May Issue 2013
The Mystical and the Mundane
One of the criticisms levelled against post-modern art — conceptual installations, in particular — is that it often sidelines aesthetics in favour of making a statement to provoke a response from onlookers. However, beauty in art is necessary too as it captivates and elevates the human experience by presenting an ideal, as opposed to something that is mundane or ordinary.
Ayesha Shariff and Sheherbano Hussain’s Engrams and Enigmas exhibition at Chawkandi Art gallery was remarkable as the two artists presented works that were both aesthetically beautiful and thought-provoking. Through various mediums, the artists’ most private and intimate memories and experiences were given form. Shariff’s use of egg tempera — a style borrowed from the great Renaissance painters — and Hussain’s oil on canvas resulted in paintings that were strikingly rich in colour and style.
Both artists made abundant use of nature imagery with lily pads, roses, peacock feathers, gardens, twigs and feathers appearing in their paintings. Ayesha Sharrif in particular, who is heavily inspired by Rumi and Sufism, used various flora and fauna to express her ideas about spirituality. White calla lilies that adorned many of her paintings served as a metaphor for a pure heart that “prays to its Creator in fear, hope and longing,” whereas vivid, cardinal red roses — the colour of intimacy and passion — represented “the layered secrets of this exchange.”
Shariff’s ‘And I Have Attached Thee to Myself,’ a verse from Surah Taha of the Quran, depicted various body organs — a heart, liver, an eyeball — attached to the Kaaba by thin, thread-like veins. The style of using veins attached to body parts, intentionally or not, was reminiscent of Frida Kahlo’s ‘Henry Ford Hospital.’ It seems the artist was making a literal illustration about the inter-connectedness of the human body with the spiritual, and that each part of her being was devoted to the worship of God. Nevertheless, the image had a jarring effect, and its rawness was contrasted by the tranquillity of the second piece titled ‘Show Us the Straight Way,’ which depicted the Kaaba resting on a lily pad in an enchanting paradise-like setting, with a curved river leading up to it.
Had Shariff not mentioned the spiritual dimension to her work, one could have easily viewed some of her paintings as being romantic, inspired by or addressed to a lover. But perhaps for her, the relationship with God is even more intimate.
Sheherbano Hussain explained that while her works also contain spiritual themes — most obvious in ‘Temperance’ which showcased a human face accompanied by two angels on either side — she mainly focused on the illusion of the separation of the mind and heart. Hussain believes the dichotomy to be a false one, and showed this through a photo montage series titled ‘An Artist of the Floating World V, VI, VIII’ black and white photographs presumably of her childhood inside the silhouette of a heart. Hussain also used a lot of military imagery, but this has more to do with the artist growing up around a naval base rather than being any kind of political statement.
Themes of memory and time were also explored in her art, with the presence of a statue of Chronos, the Greek god of time, constantly lurking in the backdrop of most of her paintings, or on occasion centralised, perhaps depending on the significance of the memory in the artist’s mind.
One painting that stood out in particular was ‘The Idealist’ — a woman’s silhouette containing the landscape of the earth, or the world within, against the backdrop of a blue sky, which showed how the outside world is merely a reflection of the inside.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s May 2013 issue
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.