November Issue 2013
Seeing is Not Believing
Stars and spherical shapes create a whirlwind of patterns in Bangladeshi artist Rokeya Sultana’s recent collection Fata Morgana. The title is an Italian term for an unusual mirage that can be seen from both land and sea. And the relationship between perception and reality is certainly an integral part of her work.
“We all have different hopes and goals but sometimes, after years of working towards them, we attain these goals only to realise that they no longer hold the same meaning they once did,” explained Sultana when I met her at the Koel Gallery during her brief visit to Karachi. “This does not necessarily mean that the change is disappointing, but that there may be valuable surprises in store for us.”
Fittingly, the collection is highly abstract and although stars or stylised figures are occasionally identifiable on the prints, it is nearly impossible to categorise the oeuvre under one mood or theme. In ‘Flora, Fauna and I,’ for instance, filigrees and coiling lines are stamped over each other and the blue tones create a quiet, meditative effect. But when the same motifs appear in ‘Of Time and Stars,’ which makes use of bright yellow and red, the effect is more intense. And while both these prints are completely covered in motifs, there are other works such as the black and white ‘Prelude to Space’ in which most of the paper is left blank. Here Sultana places a stylised silhouette of a human figure in the middle of the canvas and superimposes motifs — which can be described as both organic and geometric — over it.
Prints from Sultana’s previous collections can be mistaken for paintings and the works on display for Fata Morgana are no exception. The use of vibrant dyes and the layering of abstract shapes create a sense of spontaneity, even though printmaking is a very meticulous process that demands methodical planning.
Nature too plays an important role in her work, with the Milky Way and the ocean both sources of inspiration for her. In fact, when Sultana recently spent a year in Nebraska, USA — which is where most of these works were made — as a Fulbright scholar, she investigated printmaking techniques that make use of natural products and that are eco-friendly. The works in Fata Morgana all make use of special Japanese inks and natural jute paper.
“I wanted to use mediums that are least harmful to the environment,” said the artist. “We are not taking any care of ‘Mother Earth’. We have abandoned her.”
This reference to the Earth as a mother is important since in Sultana’s earlier ‘Madonna’ works, she examined the role of ordinary Bangladeshi mothers in society. Those figurative works, featuring women with their offspring inside crowded buses and other urban settings, certainly contrast with the abstract pieces from Fata Morgana. In fact, since her previous works — abstract and figurative included — have featured strong compositions and rich tones, the Fata Morgana series seems whimsical by comparison. Even with the layering of colours and designs, the prints are rather flat and this one-dimensionality somewhat impedes the effect of looking at a mirage from a distance.
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.