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Exclusive Interview: "Painting is an Act of Connection" – India-born London-based Abstract Artist Sana Rao on Art, Poetry, and Identity

Sana Rao Artist in her studio
Sana Rao in her London studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

I am delighted to introduce Sana Rao, an abstract expressionist artist whose work resonates deeply with the resilience found in nature. Her canvases are imbued with harmonious brush strokes in a serene, earthy palette, offering a poignant response to the emotional detachment of contemporary life. Encountering Sana's captivating art at The Other Art Fair in London earlier this year was a transformative experience amidst the bustling array of booths. Her paintings exerted a magnetic pull on me, drawing me into a contemplative space where each stroke seemed to echo with profound emotion. Sana's ability to evoke such depth through her art establishes her as an artist worthy of your attention.

Born in India in 1986, Sana Rao currently resides and works in London, UK. Her journey as an artist is as diverse and inspiring as her artwork. Trained at the esteemed National Institute of Design in India and holding an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York, Sana's fine arts and design background deeply informs her creative vision. Prior to her return to art, Sana spent nearly two decades immersed in the world of design and technology, working with prominent companies such as Twitter, Deliveroo, Apple, and Peanut across three continents.

Her artistic achievements include exhibitions such as "Abstraction 2024" at the CICA Museum in South Korea, The Other Art Fair by Saatchi Art, and "Being Human" at the Koppel Gallery. Her work has also been featured in 'Designing California' at The Design Museum, London.

In our interview, Sana delves into her artistic evolution, exploring the synergy between her painting and poetry and how diverse environments have shaped her perspective. Her insights, enriched by navigating the tech industry as a woman of color, offer a profound perspective on inclusivity and support for underrepresented voices. Sana Rao's art transcends visual appeal; it embodies deep meaning and relevance, establishing her as a pivotal voice in today's cultural landscape.

Continue reading to discover the artistic world of Sana Rao...

Female artist painting on a canvas over the floor
Sana Rao is creating a painting in her studio. This is a still image from one of the artist's Instagram reels. Image courtesy of the artist.

Can you share a bit about your background and what initially inspired you to pursue a career as an artist?

I was born and raised in India and have lived and worked across the US and UK. I studied Fine Arts in high school and then went on to study design at the National Institute of Design in India (set up by Charles & Ray Eames with the Indian Government) and then an MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York. As a designer, I worked in tech companies for around 12 years, but somewhere along the way, I lost touch with pure creative impulse: creation for the self, for meaning-making, rather than corporate briefs. My health suffered, and I returned to art as a way to survive and manage my chronic pain. It has now become a way of life again, and I am fiercely protective of my artistic inner life and creative space - I've learned the hard way just how important it is.

Abstract painting by Sana Rao
Painting by Sana Rao. Image courtesy of the artist.

As both a visual artist and poet, how do you see the relationship between your painting and poetry? Do you find that one medium often inspires or influences the other, and if so, could you share an example of how your poetry has influenced a particular painting or vice versa?

Poetry and visual art, to me, are mirrors of the same creative impulse, means of connection, and conversation. Most of my paintings are titled after poetry that's connected with me, and I'm increasingly moving into ekphrastic poetry, so I feel that both mediums inspire the other. I will sometimes write a poem on the canvas itself, juxtaposing rational language with more physical or emotive gestures and often concealing or blurring the text beneath the image or flipping the canvas so only fragments of the markings are visible. For me, this is about letting go of control and not allowing the ego to be at the center stage.

Image courtesy of Sana Rao.

Your artwork is described as a "personal meditation" and a response to a mechanized existence. Can you share more about the emotions that drive your creative process?

Painting is an act of connection with myself and also with the world. I truly believe disconnection and numbing are key features of the Anthropocene in which we live. Connection to each other and ourselves is what is required to remind ourselves of our shared ecosystems and humanity - it's the only way we will survive. As I paint, I am deconditioning and unlearning everything that isn't true and intuitive to my nature, trusting my instincts and inner wisdom when I use automatism to paint an image of how it feels to be in that moment. I use the grounded totality of my body. That is the only way to create for me.

Image of the city of Rajasthan, India. Photo by Giuliano Gabella on Unsplash

Having experienced the rich cultures of Rajasthan, California, and now London, among other places you've called home, how have these diverse environments shaped your artistic vision? Are there any specific elements or themes from each place that you find particularly inspiring or recurring in your artwork?

As much as I have appreciated the rich diversity of all the places I have lived, it has only made me understand with more clarity that we ultimately share more similarities than differences. The colors I paint withdraw often from the colors of Rajasthan, where cities are named and painted in pigments like terracotta, blue, and oche – but the themes that emerge in my work are universal. People often react to my work, saying it looks like either aerial topographies or microscopic images, if not both. That is exactly the intent - the shared visual language of the cosmos, the human body, and our natural world.

female artist showing her painting
Sana Rao in her London studio. Image by the author from her studio visit.

Could you walk us through a typical day in your life as an artist living and working in London?

I do have a part-time job to create some consistency and structure in my day - to have a right and wrong way to do something can be comforting, especially when the rest of your time you are an artist where you only have yourself to create structure.

On the days when I go to the studio, I like to start with slow and nourishing mornings - grounding myself through a gym workout is essential. Then I head to my studio at Ridley Road in Dalston just around lunchtime; I walk to my studio, provided the weather is good, and I am not carrying heavy materials, using the time to set some intentions for the studio. Once I get in, I use a large sheet of paper to discharge any outside energy - I will make quick, energetic marks to get to a place of calm first. Then, I lay out several pieces of raw, unsized canvas and begin pouring water on the surface. I then use inks to create the painting in silence. I know I'm in the flow if I find hours have passed and I've entirely lost track of time. I watch as the ink moves across the surface of the canvas and creates a painting with me - I'll nudge the ink along in gentle ways, but mostly, I let gravity and the materials do their thing.

Before leaving the studio, I spend an hour setting reminders for upcoming submission deadlines and documenting the process so far. I then leave for the day to get home.

abstract painting
Painting by Sana Rao. Image courtesy of the artist.

Given your extensive background in design and product within the tech industry, where you navigated spaces as a woman and person of color, how do you view the current state of inclusivity and support for underrepresented groups within the art world? Are there lessons or practices from your tech experiences that you believe could positively impact the art community in terms of fostering diversity and inclusivity?

Having navigated spaces built by and for a specific set of people, I am very conscious of not believing in the myth of meritocracy. The art world is insular from both an artist and collector viewpoint, and even though there are many pockets where people are trying to create spaces for more diverse voices, there is a long way to go. One of the ways I believe this can be greatly improved is by funding the careers and practices of emerging artists from diverse communities and backgrounds, both through government artist grants and galleries deciding to fund and prioritize a diverse roster of artists and collectors. More often than not, there are real barriers to funding and security for folks from underrepresented backgrounds.

abstract painting
Painting by Sana Rao. Image courtesy of the artist.

Looking ahead, what themes or explorations are you currently interested in pursuing in your future artwork?

I am getting increasingly interested in the conversations between my art and my poetry and want to explore more direct conversations between them. Ekphrastic poetry has a long and rich tradition, and I am keen to explore more of this and how it impacts the themes of my work. I am also keen to start exploring and integrating traditional Indian craft practices into my work. There is rich indigenous history to tap into, which has been devalued precisely because of its origins, alongside usually being considered women's work. I would love to integrate and showcase textile crafts like kantha, batik, weaving, dyeing, and block printing into my paintings.

Thank you for reading! You can view a short video from my visit to Sana's art studio here.

Stay up-to-date with the artist here:

Instagram: @sanarao

Check out available art here: Saatchi Art

Subscribe to her Substacks: Found poems | Diary of an Artist


Hello! I want to underscore the importance of transparency in my work. I maintain no affiliations with the artists or galleries showcased in this interview, and I do not gain financially from any resulting sales through the provided links. My ethical stance extends to not accepting money from artists for features, as I firmly believe in recognizing talent based on merit rather than financial incentives.

If you're intrigued by the artist's work, I encourage you to reach out directly through the provided links. Should you require assistance in finding the right art for you, I am pleased to offer my art sourcing service—please contact me for more details.

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XX Jenny


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