Nisala Saheed

The intersection between design and person is one that coincides with the notion to represent and advocate, for entertainment and expression. Nisala Saheed is an emerging artist trekking the world of design in his attempt to create social change and create a space for individuals such as themselves. In our conversation with Nisala we understood his passion for post-colonial history and the representation and presentation of its happenings. The intricate piecing of their work and sketchbook drawings illustrate an apt comprehension of their subconscious and conscious advocacies. How has the world changed and altered to accommodate new principles and post-colonial laws? From its architecture to culture, to the people and their ways, Nisala explores and illustrates. In conversation, we discussed their inspiration, their journey and works of art.

Artist Nisala Saheed is originally from Sri Lanka and utilizes his passionate interest in art and design as tools in creating social change. They believe that design transcends aesthetics and is instead a way of producing solutions to problems in our daily lives. From transport systems to museums to branding, design/design thinking is a field of knowledge that they adore deeply. Nisala has a B.A. from New York University Abu Dhabi where they studied Visual Arts and Design, as well as Sociology. Nisala finds that the intersection between human behaviour and design is integral in producing effective design solutions as it requires an understanding of people, how people function, and how people interact with one another. Nisala’s passions lie in creative content development, and media design, working to produce art and narratives of people’s experiences and history. They currently reside in Amsterdam where Nisala continues to pursue their passion.

Q | Can you tell us about your journey in the art industry and how you began?

A | I am currently making a slow and yet steady entrance into the art industry, but I have been interested in art, expression, and design since I was very young, but I truly began honing my technical skills when I entered high school. My lovely parents bought me a drawing tablet for a birthday, and I was absolutely ecstatic. I spent a few hours every night over 4 years studying human anatomy, thumbnailing, and concept art. I also listened to a few visual podcasts to consume some core philosophies around visual design. 

I spent the last 4 years at New York University Abu Dhabi completing my undergraduate degree in Visual Art and Sociology. This was a pivotal experience that gave me the privilege and space to pursue my creative interests. It also sparked my love for collaboration, as I was constantly in and out of meetings and conversations with creatives whom I look up to.

Q | What are some of your inspirations and why do they inspire you?

A | I am a bit of an overthinker, and the anxiety of attempting to dissect everything around me has been exhausting. With time, however, I have found beauty in those things because I cannot stop - nor should stop - my own mind from doing what it does. This realization has shaped my sources of inspiration. As a queer and gender non-conforming person, I am driven by the weirdness of the world, the taboos, the outcasts, and more so, the underlying structures that label people and things as “othered”.  As for who inspires me, I find that my late-night YouTube design podcasts with Sinix Design, Sycra, Trent Kaniuga are amongst my earliest inspirations. In the past few years, I have been moved and empowered by the work of my peers such as Shenuka Corea and Harshini Karunaratne. The internet and our growing access to art have exposed me to many wonderful creatives including Roshan De Selfa and the Akuru Collective.

Q | What mediums do you use in your creative process?

A | My sketchbook feels like an extra limb, of sorts. I don’t go anywhere without it, and I find myself in the oddest places with it: a bathroom stall, a restaurant, or on a walk never really drawing in it, but just holding it in my hands. It makes me feel safe, and it is always the starting point for anything I am doing. Whether it is studying, doing design, needing release; I always start with my sketchbook. While I have interests in a variety of mediums, including traditional paint, sound, theatre, and performance, drawing functions as a type of speaking, helps me externalize and organize the mess that goes on inside my head. Sketching is the conversation I have with myself so that my mind is clear when I’m collaborating and creating.

Q | Can you tell us about the kind of work you do and subjects of focus?

A | I have a deep interest in post-colonial studies and post-colonial visual cultures, performance art, and design. For my undergraduate thesis, I developed a deck of cards that source from the mythology and folklore of a pre-colonial Sri Lankan society in an attempt to reclaim imagery that has been lost or ripped from the fabric of Sri Lanka. The project functioned both as a visual design project, and also a post-colonial research project. I spent many hours visiting temples and reading primary texts to understand a society that has been erased by the colonial enterprise. I wanted to end the cycle of violence by addressing the colonization of native Sri Lankan cultures, and exposing the opportune moments to design a world and narrative that feels culturally sensitive, representative, and queer. I’m currently figuring out how to print the decks, so keep an eye out for it!

Q | Your works mostly showcase the anatomy of the human body and faces, of unique figures; what influences this work and what are meant to represent?

A | Most of the work you see on my Instagram is actually a collection of primary externalizations from my sketchbook. Perhaps my existence between the lines of gender pushes me to explore the lines of the body and deconstruct the limitations of a body-centric society. But, in reality, I’m just studying them. I feel I am not where I want to be with understanding the human body so I keep drawing them. Most of my work actually lies more on the side of design. I believe that design, art, and creativity are inherently collaborative, and a lot of my work is a product of collaboration: working in stage design for performance, illustration for storytelling, graphic design in corporate contexts, and exhibition design for curatorial spaces. All of these creative engagements also act as forms of studying. In studying, and expressing, and dismantling I want to bring the chaos of art into the structures of the design world. Of course, I’m still new to all of this, but the thought of growing through these processes drives the intentionality of my work.

Q | Are you currently working on any projects?

A | I’m currently completing a Master’s Degree in Digital Design in Amsterdam. I have been working on a series of projects that explore the use of digital media, including augmented reality experiences for sustainability education, and virtual reality in the context of performance art. I am currently working with a colleague on designing and prototyping a sustainable solar hat. We are interested in contributing to the philosophy and imagery of SolarPunk and are driven by our ethics in interest in the concept of utopia. Additionally, I am working with a team on a curatorial installation experience aimed at addressing the serious pain points in racial discourse in the Netherlands as it relates to Dutch Colonial history.

From his anatomical depictions and colonial observations, Nisala’s work is simulative of a conscious alteration. Inspirations and influences seeped into the lines and colours of Nisala’s work, a textured creation and design of their comprehension. What we admire about Nisala’s work is the larger context of understanding between human, nature and society and the correlation between the three aspects and what they may embody. Follow Nisala’s work on his Instagram page as well as his website.

24th March, 2021 Visual Art | Sketches