Nasser Azam: Portrait of the artist

One of the star lots at this year’s ‘Independent’ charity auction was the chance to be interviewed by our very own Deborah Ross. But who’d have imagined the winning bid would come from a handsome financier who’s a talented artist, too? It’s almost too much for a girl to bear!
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Nasser Azam is a Chief Operating Officer at Merrill Lynch as well as an artist with an exhibition at London's County Hall and a sculpture on the South Bank. I'll swing that by you again: Nasser Azam is a Chief Operating Officer at Merrill Lynch as well as an artist with an exhibition at London's County Hall and a sculpture on the South Bank. I have repeated this not because it's extraordinary, even though it is, or on the assumption that you are slow, even though I've been told that you are, but so you can properly get your head around just how enraging this is. For a man to multitask is one thing, but to multitask on this scale? How dare he show us up in this way! Sisters, he must be stopped. Sisters, I will stop him.

I meet him at aforementioned County Hall, which used to house the GLC, then the Saatchi collection, but now houses a Nasser Azam exhibition – he is their artist-in-residence – alongside an exhibition by a Salvador Dali (nope, me neither). Art and finance are not my strong subjects, unless you count frittering money away, willy nilly, or the fact I actually do own a Jack Vettriano biscuit tin, which you probably don't. But Nasser tabled the winning bid in The Independent's annual Christmas charity auction for the right to be interviewed by me. ("He must be mad," said my mother, loyally.) So, here I am, here he is and, sisters, I will somehow put a stop to him.

That said, he is very charming; so, so charming. Had I not been made of such strong stuff, I think I might even have been instantly charmed. I get a kiss, maybe two. He smells delicious, of expensive cologne underwritten by Marlboro Lights, which is fine by me. As a former smoker who misses smoking passionately, I'd follow the scent of tobacco to the ends of the earth. He is 44, tall and handsome and is dressed smart-casual: jeans, open-necked shirt, gold bracelet, a shiny watch that isn't a Swatch. He has a black cab waiting, should we wish to go off to dinner later. (Oh, go on then.) I later discover he lives in Islington, in a property with a roof that opens to skies. Sisters, I have just imagined myself living in Islington in a property with a roof that opens to the skies and you know what? I looked good. I will stop him, I will, but I might have to marry him for a while first. Being such a multi-tasker, he may even take the rubbish out while remembering his own mother's birthday. Sisters, would you begrudge me that? Come on.

Pity the art is crap, though; all melty watches and swans reflecting elephants on lagoons. Nope, wrong gallery, and no wonder that Dali has yet to get anywhere. I wouldn't give him a residency in my shed. Nasser's art is rather wonderful, and perhaps a little spooky, in the way that unsettling art always is and, say, Jack Vettriano's isn't. (I've just had a look at my biscuit tin, and it didn't spook me at all.) Nasser walks me round his latest exhibition, titled Anatomica. I don't know what Nasser is like in the day job, but am guessing it has little to do with what comes out here. His paintings are big, urgent abstracts; great, hot swirls of acrylics that seem to fragment the human form, as if someone had melted down the human body and then hurled the parts at the canvas: the impression of an ear here, the smudge of a scrotum there, or at least that is what I see.

He says he doesn't think about what he is painting when he is painting. It isn't cerebral, and can't be if "you want to capture a feeling" and "get the emotion down". His paintings are grouped into series with names like Blue Turmoil, Entanglement and Emotional Decay. I am wondering if he has ever thought of therapy, but then realise that this, of course, is his therapy. He says he works at night, as if possessed. Sometimes he'll get four hours sleep, and sometimes none. "There were a couple of sessions in 2007 when I did a dozen paintings in two days," he says. But where are these feelings coming from? "I did go through quite a tough divorce," he says. I tell him I'm finding it a struggle putting his two halves together: the passionate artist and the COO at Merrill Lynch, the global bank that is such a behemoth even my spell check accepts it, no questions asked. How do your colleagues view you, I ask. "They are intrigued," he says. He adds: "And part of the reason I got back into art is because, well, I can."

Nasser, who was born in Jhelum, Pakistan, and moved to the UK when he was seven, has been an artist once before if, that is, you ever stop being an artist. When he was 18, the BBC even made a documentary about him and his talent, but once he'd finished university, where he studied business, that was it, the brushes were put down. Parental pressure? Probably, he says. His father, a historian who became a teacher here, had moved the family halfway across the world for the betterment of his five sons, and you don't thank a dad like that by becoming an artist. Doctor, lawyer, accountant, yes. Children who do jobs like that legitimise a family. But artist? No. Nasser neither resents his father nor the past 20 years at Merrill Lynch. He has travelled the world, has lived in Japan, and has grown, as a person and an artist. I do not know what a COO does. What does a COO do, Nasser? Nasser talks about "risk management" and "supporting infrastructures" and "setting strategic and operating objectives for anything that supports the business". Frankly? I'd thought as much.

He remembers the day he first came to Britain: 15 December 1970, and it was snowing. "I was bewildered by these big white blobs coming down from the sky. It was bitterly, bitterly cold which I wasn't used to at all." The Azams first moved in with some uncles in Edinburgh, which meant three families living in one flat or, to put it another way, 15 people in three bedrooms, and then moved to East Ham in London, which is where his parents still live. How do they deal with the artist side of him now? He says they are somewhat perplexed by the modern works, but when his sculpture, The Dance, went up on the South Bank, "I think there might have been some bragging".

He was an artistic boy. He can remember being four or five, "holding a pencil and being a good draughtsman". He took art A level, but did not tell his parents until he got his results. He got a B. (The following year his younger brother did exactly the same thing and, annoyingly, got an A!) Nasser has some of his teenage paintings on show at County Hall and they are not like his current ones. They are figurative. They are shadowy, looming portraits of his mother, his father, his grandmother, himself. He did not paint again until two years ago, prompted by that acrimonious divorce. But to come back with such a different style, Nasser. How does that work? "My talent just came back in a very different way," he says. He sees this work today as a great progression. "Abstract art is a lot more difficult to do than form," he says. Plus, you can't do it unless you have proved yourself a good draughtsman first. Otherwise, what would you abstract from?

We do go to dinner, at the Oxo Tower, where we talk about this and that: his favourite artist is Rothko; the first painting he properly looked at was Munch's The Scream, which he saw as a child in a book. "It just stuck with me. It's expressing something that changes every time you look at it." Plus, in July, he is off into space with five other yet unnamed artists in a "zero-gravity art experiment". Whoa! What? You're joking me! He is not, he says. The purpose is to create art inspired by the sensation of total weightlessness and "it will be amazing".

Sisters, I admit, I failed to stop him. But I did ask him to remember milk on his way back down to earth.

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