Art and Internationalism

Nasser Azam’s work as a banker and artist have taken him all over the world, from Pakistan and Antartica, to 5 miles above the Earth. is charmed by this most vivacious of characters

Athena, London, July 2012

Athena, London, July 2012

Former Chief Operating Officer at Merrill Lynch, Nasser Azam, doesn’t correlate producing paintings with being an artist. “I am always thinking about what relevance art has to the way we live now.”

Nasser was artist-in-residence at London’s County Hall for over two years. Here he unveiled exhibitions including multiple series of paintings and the large bronze sculpture The Dance, unveiled on the South Bank on 21 February 2008. His exhibition ‘Anatomic’ received critical acclaim. In 2012 Azam unveiled Athena, the tallest bronze sculpture in the UK, and in 2008 one of his pieces outsold a Banksy in New York.

Critics have labelled his work as performance painting and figurative art. Nasser regards himself as a contemporary artist, who is both relevant and allegorical. Nasser Azam is deliciously eccentric, charismatic, and utterly charming. His various printing techniques create a saturated, high-impact field of colour which echo the artists own vivacious vibrancy.

“There was a period of about nine months when I was still at the bank and painting. I’ve left the bank, but now I only paint at night.”

How did Nasser believe his work had progressed? “I see myself as an allegorical artist, and representational, figurative painting has always been central to me – especially in my earlier work. I think I had a given gift as a draughtsman, so very early on I was doing figurative and representational painting using my family members – but there has always been an emotional angle, so even though my work has become more abstract, it still stems from my early figurative past.

“It’s about development as an artist – and actually, I think abstract painting is much tougher then representational art – you have to be a good draughtsman to be able to do abstract painting, as form and composition is much tougher to gauge.”

The former COO became serious about art as a profession during his teenage years, and had various exhibitions in Birmingham and the West Midlands whilst he studied Commerce at Birmingham University. “Initially I chose not to go to Art School as I didn’t think that I would gain anything from doing so. Once I completed my business degree (during which I was actually quite prolific in producing paintings) I decided that I needed a wider experience of the world – to me art is a maturing experience; it ages as the artist does.”

Pre-2007, Merrill Lynch took him to Japan for 11 years and provided the opportunity to travel. “As art was never a hobby for me, I put down my brushes for over 20 years – however, even though I wasn’t painting, I was still an artist.”

Born in Pakistan, travel and culture have had the most influence on Nasser’s work. “The aesthetics of the Japanese culture were very evident in my earlier work when I returned to painting.”

In 2008, he decided to make art his full time occupation and left the corporate world. “There was a period of about nine months when I was still at the bank and painting – it was tough as I was painting through the night and going to work in the morning. One aspect of that overlap is now I only paint at night.”
Nasser’s work is grouped into series such as Blue Turmoil, Entanglement and Emotional Decay. I wanted to know if art was a form of therapy for Nasser, or perhaps a religious experience. “Neither – creativity to me is quite a destructive process. There are many sacrifices you have to make to create art – my early work was grouped as I was experimenting more in personal elements in my life.”

Nasser Azam has created two sets of artwork in zero gravity. As the London City Hall artist in residence, Nasser and a team of painters including Lyn Hagan, Stelarc, Luke Jerram and Nin Brudermann, ascended 23,000ft in a specially modified zero gravity plane to carry out his ‘Performance Painting’ Project. The purpose of the endeavour was to find the most extreme conditions in which an artist can efficaciously create. The project explored the limits of creativity in extreme and unfamiliar physical conditions.

“I temed both the Zero Gravity and the Antarctica projects as “performance paintings” – an effort to let the extreme environments dictate what I was painting. Both space and Antarctica are two harsh environments that humans don’t live in. Faced with those challenges we think of survival, but I wanted to review what the impact would be on creativity given those conditions.”

Patnitop, 2012

During this ‘Life in Space’ assignment, Nasser completed two new triptychs, Homage to Francis Bacon: Triptych I and Homage to Francis Bacon: Triptych II. Both were completed whilst experiencing exhausting weightlessness. In February 2010, Nasser’s artistic expedition took him to Antarctica. He created a series of oil paintings in response to his experience of these foreign frozen landscapes.

In 2010 Nasser acquired the Morris Singer Art Foundry, the oldest bronze foundry in the UK, and went on to launch it as the Zahra Modern Art Foundry.
The historic foundry has produced some of the world’s most famous monumental sculptures, including the bronze lions in Trafalgar Square, and the Boudicca outside the Houses of Parliament. It has produced work by all the major British sculptors over the past 170 years, including Henry Moore.

Nasser’s sculpture and their semi-natural, perforated style have led to comparisons of his art with the work of 20th-century sculptors such as Archipenko and Henry Moore. His sculpture Athena stands as a symbol of the on-going regeneration of East London. It weights eleven tonnes and is 12 metres in height. “I think Athena is a good start to the regeneration of Newham that is taking place and as it is permanent – will hopefully continue to add to that.”

“In 2006 I had the idea for a large public sculpture in London. The image of Athena came almost immediately – it just seemed to me the simplest form that could express the aspirations of a community at a time of great optimism and change. Above all, I hope that Athena becomes a positive symbol for Newham, the Borough where I grew up, and where my parents still live.”

The sculpture was created as an expression of the excitement and ambition of London, in the run up to the Olympics and a reflection on the history of the Games. “I have a dedicated team of designers and craftsmen who were able to realise my sculpture in three dimensions, and on a scale that even I at first thought was impossible. It has been a real honour to have worked with so many wonderful and talented people, without whom this really extraordinary undertaking would not have been possible.”

Azam and his team painting at zero gravity, at 23,000ft

Nasser has collaborated in his life with a number of artists in the fields of fashion, film and music. As a philanthropic promoter and mentor to younger artists, in 2009 ‘The Azam Collection’ was launched, as an investment fund for contemporary creations.

We talked about censorship in art. Nasser’s response was insightful and I thought it defined him as an artist: “To me what matters is integrity, whatever form the art takes – as long as it is genuine then the artist has the right to make it and everyone has the right to assimilate and evaluate it.”

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