It's really nice to see my work naturally evolving from skin to leather.
Saira Hunjan - "The Girl with the Golden Needle" - has a passion for embellishment. The deities and gypsies of the Subcontinent are an endless source of inspiration for her as her practice transitions from tattooing to fine art.
LONDON IS …
good for me in small doses
LONDON IS NOT …
green enough for me
MY FAVOURITE MUSIC:
very eclectic, from Erykah Badu to Devendra Banhart, classical indian raga to Pink Floyd
MY FAVOURITE MOVIE:
Chocolat – we all love a bit of Johnny Depp!
MY ROLE MODELS:
Frida Kahlo, everyone is a teacher
A GOOD DAY STARTS WITH …
grounding & meditation
I WOULD NEVER...
swim with sharks
In London Saira is represented by gallery Pertwee, Anderson & Gold, located in Soho. She was introduced to the gallery through a friend who is a regular purchaser of their artists' work. 'They are amazing people to work alongside and it's a lovely space.' She's having her first solo show at the gallery in September. 'It's about goddesses - a collection of sculpture and finely-detailed pencil drawings.'
My solo show is about goddesses – a collection of sculpture and finely-detailed pencil drawings.
Two pieces of recent work are on show at the gallery. Deer Devi, pencil on paper, depicts a deer goddess. 'There's so much symbolism in that picture, and it represents a significant transition in my life from where I was to where I am now.' I Heart You is a mesmerising drawing of snakes morphed into the anatomical heart. 'The heart represents love and the snakes are guardians of the heart. They offer protection from negativity and heart pain - something that resonates with a lot of people. We've all been heartbroken haven't we?' The snakes are embellished with eyes, representative of the third eye and the ability to see beyond the material world. 'The snake is heavily worshipped in India, in Hinduism, and Buddhism as well. In Nepal representations of the snake were everywhere.'
Saira Hunjan is revelling in her current work; pencil on paper. 'Pencil has given me a chance to draw with the kind detail that I want to produce.' She has a particular passion for the decorative. 'Anything that's handmade I can't walk past. I have to say, "I'm going to have you in my home!"' That sense of in-the-moment wonder and attachment is what she wants to create with her work. She's strongly influenced by India, a country she visits regularly. She's just returned from Kolkata, where she spent time in Kumartuli, in northern Kolkata, visiting artisans who make clay deities. 'I specifically went over there to watch them work, talk with them, sit with them and try to learn.'
I wanted to try to make death look beautiful.
Her current work examines the themes of goddesses, death and beauty. 'When I was still quite young there was a lot of death in my family. In Indian culture bodies come home and you're face to face with it.' Saira explored the rituals of Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead festival. She was moved by the way that culture celebrates its ancestors. 'They give offerings, sing and dance. The graveyards are lit up with candles.' She wanted to bring this sense into the work she was doing. 'I wanted to try to make death look beautiful.' A strongly feminine energy became part of the work, which lead her to depict female deities in her drawings.
Saira's first professional work as an artist was as a tattooist - in fact she's known as "The Girl with the Golden Needle", a name which makes her seem like a mythic character from an ancient fable. Working on paper is a revelation. 'On paper, for me, it's endless, I can go finer, and finer and finer.' The ability to do this kind of intricate work was the impetus for Saira to step away from tattooing. 'I don't feel like I'm able to express exactly what I want to at the moment with tattooing.'
She began her art training with a foundation course at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. She settled on fine art painting and went off to Camberwell College of Arts. But she was also learning how to tattoo, which she became so immersed in she was impelled to defer her studies. In the end she was persuaded to return to Camberwell and complete her degree, a decision she welcomed, not least because she had the opportunity to develop her style, which lent itself to the tattoo work she was practising.
Fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier also had an influence an Saira’s early desire to tattoo
Last year Saira managed to fulfil her dream of going to Gujarat and photographing local gypsies and their unique style of tattooing. She went from village to village. 'I promised I would go back and tattoo some of the locals as well.' It's a culture in flux. 'A lot of the daughters - they don't want to get tattooed anymore. They don't want to look like their mothers; they want to be more Western. She'd like to document the Gujarati gypsy culture before it changes utterly.
I’m always off in one direction or another.
Saira has been buying clothes and jewellery in India, from local gypsies, for years. For her, buying from the maker means being in touch with the heart and soul of the craft. Plus she's a bit of a gypsy herself - in fact her sister nicknamed her Gypsy Devi, or travelling goddess. 'I'm always off in one direction or another.' Gypsies are also significant for other reasons. 'When I was younger I saw a picture of a Rajasthani gypsy from the Rabari tribe. I looked at her and thought - I want to look like her when I grow up.' Saira's intricate throat tattoo is inspired by Rabari tattooing, in which symbols are drawn with dots. 'It's where my throat tattoo comes from - she had work that covered her whole throat and neck.'
Fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier also had an influence on Saira's early desire to tattoo. 'It was when he was producing his tattoo - inspired clothing, and there were a lot of references to Indian deities. Every time he does his new show it's always heavily influenced by something Indian.' She'd love to meet and collaborate with him.
She recently collaborated with London based leather goods company Ettinger. She created two designs, finely wrought abstract images of a fox and a pheasant, which now embellish a range of accessories. 'The Ettinger team has a great eye for quality and detail. There is a lot of skill that goes into making each piece and I was amazed at the finest details they were able to capture and translate onto the products. It's really nice to see my work naturally evolving from skin to leather.'
It's really nice to see my work naturally evolving from skin to leather.
Saira would appear to have the best of both worlds. She lives in a semi-rural part of Wales, just twenty minutes from the beach. When London is calling, Paddington is two and half hours away by train. She visits London to see family and friends, and to find her favourite foods. A vegan and gluten-free diet mean she eats carefully. 'I'm forever on the lookout for really good health food shops.' Saira's favourites are Manna, in Primrose Hill and Vanilla Black, in The City. Then it's back to her idyll: for her work, she needs silence. 'I'm not shutting myself out from the world but actually channelling a different kind of energy, and doing the work I need to do.'
Text by Clare Carlin Photos by Peter Clayman, Martin N. Kunz, Jo Weissgerber, Saira Hunjan, Ettinger, London