“I want to push it as far as I can, for as long as possible”: an interview with Zahra Zainal

I caught up with Zahra Zainal, who described herself as “a live artist, illustrator and designer who loves creating, people, and cats.” Most recently, Zahra was part of Joining Forces Collective, who redesigned one of Melbourne’s trams as part of the Melbourne Art Trams project. Today, she is a versatile artist, one whose creativity seems grounded to a pragmatic attitude, relentless ambition and a desire to do more.

You can find Zahra on her Instagram, Tumblr or Twitter.
– Al Zaquan

Up to your A-levels, it sounds like you were on a fairly conventional path. When did you realise that art was something you wanted to pursue seriously, and how have you found the confidence to commit to this ambition?

There really wasn’t any plan. I always liked drawing. It’s easy to commit to something you care about.

Confidence can be built with time, experience, experimentation and a positive outlook. With every successful project completed, I become a bit more confident in my abilities. Even the not-so-successful ones give me some kind of feedback to work off.

It’s a gradual evolution. I want to push it as far as I can, for as long as possible, hopefully all my life.

Who or what have been the biggest influences to your art? Have they changed over time? Do you think there’s something definitive to your art, or is it a shapeshifter with time/your external environment?

I have a lot of really good artist friends who are my immediate influences, because I spend so much time with them.

I like a lot of street artists. There’s a lot of freedom in working large. It has a bigger effect on society’s psyche. Having these gorgeous murals, so large and in your face, will definitely have a positive effect on our mental state. It makes us think, and it’s really subtle. Some artists I love are Maya Hayuk, Matt W. Moore, REKA, Dabs and Myla, Ken Garduno, Guno Park, Jeff Soto. I find new inspirations all the time, there’s so much good work out there.

What mediums of art did you start with? Which do you feel works best for you now, and are they any others you’d like to work with more? In terms of what inspires you the most, is it tied to a particular medium?

I like working with ballpoint pens best, when I’m sketching. My favourites are Bics, black ink, fine point. To colour, I use Photoshop, gouache, watercolour or colour pencils. It depends on what I’m working on at the time.

What tends to inspire me most is when I make new connections from old ideas, thus transforming them into new concepts. Music, people, everyday beauty, other people’s art and creations also inspire me.

You seem to have a very practical approach. You’ve said that art must be commodified, if one was to rely on it as a career. Where did this sense of pragmatism come from? How do you approach work and play today — can they converge or are they things you must compartmentalise?

I don’t think I would have said that art must be commodified, not in those words at least. What I do believe in is valuing your skills. You must know that the thing you love, and are passionate about, has worth. There are people out there who are in need of your services!

Artists, illustrators, and designers have a lot more expenses than people are aware of. Materials, equipment software licensing fees, studio rent, subscriptions to professional bodies, books, classes, industry events – these all require financial investment. It’s not some kind of barter system where you trade a drawing for a ticket to AGIdeas. If I could get paid to draw, I would always choose that option. But I most certainly do not only limit myself to making art that is dictated by a market. That’s a surefire way of learning to hate what you love. I make art for myself.

With regards to pragmatism or being practical: I enjoy doing cool projects. Cool projects require good ideas, then great execution. Execution involves meeting deadlines, meeting with people or organisations, and then there’s the actual work. It’s about knowing how to manage my time so that everything I care about gets its fair share of attention. The more efficient I am, the sooner my dreams are materialised.

I make a lot of lists. All kinds, from what needs to be done today or in 10 years. I make them very frequently too, giving myself the opportunity to either start over or re-do the lists as I grow.

Work can be fun; sometimes it’s just work. There have been times when the effort must come first, and inspiration later. I believe that everything in life is connected, and I try to approach everything in life with the idea of balance.

You mention that your career has been pretty varied. What have you gained most from the diversity of your experience?

It has given, and is still giving me a well-rounded education. I have learned about myself, what works and what doesn’t. I’ve worked with lots of different people, some of whom have become friends, for which I consider myself blessed.

At one point in your career, you were freelancing. How did you survive freelancing? How did this compare to having a full-time job — which of the two works best for you?

I have periods where I am very busy, and there are quiet periods. I’ve never had a problem occupying that time — I am always producing new ideas, always drawing and experimenting, and finding methods of improving. I’ll see a style or find a new technique, completely immerse myself in learning it, then synthesise what I’ve learned into my existing repertoire of skills.

I have gotten better at self-discipline and structure as I’ve grown as a person. Things that used to be difficult have become easier. Currently, I prefer to work with a team, but I have a good circle of friends that I see regularly if I am working on my own. I am now working out of a studio that houses all sorts of industry professionals, so it gives me a place that is separate to home for my work.

The main difference is that working freelance, you are wholly responsible for your own paycheck. Freelancing requires you to do far more for your career than if you had a full-time job — marketing yourself, finding new business, maintaining relationships with clients, meeting people and constant self-education.

On the plus side, your earning potential is decided by you. Working for someone else, it is subject to many other things — you may never be paid more than your boss, for example. I have also found that the scope of projects are usually more interesting.

There has definitely been a fair bit of trial and error for me! I’m still learning.

Since graduating, you’ve taken on several jobs and projects. Is Melbourne a place you see yourself settling in for the longer term? As an artist, what are your favourite and least favourite things about Melbourne? How does KL compare?

Melbourne’s art scene is incredibly fertile and supportive. Throw a stone, and you’ll hit someone who’s either a musician, artist, writer or performer. New shows every week, gallery openings, classes galore.

I haven’t properly lived in KL for the past eight years. Like most things, the art culture is ours to reshape and redefine as we please.  Being Malaysian gives us an understanding of a culture and history that is very definitive and unique. It gives us a sense of belonging, and we have a lot to draw from.

You’ve mentioned the use of Instagram, Tumblr, and your own website in promoting your work. How far do these tools go towards getting new jobs? Is the onus on the artist to self-promote and survive?

I do think it’s important to have an internet presence so people can get to know your work while you’re not physically there. Social media is very useful as it keeps you in people’s circle of awareness. I personally like getting glimpses into the processes of my favourite artists.

If you’re not on people’s radars, it’s likely that you’ll be forgotten. I have gotten jobs though sharing my work on Facebook and Instagram, but it’s not a steady thing yet.

It depends on where you’d like to take your work. It’s also fine to just create art and keep it to yourself. But if you want to get your work out there, self-promotion, on top of everything else, is one area to pay attention to. It’s important to know how to communicate what you do.

With Joining Forces, you worked in a team. You’ve also mentioned that you wish to participate in festivals, talks and play an active role in encouraging others in the field. Do you prefer working alone or with others? What dynamic do you contribute to a team?

I love people in general. I love the sheer possibility and potential we have as a collective to create. Some things are just easier achieved with a group of like-minded people. As a friend of mine once said “many cooks means dinner gets ready faster”. It’s true.

In a team, I can pick out what needs to get done, and see to it that it happens in the hands best suited for the job. I’m also good at finding great people to work with — crazies don’t stick around very long with me.

What kind of role do you envision playing to encourage other artists? What advice would you give to your 16-year-old self? What advice would you give to aspiring artists?

I would like to encourage artists to make art seriously — without having to tag on society’s dogma or preconceived notions as to what it is. It doesn’t make you pretentious or unrealistic. You can be any sort of artist you like. If you truly love art, and you spend your waking hours trying to better yourself at it, that is all you really need to be legit.

I would probably tell my 16-year-old self: There is more to you than you currently think. And that the little things you do on a daily basis are more important than the big things you do once in a while. You may not be able to envision the wonderful places your dreaming will take you right now, but keep at it. It’s going to be a good journey.

Advice for aspiring artists: Keep making work, put it out there, and share your passion with others. Everything you make allows you to witness your own creative potential manifested.  Things like feeling discouraged and creative burnout happen sometimes, and are temporary. Cultivating patience and a long-term view helps.

Join a library and use the internet to learn. Keep educating yourself.

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