The Quranic concepts of zahir and batin are perhaps more integral to understanding the essence of religious practice than most would care to agree. The former refers to the outward appearance or physicality and the latter denotes the inner dimension or a more spiritual level of belief. When it comes to Sufism, or the more mystical side of Islam, these concepts become the distinguishing factors, with the Sufis maintaining that the path to God leads inward and can be found through introspection and contemplative practice. The physical world then becomes meaningless and irrelevant, and a mere distraction and hindrance.
Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz’s practice lies on the cusp of these two concepts, negotiating the space between the physical and the metaphysical while transcending both. This is aptly encapsulated in the title of the show Nirgun Maala: with nirgun being the “reality that transcends form while, simultaneously, manifesting itself through form,” and maala, the rosary beads used for prayer in multiple faiths, acting as a symbol that references the “tension between the essence, naam, and outward appearance, rup” in devotional poetry.
Mumtaz is an American artist and educator who recently exhibited her work at the Koel Gallery in Karachi where she “explores contemplative metaphors drawn from South Asian mysticism and devotional culture.” She draws inspiration from the inherent spirituality of the region, infused into its visual culture, which comes as a result of her close relationship with Pakistan and sporadic travels to India. The work that emerges is contemplative in nature, not only through its experience but also in its intricate process.
Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz’s art negotiates the space between the physical and the metaphysical
The show features four series of works that employ distinct vocabularies inspired by the poetry of the 15th-century mystic poet, musician and weaver Kabir Das. The most intriguing of the series, and perhaps the most pertinent to the artist’s narrative, is the ‘Constellation’ series, where the dualities of nirgun maala are not only successfully articulated but seem to reach a catharsis in the image of the broken maala — derived from Kabir’s exuberant claim in one of his most well-known writings that his maala had broken. Here, the act of devotion breaks out of the carceral bounds of worldly ritual and enters the endless universe of the spiritual. The golden silhouette of the beads on a field of rich indigo creates a striking image, as the maala writhes and twists before bursting apart and spreading across the deep, inky surface. ‘Broken Maala #5’ is the most expressive of the series and defines this moment of breaking free and moving beyond the corporeal devotion towards something more sensory and transcendent.
‘Traveller’ is another interesting series which draws upon Kabir’s writings about the loom and the weaver. These handmade paper collages mounted on handloom tussar and matka silk are constructed in the shape of a Sufi mystic’s robes, reminiscent of wandering malangs and their baggy, careless garb, making use of motifs derived from local crafts. The multivalence of this image is felt through many layers; the bodiless dress not only speaks of the finite nature of our existence in this world, but also seems to represent the soul itself, decorated and exalted beyond the limiting form of the body.
Mumtaz’s exploration of mysticism and poetry seem to reveal several divine truths. The most sublime is the futility of binding oneself in a ritualistic devotion that adheres to specific dogmatic rules and guidelines. Religions are placed on the same spectrum through these works, giving way to the idea that remembrance, oneness with God and the search for the path to inner peace is the ultimate universal goal and the rest is just means to the same end.
“Nirgun Maala” was on display at the Koel Gallery in Karachi from January 16 till January 25, 2018
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 11th, 2018