June 11, 2017



It is invariably inspiring to engage with a creative endeavour that attempts to explore something unique. Immaculate Decay by Rabia Ajaz was definitely one such attempt to push the boundaries of art practice, and that too in a seemingly simple way. Instead of holding an exhibition in a sleek art gallery, which tends to be the norm, she chose an old, soon-to-be demolished house in Gulberg, Lahore, and evolved her work around a concept that created an unforgettable experience for viewers. Even the invitation cards were handcrafted, and delivered personally to many guests, giving an old-world feel to the project.

Born in Peshawar, Ajaz completed her BFA with Honours from Beaconhouse National University Lahore in 2009 and her MFA with a distinction from the Pratt Institute, New York. Her earlier work revolved around realistic portraiture and this realistic style has now found a more subtle, nuanced direction. It is essential to share at least a part of her stated narrative to fully absorb the essence of the paintings that found their place in the stained and crumbling walls of the space she chose.

“The walls around us embrace us and contain us. They envelop and yet elude us. They bear witness to our most intimate moments … At times our very souls reside in their cracks and corners, the chipped surfaces and warped symmetry mirroring our own inner disintegration … So this is about the lives of walls — so closely entwined with ours ...”

The unconventional venue and artworks at Rabia Ajaz’s show made viewers question the meaning of time and space

An element of nostalgia pervades the exhibition. It reeks of bygone times, an era of simplicity and even ugly imperfections. For those residing in modern, upscale houses, an old house such as this would certainly need a massive overhaul, or a complete demolition.

The old switch boards, the unfashionable windows and doors, or the water-cooler blaring away, are objects that would need to be done away with by a modern, upper class family. Ajaz approaches all this in a subtle way, inserting her paintings in the space in a manner that mimics what is already present.

Switchboard IV
Switchboard IV

For the viewer, it is almost like a game to find what is real and what is painted. Realistic renderings in acrylic on paper, of open switchboards, electric switches, a light bulb, peeling plaster, the marks on a wall left after old paintings are removed, and even a couple of lizards, are some of the works that one finds in two rooms and the entrance of the old home. The false ceiling that had been put in place by earlier tenants who used it as an office was also ripped away by the artist to reveal hanging wires and tubes that added to the ‘immaculate decay’.

The titles for some of the earlier mentioned images, such as ‘Secret,’ ‘Inflictions,’ and ‘Open Wounds’ indicate an element of angst, but the majority are as simple as — ‘Switchboard 1’ or ‘Switchboard 2’ and this combination maintains the subtle narrative.

The fact that this old house will soon be razed to the ground by its new owners adds to the poignant narrative. Indeed, something more upscale and beautiful will replace this crumbling structure. But the artist’s endeavour has added meaning to the place, giving it a life beyond its physicality.

It makes viewers ponder over the vicissitudes of life and time, and also how art can give meaning and memory to both. It also gives food for thought to other artists to explore unconventional venues for sharing their creative ideas, without the constraints that tend to be associated with commercial galleries.

The exhibition was held at 8F Gulberg 2, Lahore, from May 18 to May 24, 2017

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 11th, 2017