In Conversation with Fathima Hakkim

Greeshma Sukumaran
Published: October 2018

The colours inside a ‘Heart’ist

For art connoisseurs, Fathima Hakkim’s paintings have a flow akin to poetic outpourings. Every piece of her art has a tale to unravel, the story of her struggles and the psyche of life. It is a journey through the life of an artist who wore scars of oppression and discrimination to weave an inspirational canvas.

A journey littered with challenges makes it abundantly clear that it has not been a cakewalk for Fathima Hakkim in her quest to be a painter. Hailing from a conservative Muslim family of professionals from Kollam, Kerala— her father, Abdul Hakkim is a homoeopathic doctor while her mother, Haneesa, a Professor of Economics, many expected her to follow a conventional career path.

When she finally made time from her art studio for the interview in the leafy environs of Starbucks in JP Nagar filled with aromas of the Arabicas and Robustas, one expected her upcoming exhibition in the city of Bengaluru and the devastation of the recent floods in the state of Kerala to dominate our talks. Yet our conversation would not resist the occasional revisits to her childhood, family and her triumphs over the tragedies and whatever barriers life keeps erecting on her path.

As a niggling tot in class

Now an established painter, Fathima Hakkim, an architect by profession recalls in her own words “the mess” she was growing up in. The quirky little girl had difficulties in learning that would later be diagnosed as Dyslexia, a learning disorder characterised by difficulty in reading.
She continues narrating her life as a dyslexic child with immense challenges in reading, identifying colours, and numbers reversing before her eyes. Whichever way she looked, nothing seemed to have been following a straight line for her.

Besides, she was bullied and a victim of ragging that made a laughing stock during her schooling. But every time she was browbeaten, she would challenge herself to rise above it. She recalls plunging into painting for her own survival and it gave her the tools to conquer the world beyond her home that previously only existed to give her nightmares.

She took refuge in her art to escape from her melancholy. Fathima is not a trained painter. She calls herself a
self-taught artist, where it was her melee in life that played a catalyst to paint, some of her beautiful paintings drew inspirations from the people around her. Sometimes, it is the conversations she had; sometimes it was a tidal wave of emotions that may have hit her hard.

The colours inside Fathima

Fathima loves colours. Though her favourite colours keep changing with time, she uses them to paint her stories.

Fathima started painting with sketch pens, which her dad bought her when she was still a toddler. “I would always carry my sketch pens and papers wherever I would go as a child. I would spread them all over and start drawing branches of trees on it,” she recalls, “I don’t want anything to come in the way of my art. Nothing should confine my art. I stay away from such things.” Fathima chuckles when she says that she didn’t restrict her canvas as well. “I used to spread the canvas in our car porch to do the paintings. I would spray the colours on it and roll over it, walk, and run or do whatever I liked. They turned into amazing pictures.”

“I like to meet people. There is something unique in everything that we see. I believe I have something to learn from the people I meet. Sometimes I would want the people to talk to me about everything they feel. It then comes out as a movie right in front of me.”

So does Fathima plan what she intends to paint? She smiles exquisitely and continues, “I don’t really. The paintings I do stem from a vision. I don’t paint for today or tomorrow, even for this century. It is for another world and another century to come. I get visions or an urge to paint. I talk to my canvas. Tell them that I want to paint today. And it flows, it happens naturally.”

For now, Fathima does not want to be identified with dyslexia. She says, “That is a part of me. But it is not Fathima. It is not my identity.” The failures she has had in life, the mistakes she made, the trauma she went through and the lost childhood all could have been the result of dyslexia. But that will not describe her best. It is her art; it is her paintings that speak to her. “You might not remember the things that you were punished for. But you will definitely dredge up the memories of the things you were denied,” she pours out.

And her favourite paintings? “That would be the one that I am yet to draw,” she responds with a chuckle. Showing her works on her prized iPad, which she says was purchased recently, Fathima can hardly stray into any other topic except her work. There is a striking picture she has painted of a drowning little girl. As her body gets immersed into the ravaging waters, her flesh leaves the body; the skin and what remains become roots. Fathima says she looks at veins and nerves in the body as trees. And the paintings talk to the viewer. Another portrays a girl with a purple background. She informs me that she is healing, pauses and continues to say that it will heal but will not return to complete normalcy. “That is how healing works,” she says.

That is the power of art. The subtle gamut elevates the artist when it connects with the people. Her paintings need no caption or elucidations. It is you and I and it is the life that we live. Some of her works can put one into a swirl of emotions. Like that girl in the balcony of the violent bougainvillaeas, like that lass talking to a beanbag and many more.
“Some think I am mad and violent when I paint like this. But I should know better. They haven’t lived my life; I don’t want to be judgmental about anything. That is being me.”

“I have been painting since childhood,” says Fathima as she takes me on a trip down her memory lane. “But it was in 2016 that I decided to exhibit my work of art.” Her first exhibition was in Calicut. Fathima travelled to the city that was unfamiliar for her till then. She rolled on her paintings and left home looking for a new landscape to give colours to her dreams.

The artist in her has taken time to unravel and spread its wings but the pursuit is without a doubt the outcome of inner pain, suffering in the hands of those she considered close but ended up betraying her, endless insults that have left deep scars and the many mistakes she found herself making in life.

“It was not easy to stand in front of people in the hall, talk to them, and explain my paintings to them. But at the end of it I told myself, ‘Fathima, you did it.’ That was the wake-up call. Today, she has traversed different cities and sprawls and met new people and made friends. This has opened a wide canvas for Fathima. She also conducts workshops. “Most of the people who come to my workshops are beginners. I don’t teach them painting; I rather tell them how I do it. I let them paint their body; use their hands to make a picture. One should feel it when you are making an art,” she offers her closing thoughts.

Away from art and work, Fathima plays the Ukulele. The gut strings of the tiny lute may interrupt her train of thoughts or lose the thread of conversation, but she finds solace in that as well. “I sing too,” she says. It is hard not to look at Fathima’s paintings as an opus with dazzling and lingering pictures in it. While it all started from ‘if she could, why not I’, Fathima’s works are a sea of stories and retentions. They lingered in my mind long after the coffee joint we sat at had brewed its last cup and pulled down the shutters.