Noor Unnahar: At the Intersection of Poetry and Art

Featured Images: Noor Unnahar

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Born and raised in Pakistan, Noor Unnahar is a best-selling poet and visual artist. She is currently pursuing her BFA from Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, an art school by the sea in Karachi. She works with a number of mediums (photography, illustration, journaling, collages, and more!) and creates works of art that are laced with poetry. Her work has been recognized internationally and continues to grow across the continents. Her poetry has been translated into a number of languages, which include published translations of her debut collection Yesterday I Was the Moon (Penguin Random House, 2018) in Dutch (Gisteren Was Ik De Maan, MUSE, 2019) and Chinese 昨日我是月亮 (Pan Press, 2021). Her new collection New Names for Lost Things (Andrews McMeel, 2021) is all set to be released in October.

What are the major themes and ideas your work revolves around? How have they changed since you first began writing and creating art?

A lot of my work is rooted in personal identity. Themes like self, culture, religion, language, womanhood, angst, and survival are then stemmed from this parent theme. When I first self-published my debut work yesterday I was the moon, I was an anxious — albeit optimistic — teenager. The voice in that work was very young and full of hope. My current approach towards my craft has drastically changed. The language has become firm, the imagery has taken a certain direction, and the themes have aged nicely along.

Although the term “instapoetry” refers to any and all poetry published on Instagram as a medium, there is a certain Rupi Kaur-esque aesthetic that comes to mind whenever it is used. How do you feel about comparisons and generalizations like this that are commonly made when you post poetry online?

It doesn’t really bother me. My work, while centered around poetry, still uses other mediums like photography, journaling, and painting. I see my work as a visual assemblage, where two or more mediums are connected via a common theme. By identifying the methods, I simply become a creative who uses Instagram as an outlet to display my work. How that very work is labeled later is out of my hands.

How different are the processes of writing poetry and creating art? In your mind, are they separate entities, or do they intertwine throughout your creative pursuits?

I work on both mediums side by side. While painting a piece, I am simultaneously collecting words for the poem. There are days when the colors of a collage/illustration are shaping up the poem that rests as a draft in my notes. Then there are days when a poem directs where the artwork must go. In this process, they are not mutually exclusive.

You’ve published a volume of poetry, yesterday i was the moon, and a poetry journal, find your voice. How did you approach the challenge of creating a book, and how does this differ from your normal writing procedures?

Putting together Moon did not feel very different from making and updating an art journal. I created in the same manner. The only difference was this acknowledgment of the fact that people were going to be able to keep the book, unlike the journal, which only appeared on the screen for others to see.

How has having a twin with similar interests impacted who you are as a person and the way you create your art? As both of you are quite frequently in the public eye, do you ever feel the need to consciously make efforts to differentiate yourselves and your work from each other?

Areeba and I have very distinctive approaches when it comes to our work. Even if we are working on similar projects, we both understand that the outcomes will always be significantly dissimilar. Her work has always been very illustrative and targets the visual aspect of the story, while I have focused on turning the story into poetry. Much like her personality, her work is thunderous and vibrant. Much like my personality, my work is cautious and inquisitive.

Are you a perfectionist when it comes to art journaling? How do you deal with making mistakes and being unsure of something you have created?

I have a grudge against the word perfect. The surety of this word is almost arrogant. What I create is paradoxical; it’s both perfect and imperfect at the same time. The solution, as I learned after years, is to understand that your art is an accumulation of your skillset. Once I see the best of my skill in the finished piece, that is the end. That is when it goes out in the world.

Apart from being a talented artist, you are also a fashion icon, especially for women and girls who crave more modest alternatives to popular styles. Where does your love for dressing up stem from, and who are your personal style icons?

I grew up in a house full of women who wore stunning banarasi saaris and soft linen kurtas. They shopped from local fashion houses. My sister and I always tagged along to see this magical world firsthand. My grandmother, in particular, loved grandeur. Part of being a South Asian woman was to keep up with the colors, the patterns, and the designs that were booming in the fashion trends for the season. The women of my family have always inspired the way I dress.

As a person of color whose work frequently explores questions of family, identity, and gender, do you often feel like your work is seen from a very specific lens instead of being appreciated for its own merit? Do you ever feel the need to create work that is more “universal” than personal?

My craft is born from the stories that surround me, which is why it can only reflect them. If I create something outside of my experience, I will not be able to shape it authentically. I cannot do that, even if I try. This argument becomes the map that guides an artist — whose story are we telling? If it is not ours, then what is the point of archiving it through our craft?

As someone who shares their work frequently on social media, has the need to have a consistently appealing aesthetic helped or hindered your creative flow? Is it something that remains in your mind while making art?

I have a very flexible approach towards my work. I experiment a lot. Perhaps it’s the joy of being a young artist — there’s a lot of freedom. This perspective helps me create in different styles, thus not obstructing the way!

Unlike most modern poetry, where words are uniformly lowercase, the work you post online all tend to be written in capital letters. Is this a mere stylistic choice, or is there a deeper reason underlying this decision?

This is simply because I write in caps, all the time. It is a habit that started back in high school and later, I could not let it go.

If you could only read one book, listen to one song, watch one movie, and talk to one person for the rest of your life, what would they be?

One book: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong.

One movie: I am not a movie person at all. But it’s a tie between the Harry Potter universe & Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham.

One song: Delicate by Taylor Swift.

One person: the love of my life.

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Follow Noor on Instagram, Twitter, and her website to keep up with her work.