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December 10, 2017


Untitled, Mohsin Shafi
Untitled, Mohsin Shafi

'You Selfish Dreamer’, a phrase borrowed from the play The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, is the name of the exhibition displayed at Rossi and Rossi, London recently. The show marks the curatorial debut of Zahra Khan of Project Art Divvy in London. The exhibit showcased works of five Pakistani artists, whose approach to art-making is visually distinct but their concerns are similar in that they are each responding to their immediate surroundings. Artists included in the show are Rabeya Jalil, Mohsin Shafi, Veera Rustomji, Saba Khan and Heraa Khan.

Jalil’s new paintings are an attempt to move away from representation towards abstraction. Formally trained in print-making, her visuals are an exploration in acrylic medium. According the artist, her visuals evolve and develop as a response to the medium. Jalil adds and subtracts acrylic paint on primed MDF sheets, erasing and rubbing parts to achieve a dream-like feel on the canvas. Her mark-making and contrasting colour palette are inspired by children’s illustrations. Her visual language is a subconscious response to the extensive research she has done in children’s theory. Conceptually, her work is a response to the mindless following of custom she observes on a daily basis in Pakistan — whether it is religious tradition such as fasting or feasting on the two annual Eids.

Shafi’s aesthetically composed pieces are visually stunning, whether it is their bright and ornate frames or the attractive pop-up technique he has embraced, the pieces are simply a treat to behold. But this beauty does not extend to the subjects within the drawings. Each piece has a distinct and diverse array of visual material. From buildings that make up part of Lahore’s landscape to images from old family photos as well as etchings. Besides the recognisable subjects, his visual vocabulary also exhibits anthropomorphic creatures, for instance, suited men’s bodies with goat heads, or women in traditional garb with mosque domes instead of faces. Every image is potent and loaded with meaning, however, Shafi insists he’s not making statements of any kind. In fact, his work is an introspective investigation of the dictates of masculinity. This is exemplified by his use of text and pages from his journal.

Emerging artists offer a glimpse of urban Pakistani society through art informed by personalised experiences

Rustomji’s paintings, informed by old family photographs and experience, aim to showcase her individual history. For this exhibition she has focused on the old Chinese game Mahjong and afternoons spent watching her grandmother and friends play the game. Her distinct experiences with the game little known in Pakistan have to do with her Zoroastrian background. Rustomji fears that the extensive urbanisation of Karachi risks losing its history and heritage. Expediting this loss is the lack of official documentation of momentous relationships and architectural stru­ctures within the urban landscape. These realities are the catalysts behind her practice. Her small-scale paintings are executed in thick strokes of oil paints, a style reminiscent of post-impressionism.

Mahjong Players, Veera Rustomji
Mahjong Players, Veera Rustomji

Saba Khan’s pieces comprise digital printing and embroidery on fabric. The print in her pieces ‘Silence 1’, ‘Silence 2’ and ‘Silence 3’ are bright and colourful still lifes of flowers and fruit that belie the subject matter they represent. Hidden in her prints are messages that can be decoded by following a colour key embroidered atop the print. Her primary concern is the lack of rights and agency accorded to women in Pakistani society, where women and their bodies are still excessively exploited. This body of work is informed by Khan’s great-aunt’s experiences of the 1947 Partition but is still very relevant with regard to women’s experiences today.

Heraa Khan’s contemporary miniature paintings reference a life of luxury that is still manifest in the practices of the elite of Pakistan but is misplaced and near-redundant in today’s volatile climate of uncertainty. Khan has used her grandmother as the central character in her paintings to depict her concerns. Visually striking, the unifying thread in the miniatures is a floral pattern that forms the background and also creeps into the main motif. The paintings also make extensive use of gold leaf.

The exhibition provided an interesting insight into urban Pakistani society via the personal experiences of this group of emerging artists whose viewpoints can be appreciated as a coming of age of a new generation of Pakistanis.

“You Selfish Dreamer” was on display at the Rossi and Rossi,

London from November 23 to November 26, 2017