Conversations with Shahan Zaidi


by Hasan Kazim @Dastaan World

Shahan Zaidi was born in Karachi. He began his career in 1997 as a cartoonist, and has since worked as a comic book artist, concept artist, and art director for various renowned companies in Pakistan. He has served as visiting faculty for Character Design, Life Drawing, and Traditional Animation at a number of institutes. Shahan has also mentored dozens of artists and animators, including the team here at Dastaan World.

When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist?

I think certain things just happen in life. When it first started, I simply observed things around me. I would feel the texture of things, and understand their shapes. Then I grabbed a pencil. Everything after that is practice and learning. But I never thought I would make it a profession. I always wanted to be a film maker or a professional race-car driver. Art happened to me, and maybe one day, film-making will too. My biggest sources of inspiration have always been film and animation.

How would you define a ‘Concept Artist’?

I do work as a concept artist but I’m not sure if I identify as one. If I had to define the term, a concept artist is a visual artist who does pre-production work according to the script of a film or game, and makes it visually available before it goes into production. In my role as an art director, I have to ensure all concept art and pre-production is following the right direction, and is done according to the client and/or the director’s vision. I’m responsible for the look and feel of production, from storyboards to the final render.

Bloody Nasreen by Shahan Zaidi

What are your greatest influences and sources of inspiration?

Great minds, great thinkers, great people. People who did something astonishing, something unique. There are many. Some of them are Quentin Tarantino, Jon Elia, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Gore Verbinski, Stanley Kubric, and Banksy.

What is the one experience you think has shaped you most as a person?

I can’t blame just one experience for what I am. I’m not even sure a single experience can shape someone forever. I am adaptable, open to change. I like to experience many and different things, and then moving on to explore something else entirely. Even so, I think I am quite lazy.

The most extraordinary experience of my life was when I was first introduced to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I really loved the show. I used to draw the Turtles, and sell the drawings in school for 1 Rupee each [90 cents]. Next on the list of life-defining experiences are when I found Jon Elia, and then Quentin Tarantino.

What do you work on in your spare time?

Mostly, I’ll read a book or watch a movie. What I really like doing, however, if I can spare the time, is to sit and do nothing at all. That is the most difficult thing to do when you do not have anything to do.

From Aamil Diaries by Shahan Zaidi

What is a project or accomplishment you consider to be the most significant in your career?

To be honest, I haven’t done anything which should be called an achievement yet. However, I do hope to see it happen sometime soon. I never do anything for the sake of achievement or reward. I learn, and do what I feel inspired to. Everything else happens along the way. Hopefully, I will achieve something significant but it’s OK even if I don’t. Life is a journey, not the destination.

What is integral to the work of an artist?

Now that is a tough question. Art is vast. To define it with but one notion is, I feel, unfair to its immense scope. Maybe, the artist himself is integral to his work of art. It is the artist, after all, who suffers through the pain first, and then paints it for the world to see. It is the artist who identifies what to include in their work, what would resonate through the centuries to come. Craft is an important aspect, yes but in art, what is made is more important than how it’s made.

What is the role of an artist in society?

Art is continuously evolving, through time and need. Artists are simply people who find it difficult to adjust in their society, and yet somehow manage to change it, shape it through small details. They judge the past and present, and foresee the future. An artist’s role therefore, is to define society I suppose, and they can only achieve this if they are aware of what’s going on around them.

How does your work comment on current social and/or political issues?

I have never really thought about it. I work for clients and companies, and do whatever is required of me by the job. When I work for myself though, as I said before, I paint, draw or write whatever I feel inspired about. I do really enjoy talking about taboos. I like unspoken stories, and want to talk about them, paint them, and maybe even film them.

The human civilization, I feel, has to understand the need for getting rid of these differences of face and race. This is not the time to blindly follow a popular trend. We need to raise awareness of the value of collective thinking with individuality seamlessly integrated into the process.

Where is Bloody Nasreen these days, and what can we next expect from Shahan Zaidi?

[Smiles wryly] I’ve been asked this question a lot recently. I hope people understand that it’s not easy for a guy who barely makes a living to publish graphic novels and release movies so quickly on his own. However, I am working hard to make it happen by collaborating with a few other people. I want more than anyone else to get it done. Meanwhile, Nasreen is relaxing with a joint on a rooftop somewhere in a dystopian, near-future, radioactive Karachi.

As for what’s next, I have many different things in mind. I have been working on a vampire noir graphical story based in 19th century India. You will, hopefully, see its artwork on social media soon.