September Issue 2013
Dense foliage, vultures and Mughal figures feature prominently in artist Sobia Ahmed’s latest collection of miniature-style paintings. Exhibited at the Chawkandi Art gallery, the show explores themes of national identity and ideology — or the lack thereof — and Ahmed writes in her artist’s statement about how her work challenges ideas of nationhood. It is therefore not surprising that images associated with Pakistan — Jinnah caps, stars and crescents, the colour green, government stamps, etc. — are depicted in several paintings.
In ‘Who Will Lead My Country?’ for instance, motifs from the Pakistani flag are repeated on two gao takiay, against which are seated two figures. One is a giant crow, the other a Mughal man and their heads are swapped with each other. The man’s turban and the border on his traditional garb both have stars and stripes from the American flag on them. Dotted outlines of cupids hover in the air, their arrows pointed at the scene below. This meeting of the East and West is very much at the heart of Ahmed’s collection. The ominous presence of birds and the seemingly innocuous baby cupids are meant to represent western powers that, according to Ahmed, prey on the ‘weak and vulnerable’ and have “hindered the growth of our culture and ideology.”
Normally, details about an artist’s thought process provide a fresh and more nuanced perspective on the artwork. But in this case, the artist’s thesis regarding the interference of western countries (in which she also includes India and China, as revealed in a conversation with Newsline) smacks of conspiracy theories and detracts from the sophistication of her paintings.
Take ‘New Order,’ in which Ahmed reimagines the iconic photograph by Kevin Carter of a vulture resting near a starving Sudanese child. The same setting is rendered in bold splashes of colour — black, gold, red and green — resulting in a striking image. However the green child, with a star and crescent superimposed over its skull and two gold vultures perched on its back, is an all too literal representation of Ahmed’s views of how the all-powerful West preys on the poor and starving Pakistan.
Ahmed said she deliberately kept the imagery obvious so that it would be ‘readable,’ or accessible, for a wider demographic of viewers. While her use of easily recognisable symbols does help get her point across, it is at the expense of a more nuanced examination of nationhood and identity. Her artists’ statement also perpetuates a sense of victimhood, which is all too common in Pakistan.
The relatively abstract works from this collection are therefore more successful and there is no denying that Ahmed’s strength lies in juxtaposing delicate details with bold, somewhat surreal, compositions. Mughal figures with crows’ heads and feathered hands unnerve the viewer, as do the various depictions of beheadings. But at the same time, the vibrant gold pigment and the careful diffusion of light on the feathers and fabrics creates an almost calming effect. In ‘Emaan,’ ‘Itehad’ and ‘Tanzeem,’ disembodied Mughal figures float against a mass of dappled leaves and in the third painting, suggesting the complete loss of tanzeem (discipline) in the country, the figure is missing altogether while white lines snake around the canvas.
This show is the culmination of two years’ worth of work and the paintings are exquisite and rich with meaning. One only wishes that the meaning behind the paintings had been as complex as the visual aesthetics.
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.