May Issue 2014
Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ had a huge impact on the 20th century. The sculpture transformed the way art — no longer purely aesthetic but also cerebral — was perceived. Art was liberated from the clinical walls of the museum and embedded into society itself, as the artist was no longer a mystical genius, but a global citizen engaged in a dialogue with the world. Art became political. This outlook paved the way for more self-aware artworks, created by artists who were clear of their intentions, and art became a more exploratory and experimental way to understand the world.
Sometimes, however, art that is overtly political can get constrained by the statement it is trying to make by artists cautious against being misunderstood, which results in works that are less interesting and reduced to a single interpretation. This is precisely why a recent exhibition at ArtChowk, When I Wake Up In The Morning…Seeds Scatter, was unexpectedly enjoyable. Even though the description of the exhibition contained phrases like “our compulsive religious beliefs, value systems and avatars of a woman in her prime,” artists Rabeya Jalil and Nurayah Sheikh refuse to allow their works to be pinned down and understood at first glance.
Jalil’s prints showcase a strong sense of design and composition. The jagged, monochrome lines — as if sketched in a frenzy — provide a stark contrast against the white, negative space which encases it into precise rectangles. Amidst this interplay between chaos and order, the bottom half of a woman’s dress revealing pink and purple legs folded modestly together, are propped up on one of the rectangles. The flat and even use of colour stands in contrast to the blotchy lines, which upon closer inspection, begin to resemble an aerial view of a city seen from a building or a window. There is a feeling of intimacy within the work, almost as if the viewer is getting a glimpse into someone’s personal diary and being exposed to the writer’s point of view.
The very last print of the series titled ‘Days in a Calendar’ reinforces this idea that the work perhaps attempts to explore a woman’s interaction with her city through cut-outs of shoes and legs that are positioned carefully over textured prints.
However, it is Jalil’s painted canvases that really steal the show. With her bold use of colour and expressive strokes, the artworks are reminiscent of children’s book illustrations, albeit with a dark twist. Undoubtedly, there is a storytelling aspect within each of the paintings. One work called ‘Qurbaani ka Bakra, Aasteen ka Saamp’ depicts two characters, a man and a woman, at the far end of the canvas, separated with sharp white line. The title refers to the gender stereotypes present in our society, often found within television soaps, where the woman plays a femme fatale of sorts, while the ‘poor man,’ dominated by the female members of his family, is forced into a subservient position. It is an intriguing clichÃ© since it juxtaposes the man as a victim figure against the woman, who is the perpetrator. The man holds onto a goat — I say goat because of the title, even though it bears a striking resemblance to a dog — being slaughtered by a knife that floats mid-air, and seems appalled by the label being thrust upon him in the form of the goat, and not knowing how to deal with it. The work portrays the sense of discomfort and unease a person feels when confronted with their own reflection in the eyes of society. The woman is painted with an equally horrified expression as a snake engulfs her, perhaps implying that when continuously exposed to a stereotype, a person slowly succumbs to it.
On the other hand, Nurayah Sheikh’s works are more serious and sombre in nature. Her woodcuts use negative spaces and a minimalist colour palette to create a nostalgic feeling, reminiscent of traditional landscape illustrations or diagrams in science textbooks. The prints show leafy vines with a single dragonfly stamped upon them, while others are larger and magnify the minute and the microscopic into something more wondrous. The titles of the works refer to famous songs such as ‘Fly me to the Moon’ by Frank Sinatra and ‘Cause I’m Free Falling’ by Tom Petty, adding an emotional layer on the scientific depictions of ovulation. This amalgamation of the emotional and the rational/scientific is more obvious in a work titled ‘Page in my Diary,’ a black and white print overlaid with text and multiple drawings of leaves and dragonflies that reinforce the biological processes that create our emotions and play an integral role in who we are as individuals.
At the end of the exhibition, one feels a slight dissatisfaction, as if the works have not been fully grasped or understood — the feeling that a successful work of art often arouses. The viewer is enlightened, but also left with questions to mull over and a desire to re-visit the works, in order to view them in a different light.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s May 2014 issue.
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.