July issue 2009
Sculpting Pakistan’s Realities
Cockroaches and helmets mark an ironic sense of failure in Aicon London’s exhbition titled Failing States: Recent Works by Tazeen Qayyum and Adeela Suleman. The works of these two fast-emerging Pakistani female artists are strongly rooted in the complex social and political reality of contemporary Pakistan.
Adeela Suleman, who lives in Karachi, transforms stainless steel domestic utensils into sculptures in the shape of elaborate helmets. Suleman’s materials, which include everything from drain covers to nails, showerheads to funnels, employ a modernist tradition that holds references to minimalism through its use of repetition of a single item.
In addition to her helmet sculptures, some of Suleman’s metallic creatures are also on display. Their slumped skeletal bodies create dramatic shadows across the walls of the gallery, producing an effect that is unsettling. These creatures of the ‘living dead’ appear to have little hope or energy — representing the apathy in many of the citizens of contemporary Pakistan. Similar to her helmet sculptures, these too are made from domestic utensils, in line with her theme of feminist art and traditional minimalism.
Tazeen Qayyum, on the other hand, explores how war and conflict have reduced the value of human life to that of an insect’s. She uses the motif of the cockroach repeatedly in her works. Qayyum, who studied miniature painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore, employs a similar set of delicate techniques in her work. Text in her work refers to myths and facts about the cockroach or, at other times, reference war. Qayyum very deliberately references entomology museum displays. There is a vast contrast between her heavy subject matter and the delicate techniques used to produce her exquisite compositions. Qayyum has also produced a series of sculptural pieces — delicate glass orbs that continue her use of the cockroach motif.
Cockroaches are regarded as pests and an exploration of them is likely to go nowhere. Similarly, Suleman’s fragile helmets are impossible to wear; her skeletal creatures bent into gentle curves, folding in on themselves, reflect on the notion of the ‘failed state.’