May issue 2009
An Artist of the Floating World
Visual expression of an inner inquiry has always been central to Sheherbano Hussain’s oeuvre. Her latest body of work Ayn Al Qalb, on display at Islamabad’s Rohtas Gallery, charts the progression of an odyssey she has been painting since her debut solo in 2001. In an earlier series, Metamorphosis,she tried to capture those “elusive moments of truth” that enable us to understand the relationship between the tangible and the intangible. Her sense of questioning took her in several directions, bringing forth varied imagery and diverse concepts. Initial exercises were also technically explorative. Most of the former works affirmed the artist’s concern with pictorial structure, mix media experimentation, chromatic and textural contrasts and attention to detail. An installation, ‘Shrine of Heart,’ constructed as member of the Vasl International Workshop 2006 at Gadani Beach, received much appreciation from a majority of the young visitors and many of them took the time to scribble verses and sayings about love in different languages on the walls of her shrine.
In comparison to what she terms “managed” effects of previous works, the current series is relatively sparse and direct. There is a greater emphasis on instant depiction of feelings or thoughts rather than an elaborate show of skills. Without making any radical departure from her original stance, Hussain, nonetheless, has narrowed her search into a specific direction — instead of raising questions and examining them as a conscious exercise, she now produces work that is intuitive and directly related to her evolution as a human being. This series is informed by her immediate interests and experiences and rendered in relatively minimal vocabulary. She has retained only those graphics and symbols from her repertoire that are relevant to her new specificity, and most prominent among them is the recurring image of the heart.
Titled Ayn Al Qalb, this collection illustrates works seen through the eyes of the heart, rather than rationalised through the mind. A series of prints titled An Artist of the Floating World are renderings of the heart as an organ, within which she has implanted her dreamscapes. Technically, using the cut-and-paste process, Hussain has constructed a collage/photomontage within a stencilled heart image and then made Xerox copies of the compositions. By spray-painting the background in solid black, she has been able to project the organ as a window into a private world of heartfelt moments. Culled from memories, the compositions are intensely personal and need to be seen as contemplative paintings. They nudge a viewing public attuned to enjoying surface delights to look within themselves and respond to the imagery with individual interpretations.
Other chromatically vibrant mix media paintings also portray the heart as the epicentre of human existence. In ‘A Sort of Homecoming’ and ‘Island of the Dead Revisited,’ the fleshy heart appears as a potent life-sustaining entity. A clever twist here is the ironic use of the physical to invoke the metaphysical. Incongruous juxtapositions of the bare body and its organic appendages are skillfully manipulated to build arcane scenes.
This category of art also conforms to the Symbolist manifesto. The Symbolist painters mined mythology and dream imagery for a visual language of the soul, seeking evocative paintings that brought to mind a static world of silence. Symbolism does not use the familiar emblems of mainstream iconography but deeply personal, private, obscure and ambiguous references. Carrying vestiges of everyday life yet far removed from it, Sheherbano constructs vignettes of an unreal, almost supernatural world, which can stimulate the imagination of the viewer as a manifestation of the subconscious mind. Although some of the paintings may suggest a sense of loneliness, aggravated by isolation and prompted by anxiety that can be read in the dark empty spaces, divided self (body), hands reaching out for contact and mute flocks of sheep, such mystifying expressions reaffirm man’s forbidden love for the unknown and his ceaseless efforts for self-realisation.