Now That’s a Weight Off (On) My Shoulders!
Now That’s a Weight Off (On) My Shoulders!

With the festivities of Eid behind us, art enthusiasts were excited to see what the galleries were stirring up for the summer. The beginning of July saw the opening of a solo exhibition at Canvas Gallery, titled We’re All Mad Here, by Sehyr Qayum. Currently residing in Islamabad, Qayum holds a BFA in painting, with a minor in art history, from Boston University. The artist has exhibited work nationally and internationally in galleries across the US, the UK and Japan.

Qayum is known to work with a diverse range of mediums which also include mixed media installations. At her exhibition at the Canvas Gallery, the artist showcased several large-scale paintings with a unique blend of figurative, geometric and abstract elements. Through her work Qayum relays her concerns of how female identity is defined and shaped in Pakistan.

In her piece, ‘Now That’s A Weight Off (On) My Shoulders’, multiple angles of a woman’s face are composed on the canvas with each one adorned with a dome-like structure as headgear. These domes or qubbas (small domed structures) are often seen on top of mosques. The qubbas are placed on mosques as symbolic representations of the vault of heaven. The painting becomes descriptive of the religious weight thrust on to us as women living in a South Asian conservative society. One can imagine the weight just by the sight of these overbearing domes on the women’s heads.

Sehyr Qayum’s paintings depict the curbs placed on Pakistani women

Each of the painted face is sombre, almost fearful of overstepping their cultural and religious boundaries. Qayum’s use of minimal colour strengthens her ideology as it allows the viewer to focus on the imagery without being distracted by multiple hues. She uses clear symbols, such as the crescent motif and Islamic geometric patterns, to describe specific and personal truths that are genuine to the artist herself.

Hey Give Me a Pen, I’m Going to Re-write This Narrative
Hey Give Me a Pen, I’m Going to Re-write This Narrative

There is a journey in her work, perhaps a reflection of her own from Pakistan to America. In ‘Desi Mona Lisa,’ the woman still wears a dome headdress but a smile lights up her face. Qayum even adds colour here, which brightens the overall mood of the painting.

In another striking work, ‘Of All The Gin Joints In All The Towns In All The World, She Walks Into Mine’, the figure stands perplexed, her gaze strong but her black shalwar kameez is now splattered with paint, possibly indicative of a moment in her journey where the woman experienced something new and perhaps colourful.

In ‘Hey Give Me A Pen, I’m Going To Re-Write This Narrative,’ Qayum reimagines a very important Christian event: the Assumption of Mary (into Heaven), mother of Jesus. This event has been recreated by several famous painters in the past with similar imagery of the Virgin Mary surrounded by angels. Though the woman in Qayum’s painting is similar to the ones in her other works, this painting stands out among the rest as the most unique for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it is the most colourful, as the warm red background perfectly offsets the cool blues of the woman’s dress. Secondly, the painting does not have an abstract background like the others and, though similar geometric patterns peer out through the sky and clouds, their appearance is considerably less. Finally, the artist here has taken her inspiration from a different religion and though it exists in Pakistan, it is more widespread in the US.

As a result, one can’t help but look at this as the conclusion of Qayum’s journey — from being kept in a closed box, surrounded by boundaries of culture and society’s collective interpretation of scripture to coming out, exploring and realising that there is power within oneself to overcome such prejudice. The painting’s title even suggests that all women — no matter their restraints — can break free; they can rise, just like the lady in the painting.

“We’re all Mad Here” by Sehyr Qayum is being displayed at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi from July 3 to July 12, 2018

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 8th, 2018