Shadows are created when a light source is blocked by an image; the resulting area is a dark shape or a silhouette. Our own shadows can sometimes appear ominous and mysterious because they are devoid of features; we may not notice them all the time but they are either in front of us, behind us, or near us, depending on the light source. This ambiguity of presence that shadows offer with their shape and form has fascinated many artists in the past.
Sadaf Naeem explores this complex relationship of shadows and space to address larger issues of identity and female presence in her recent body of work, titled Home Sweet Home. Her oil paintings were exhibited at the O Art Space in Lahore and, as the title suggests, the home, or rather the garden, becomes the site of artistic inquiry where shadows are introduced as a motif that flits between delicate lace patterns, lush foliage and brilliant skies. Their presence is always there in this series, manifesting itself in various forms in the paintings. The garden in the private space of the home is supposed to function as a sanctuary or refuge, where one can roam freely and reflect in peace. It is often also regarded as a feminine space or a space of seclusion, and this is exemplified by Naeem’s trademark use of the lace pattern as a motif.
Historically, as in the case of walled gardens built by the Mughals, the garden wall was a marker of territory and power, that separated the orderly world of planned and cultivated gardens created by the rulers who lived inside — away from the chaos and conflict outside the walls. Naeem challenges all these binaries of order versus chaos as she walks the viewer through surreal spaces where the security of walls vanishes at will or morphs into lace-like patterns that dissolve and re-emerge in another painting. There is no respite as the viewer is overwhelmed and buried amidst the all-over saccharine settings of floral lace patterns, lurid magentas and pale greys. Yet, it can be interpreted as an attempt to reconsider a paradise-like domestic space as a site where conflict and incongruities must also be highlighted.
Sadaf Naeem challenges the notion of home as a secure and idyllic domestic space
Spatially, most of the compositions themselves are precise and laid out in horizontal bands, with a square window or rectangular opening or as a mirror reflecting another reality. Therefore, when forms become amorphous in Naeem’s paintings, the viewer is transported to a dream-like world where reality becomes irrelevant. Instead, there is mediation between the real and imaginary, the corporeal and real, where the experience of observing mundane objects is transformed.
Every object in the garden space becomes a container for some sort of presence that has left an imprint. In ‘A Foliage Story’, a flower bed of marigolds is overlaid and overlapped by human forms and multiple shadows in various paints. Defragmented figures in the idyllic Eden-like setting appear as ghosts. Garden chairs are sliced, while flower pots merge into patterns. This sense of dislocation and conflict of identity is subtle in compositions where self-representation in the form of recognisable figures is eschewed in favour of the use of colour and pattern.
The garden in the private space of the home is supposed to function as a sanctuary or refuge where one can roam freely and reflect in peace.
In other paintings, though, it is made self-evident, where the artist paints multiple versions of herself into the setting. In ‘Monologue’, Naeem paints two versions of herself in profile, one in pink and the other in grey that face each other in a setting that is neither time-nor space-specific. An entwined bougainvillea motif above them implies a deeper personal link with the scene, unfolding underneath a palm tree that seems to be located farther way. Much like psychologist Carl Jung’s theory that the shadow represents another “hidden” part of ourselves, perhaps Naeem wants to unravel such conflicts both literally and metaphorically.
Screens, walls, lace, patterns and shapes that function as geographic markers of territory, such as in ‘Origin’, are all motifs whose presence falters and is challenged — even in her own hallucinatory world. A mundane space is reimagined as a floral utopia in this series. Yet, for Naeem, it seems these spaces must also be contested rather than simply claimed, for they carry the weight of time and conflict.
“Home Sweet Home” by Sadaf Naeem is being displayed at the O Art Space in Lahore from April 26 till May 13, 2019
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 12th, 2019