Aliya Husain Ahmad at Art Chowk Gallery
A man with five wives, a stupid Cupid, a horse on a boat…these were just a few of many idiosyncratic characters on display in an exhibition of ceramic sculpture by Aliya Husain Ahmad.
Aliya is an award-winning Pakistani artist, currently living in Bahrain, where she has participated in group shows. From Earth to Form, the title of her recent show in Karachi, was her first show in Pakistan and also her first solo. The fifty-nine ceramic pieces on display at Art Chowk Gallery, showcased Aliya’s exuberant style of combining humor, drawing and story-telling in playful visual narratives.
The range of items in From Earth to Formincluded wall plates, candle stands, pitchers, vases, containers and platters. The richness of imagery portrayed on each item rendered the works into virtual picture books.
Aliya speaks of the necessity of functionality with reference to her pottery, as she likes to create work that is aesthetically pleasing and can also be used (she uses edible glazes to that effect). But functionality is only one component of what she offers. Viewing Aliya’s ceramic art is a little like falling through the rabbit hole and landing in Wonderland. The contoured surfaces of the ceramic works become spaces on which stories reside; multi-layered and character-driven, this element of storytelling takes each unique piece far beyond functionality into the realm of visual fantasy.
Aliya’s pottery is hand built rather than thrown on a potter’s wheel. This technique gives her great latitude for innovating shapes and forms. Aliya sees herself as a “painter who makes pottery” and relishes the process of drawing and painting onto the ceramic. After the first firing, the molded clay form is converted to ceramic. At this stage the surfaces are ready to be painted upon. Aliya draws the images and paints with glaze to enrich the forms with color, texture and narrative. The ceramic piece is ready to undergo its final firing after this ‘painterly’ stage.
Aliya relies on skewed angles and distortion to create unusual perspectives within each ceramic piece. She deconstructs the conventions of single point perspective when she sketches onto the surface of the ceramic. The outlines of the platters are irregular. The upright figures that serve as candle-holders are elongated with contorted features. These distortions add to the lively unconventionality of her representations. They also bring her work into the ambit of Cubist sculpture and the Modernist styles that evolved under the influence of Cubism. The work of French ceramicist Roger Capron (1922-2006) comes to mind.
Aliya acknowledges her fascination with the art of Picasso. Rather than his sculpture, it is his multi-perspectival ‘flat’ paintings from which she takes her inspiration. This is evident in the Portraits from Another Worldseries. These three dimensional, table-top sized sculptures are intricately faceted and can be walked around (credit must be given to Art Chowk Gallery for displaying the work in a manner that allowed each ceramic sculpture to be viewed properly). With each change in the viewer’s stance, a different ‘story’ presents itself, molded within the irregular planes of the ceramic shape. Two faces in Portraits from Another World II, which are inspired by Picasso’s portraits of Dora Maar, are shown in profile with jagged angles. The two characters with overlapping profiles share a line of demarcation that is just sufficiently ambivalent to create differentiation without destroying the hybrid nature of their duality. Behind the faces, an entirely different set of characters inhabit the same sculpture, namely animals including a cheetah, a camel, a fish and a rabbit.
Aliya explains how her ideas are seeded by her experience of the world she inhabits. A random character or object can start a chain of associations that she gathers into a story that she will eventually tell on clay. She welcomes spending time in transitory spaces such as airport departure lounges because they provide rich exposure to random characters. She carries a sketch-book into which she records inspiring vignettes from. Her finished pieces are spontaneous expressions of her mood. They evolve as she shapes and smooths the clay into the forms that will bear the marks of her imaginative recall.
Aliya’s work is often inspired by the mindfulness of a particular moment, the acute coalescence of time and space into memory. A tiny section of a Moeen Faruqi painting in a friend’s living room is recreated on a ceramic plate as a fixed memory of the visit. Like an expansion of consciousness, Aliya has expanded a small aspect of a larger whole and made it a feature of her own expression.
Earth to Form invites us to enter small microcosms that are quirkily poised between reality and imagination. Like the Cheshire Cat in Wonderland, each piece seems to say: “I’m not crazy, my reality is just different from yours.”