had a proper amount of time with the Bengali culture other than my parents and maybe the small community that was around in Florida. The history of my culture and Southeast Asian culture is still very new to me. What I am looking at now and the research that I am doing on traditional South East Asian art is all coming at me at the same time. I am just sort of absorbing it; all the things and styles I want to do that make me feel connected to a rich history that I never got before.

C-P: It’s interesting how you phrase it, that you are not a scholar.

A. H: I usually have an idea of what I want to create but it isn’t until the last minute when I have a deadline that information tends to come and the works, at least so far, align perfectly. I am sometimes shocked at the things that come out during the process. When I am in the process of making a show, I have already absorbed enough information for that show so I tend to retract and get in my bubble of information and that’s how I think I can process all the work.

Asif Hoque, First Flight, 2021

C-P: Can you give me an example of something that shocked you?

A. H: The first painting in my last show, First Flight, shows a griffin cub flying up and almost trying to reach a phoenix-like lovebird while the rays of the sun are hitting the cub. That was the first painting I did for the ongoing show, not knowing in which direction I wanted to go but I named it First Flight because it was something that this cub was learning to do. I didn’t know at the time but it was a perfect title and image of the conversation I am having in this show – first love. It’s about experiencing first love and having this really intense learning experience and being completely taken over with emotion for a person. As I was painting these figures and preparing the show things were falling into place and it wasn’t until the very end that I understood why I painted First Flight. It’s as if that painting was essential for me to finish in order for me to make sense of the rest. So, there is a level of subconscious trust that I have while working.

C-P: You touched on it before, when speaking about early art impressions growing up in Italy. In a sense your work appears a contemporary expansion of an art historical trajectory.

A.H: There is a classical sense to my work. It wasn’t through books or studying, it’s again more about my lived experience in Rome. I know the feeling and the imagery of those paintings even if I can’t pinpoint an exact painting. The strength a figure shows or the confidence it shows when the light is hitting her on the chest, that is what I am focusing on, not the actual image or the information the artist or the painting is giving. It is rather the feeling of it that I tend to get inspired by.

Asif Hoque. Photo: Isaac Campbell

C-P: It sounds like a more raw, classic way of looking at art, the emphasis on what you get at first sight, the first impression.

A.H: Exactly, and that is what I always strive for in my work, the “oomph!”. Whatever the initial reaction you get from experiencing my work. A lot of my works are large because I want the viewer to be completely engulfed, completely involved with the painting as I was with the large churches that I walked into, or the mountains that I saw or the ocean. Things that are bigger than me which make me completely still and feel them, is the energy that I’ve always wanted in my paintings.

C-P: The works in the exhibition A Loverboy’s Tale at Spring/Break Art Show curated with Anne Laure Lemaitre in NYC last year were described as revolving inter alia around masculinity and its inherent complexities. What could be said about your depiction?

A.H: I can’t generalize but my experience is that growing up I never truly had a real understanding of what intimacy truly represented visually.. So intimacy wasn't ever really seen until I watched movies. I thought representing that thought-process might help others by showing it with brown angelic figures. I want them to be whoever they choose to be, by showing that sense of intimacy that I wasn’t able to understand. So, the lack of understanding of intimacy made me want to create work that is full of intimacy and intimacy that is sensual.

All these topics that I’ve been working on are things that I want to learn. And that is why I say I am not a scholar. I don’t want to make work that makes people feel that they should have known this. Through teaching I understood how much I absorbed as a kid. And so I am reflecting on how I as a child looked at for example a regular Bollywood movie or an American love story and I am now putting those two different types of film together. A good comparison is the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I am constantly trying to hold on to these experiences and piece them together so that I can hold onto them a little longer.

Asif Hoque, Singing Sinha 2, 2020

C-P: I was in awe of your virtual reality exhibition Lover’s Rock with Mindy Solomon Gallery. It is invigorating to experience the works in a VR setting as opposed to flipping through them in a digital gallery and renders a new dimension to the works. What is your experience like working with this kind of staging of your work?

A.H: I recommend viewing it through an oculus. It is exactly the experience I talked about earlier, it being a larger-than-life experience and you as the viewer being completely involved. The virtual aspect and the technology really help the viewer to visually see what the artist is thinking. You literally walk into my head because that is how I see my work.

My curator, Ché Morales and I collaborated with Mindy Solomon Gallery on this idea of amplifying the viewing room experience and moving away from the traditional presentation of the works. I have always wanted to build a world where these creatures and these figures live, and we are just able to walk in and experience it. If you’ve seen that show you can start adding the figures that I’ve created for my current show into that world. That is something I will continue hacking at so all the works I will be creating can be added into that world. The timing of the exhibition was great since it was the beginning of my telling this story and introducing the audience to my world and at the same time being my introduction to the art world.

The story that went along with the show was written by Sarah Han and was inspired by Lover’s Rock, a bar I used to go to in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. The idea was; how would my day-to-day life turn into a modern epic with my figures? For example, if I focus on say one night getting ready to go out to a club to get some drinks and maybe to meet somebody. What would it look like if I gave it an ancient flavor with the figures? It’s taking a very simple experience but making it into something that could fit with this ancient context that I am trying to build. There is a comedy to that too – that you can make it feel ancient and important while it’s about going out for drinks with your friends.

C-P: Lastly, in the hope things return to a better normality compared to last year, what might be in the pipeline for you in 2021?

A.H: I just had the viewing-room show at Yossi Milo, First Flight, and it’s basically a teaser-show to my upcoming show which will hopefully be in the fall. There are a few more things coming up but not announced yet. I continue working and hopefully I will get to do bigger and better paintings in the future. I am just excited for this year and all the ideas that I’m going to bring out.

This feature was originally produced for C-print's The Future Watch Issue in print, a close collaboration with the BA3 Class in Graphic Design and Illustration at Konstfack, and released (May 2021) and sold at Index Foundation in Stockholm (our main distributor).


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