September Issue 2015
Poetry in Vision
Poetic verse is an expression of intense emotion — positive or negative — often captured in an instantaneous episode of high emotional distress. In her most recent work, artist, and founder and director of the Lahore Arts Foundation Trust, Sabah Hussain, drew inspiration from the 20th century pioneer of modern Urdu poetry, Noon Meem Rashed’s verse. Raised in a literary family, Hussain describes poetry as her definitive outlet in “periods of emotion and despair.” In this exhibition she celebrated this important aspect of her upbringing, and her memories, using her finest aesthetic sensibility.
Titled ‘Poetics of Memory,’ Hussain’s collection made for a stunning exhibit at Karachi’s Koel Gallery from August 15 – 24.
Hussain “selected [her] text from four poems by Rashed,” reordered it, and infused it, as “it worked best visually,” in abstract depictions of the “spaces that the mind of the artist occupies.” She described her visual translations of the lettered idea as an effort at understanding and then “using the visual journey” of the poet “in a sharper focus.” Her series rendered, in Japanese sumi ink, and mixed-media colour Rashed’s intellectual process of writing; her techniques reflected those of the poet himself — symbolism, alliteration, and refrain.
The delicate iconography of the dragonfly, the leaf, and the sun/seed, were a refrain present in each of her twelve pieces titled Folios from the Baghdad Manuscript. The work in this series was, according to Oklahoma State University Professor, Dr. Marcella Sirhandi, a combination of “realistic imagery and abstraction,” mirroring the qualities of both poetry and memory, which can seem so lucid, even real, in spite of being a fabrication of our individual perceptions and experiences.
The Folios were a juxtaposition of printed text and calligraphy (i.e. Rashed’s written word), with imagery, depicted through varying lines, colours and symbols, on sheets of handmade paper that Hussain created herself. The poet’s verses drifted in wave-like formations and broke abruptly in the artist’s renderings — perhaps as she envisioned the words flowing in and out of his imagination — while larger calligraphic letters interjected the printed text to “reflect the emphatic pause.”
The first instalment of this series, which was the only work not on sale, was an enchanting infusion of images that drifted between faint shadows and clarity, potentially illustrating how our memories sometimes serve us. Although I interpreted her robust black brushstrokes in the third Folio as an expression of the poet’s frustration, Hussain corrected me, calling them “expressions of poetic joy.” She described these free-flowing strokes, which were inspired from Shodo (Japanese calligraphy), as a depiction of the poet and the artist’s delight, in the liberation of their mind and soul.
In the exhibit, Hussain placed an installation series, Journey, between the Folios. In it, paper boats and waves created using Hussain’s handmade paper, bearing her own “drawings, paintings, prints, and writings,” have been photographed, collaged, and inkjet printed. Sirhandi believes they represent the “aquatic journey through time and place,” which a character in one of Rashed’s poems undergoes; with the “ripples and waves of a turbulent current” representing a treacherous aspect of the journey. The fifth instalment of the Journey series was the one that Hussain marked as a real representation of the artist’s frustration. She believes this image — in which a boat is trapped in a dark whirlpool of black ink, is a reflection of Pakistan’s present — which can appear dim and frustrating to many.
The seventh and eighth Folios on display depicted the urban premises in which some of Rashed’s poems are set. Layering bold strokes of dark ink, with silver pigment and copper crayon, Hussain created the visual depth of the lost grandeur and progressive decay of the edifices described in Rashed’s verse.
Pointing to the last of the Folios, which incorporated gold pigments, Hussain educated me about the two-year long oxidisation process that brought this golden brilliance to a pigment which was originally silver. Although she finds joy in her work, Hussain confessed that such experimentation can be both frustrating and terrifying. She thus fondly recalled the patience, and “years of hard work,” of which the exhibition was a culmination.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s September 2015 issue.