Award-winning visual artist Unaiza Karim began her career as a secondary school teacher in the United Kingdom, teaching and providing in-class support to children of refugees.
Life has come full circle for Karim in Canada. She and a group of private sponsors were recently instrumental in getting a Syrian family to relocate to Oakville, outside Toronto.
“Earlier last year, myself and anyone I spoke to were just shell-shocked by the images of the (Syrian) people having to leave their homes. We really thought we are living such comfortable lives, and I don’t know how these people are managing, given the things they are facing. We decided we couldn’t just watch this without doing something,” said Karim.
Her selfless actions are certainly inspiring. But Karim is also inspirational in her artistic pursuits, having carved a niche in the art world, specializing in decorative arts from the Islamic tradition. Armed with a master’s degree in visual Islamic and traditional arts from the Prince’s School of Traditional Art in London, she has a special interest in the art of books and illuminated manuscripts. Today, the self-employed artist of Pakistani heritage is on a mission to make such art accessible to everyone.
“Illumination is a very specific skill. It’s about the art of the book itself — the binding, handwriting, calligraphy, and so on,” she explains. “Illumination is about decorating the writing and adorning the picture books with patterns in order to illustrate the stories. I focus on the decorative element of the book: the title, margin, top and bottom of page. I want to distil what I know to make it more accessible to people who have little or no knowledge of such a specialized art form,” she says.
Karim was inspired by scholar Martin Lings, author of The Quranic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination, after attending one of his lectures. On his advice, Karim sought out a classically-trained teacher in Turkey, who taught illumination at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University.
Arriving in Canada in 2011, Karim started scouting out local markets and arts shows in Toronto to get a feel of the arts scene in the city.
“I set up my own classes,” she says. “I got together six to eight elementary school students and gave them an immersive experience in the arts. For example, one session would be Persian miniature painting or Ottoman art. We would sit on the floor and do drawing exercises. I did art sessions in schools, birthday parties and events at community centres.”
Her training as an educator further motivated her to devise programs for a wide array of people.
“I discovered a huge interest in art by people who did not have any formal training, but wanted to have an experience. They wanted a day of relaxation — an artistic getaway if you please,” she says with a laugh.
Karim, a busy mother of two, recently wrapped up some interesting projects, including offering courses at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, on the floral forms decorating manuscripts in the museum’s permanent collection, and a range of freehand and guided drawing and painting techniques.
Having exhibited extensively, including at the Gardiner in Toronto with a collaborative exhibit titled Bullets to Butterflies (inspired by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai), Karim is looking to start on a new body of work this year. She is also planning an entrepreneurship-themed event for children, where they can raise funds for a cause by selling handmade works of art.
“People are interested in experiencing something unique and if you find your niche and find innovative ways to get that out to the public, the possibilities are boundless,” says Karim.