Equine Art by Yaheya Pasha – The Horse as You Have Never Seen it

  • Structure and shape can be the building blocks of any great work of art, however the composition does not always have to be representational. :

Yaheya Pasha’s work is full of vibrancy and spirit, much like the artist herself. Born in Kent, Yaheya’s childhood was spent in the UK, dotted with holidays in India being her parents’ shared homeland. “I got to spend childhood holidays in India, meeting all my fascinating family members”, she explains. “Honestly, you could probably write a book on them that would be far more interesting than anything going on in Hollywood.”

She describes herself as a very creative and sensitive child. “I was also a bit nuts as well, but I think my mother understood me! I think I always felt a lot emotionally.” Hearing her try to put herself into words is a fascinating experience in itself. “I’ve always been understanding of people and things around me”, she says. “It’s hard to describe it, but say, when the sun shines, I really feel it. I feel things more. Colour, people, things around me. And I was like that right from the beginning.”

With her father a self-confessed art fanatic and her mother playing with bold colours through her clothing choices, Yaheya established a strong understanding of creativity and self-expression early on. A crucial aspect of this was having permission to experiment with her own imagination and creativity. “My parents never said to me, ‘Just concentrate on your education’ – my artistic side was always encouraged”, she explains. Trips to India provided a great deal of inspiration too. “My Nanna had these three antique cabinets, full of incredible objects and pieces of art – all beautiful, different colours,” she says. “To a child of seven, that was just so exciting.”

Creativity in her family didn’t stop at shared enthusiasm – collaboration played a big part too. Yaheya’s father made jewellery and actively encouraged her to be involved. “I would sit and help him pick out bits and pieces from his little box. It was always just encouraged, creativity of any kind”, she explains. “It was never dimmed, or put off in any way. That’s what helped me bloom and sent me off in the direction I went in, I think.”

As well as helping her father with his creations, Yaheya was already painting, drawing – using any medium she could get her hands on. “When I had pocket money, there were two things I loved and would buy: chocolate and paint. I have a very sweet tooth, you see; those were the two things I was passionate about.”

Whilst the majority of her studies took place on English soil, at around 15, the family attempted to settle in Hderabad, India and there Yaheya finished her final year of schooling. Although this move only lasted for a couple of years, she describes the places “a wonderful, crazy city”.

Once back in the UK, however, she didn’t immediately go on to study art at university. “There were, I felt at the time, the practicalities of life to consider”, she says. Yaheya may have found herself in the corporate working world, but she never stopped creating. “I was still painting in my spare time, working with textiles – I even sold work.”

As is often the way with creative souls fighting their true calling, Yaheya hit something of a stumbling block – one she is very much thankful for today. “Things came to a bit of a crescendo. One day, I arrived at my desk with my morning coffee, and I looked down at the work in front of me and thought, ‘This is just going to go on and on and on, and I have to do something about it.”

She says at that point she knew it was time to make a change. “I needed to do more with my art, to really take it further.” So, at 29, she signed up for an Art Foundation course. “Even then, I didn’t know if it was going to lead on to a degree”, she says. But she did – at the prestigious Central Saint Martins (CSM) in London. “Being there, that’s what gave me the confidence really. It was being put amongst a group of people who are so, so talented. We just sparked off each other – like electricity – it was magic.”

Yaheya describes this decision as exciting but daunting. “After years of working in a completely different environment, I didn’t know how I was going to fit in”. She was a mature student too – around a decade older than everyone else in her classes. “But it was the first time in my life that I thought; ‘finally, I’m home’ Because individuality was celebrated, and the creativity was just through the roof.”

While at the time it must have felt like a huge leap of faith, it is clear in hindsight that this was a thread running throughout her life – it had always been there. “I think what I needed was confidence, and that’s what my time at CSM gave me. But I can see it right from the beginning – in terms of colour and boldness”, she says. “I just lacked confidence; I didn’t know my own direction.”

Giving herself permission to simply explore again changed everything. Yaheya cites one of her former tutors Howard Tangye as a source of major inspiration and artistic empowerment. “I just felt so comfortable learning with him. His technique was free – it was all about the quality of the line. And he just got inside our heads and understood how we were wired somehow, and suddenly the quality of my work went up – because I was more enabled and more confident.”

While she is now best known for her equine pieces, this wasn’t always the case. “I’ve always had an interest in horses. I’m so interested in their anatomy and their dynamism, their interesting way of moving”, she explains. “But actually, part of this shift in focus was down to Little Van Gogh! When you came to see my work, out of all my paintings, you said you really liked my horses – and then asked me to do nine of them”, she says, laughing. “I’d been doing figurative work, with maybe the odd horse dotted here and there, but suddenly I had this amazing project brief – it was exciting.”

There is something deeply traditional and historic about her subject matter. But absolutely to her credit, Yaheya has this way of taking a very familiar subject and turning it on its head. The pieces are so hugely impactful – their boldness lights up a room. Aside from the more obvious inspiration of the animal itself, another stimulus for Yaheya is the moving image. “I’m a huge film buff”, she explains. “When I saw my first Anime film, my mind was truly blown. It plays a huge part in inspiring my work”. She says she plays a single film on a continuous loop in the background when working on a piece, to help her remain focused and inspired.

Another source of great inspiration that Yaheya believes is becoming increasingly visible in her own work is the Russian Artist, Mikhail Vrubel. “I discovered him when I was working at the Tate. There was one particular painting, The Seated Devil, and it was absolutely stunning.” This one image led to her exploring his work further. “I looked at how he would apply the paint, his brush techniques. I’ve been playing with it in my own work recently.” Whilst she describes these developments in her style as a work in progress, she feels very connected to Vrubela’s bold blocks of colour.  “You have these incredible shapes, and within those shapes are contained multiple colours. I think he knew exactly what he was putting together without it looking contrived.”

In terms of workspace, Yaheya’s has certainly changed over time, particularly in the last few years. “I was working in a converted studio in our house, but my canvases were getting bigger and bigger. That’s definitely a positive though – I find that the bigger the canvas, the better the work. Everything is magnified – the energy, the dynamism, all those characteristics.” However, working with canvases of ever-increasing size means that she has outgrown her studio space. “I’ve had to come down into our living room, and it’s great. I’ve got my art table set up and the easel is permanently downstairs now. It’s fantastic.”

Understandably, art means the world to an artist with Yaheya’s tenacity. She describes the need to make art as being “like a thirst”. After a back injury left her unable to create for three months, she found herself very depressed. “Because it’s something I need. It makes me function as a whole human being – that’s the best way to describe it. I need it – I can’t function without it.”

As our conversation draws to a close, Yaheya wants to impart some advice given to her. “This is for all artists, in any discipline at all”, she begins. “A tutor at CSM said to me, ‘As an artist, you’re going to be critiqued all your life by people looking at your work. But if it’s what you like doing, then it’s what you should do. Don’t let anyone change you or take you in another direction.’ My advice is the same: be honest with yourself. If the way you’re working and what you’re doing is what you’re passionate about, then stay with it. Not everybody is going to like it. But as long as you do, just have the confidence to continue.”