The Urdu word nazar derives from Arabic, meaning literally ‘look’ or ‘glance’; but it also carries mysterious connotations that connect it with magic and the supernatural.
For instance, the 16th century English philosopher Francis Bacon talked about the evil eye, linking it to witchcraft and envy in one of the chapters of his books and aptly titled it ‘Of Envy.’ Even the poet Edgar Allan Poe lamented the mysterious death of Lenore in one of his poems and blamed it on the ‘evil eye.’
Nazar is also important when viewing a work of art. We tend to move back and forth as we decide what to make of an image in front of us. Sometimes it is the skill and detail that engages us or it is the scale that forces us to “take a closer look.” At other times, it may even be the ambiguity of the image itself that invites us into the artist’s world.
Perhaps it is these fertile intersections of the aesthetic, occult, fiction, mystery and even theatricality that interest artist Masooma Syed, because her latest solo show explores the myriad possibilities of what it means to be a spectator and confront these ideas in works of art and design.
Masooma Syed’s unconventional jewellery pieces blur the lines between the disciplines of art and design
All the works are small in scale. Interestingly, they are all wearable pieces of jewellery and, yet, there is a whimsical twist in the arrangement of these objects and the experience of viewing them. They are composed in groups inside dimly-lit light boxes, with a distinct “backdrop” for each arrangement.
The “staging” of these miniature objects with lighting prompts the viewer to consider them as “actors” in a theatrical event or a narrative that is unfolding — one which contains all the emotions that one would associate with a performance.
For instance, her Dainty Daisies series features various compositions of daisies with stems in bowls; delicately sculpted in silver, some of these earrings are arranged on small pedestals, as if they are miniature sculptures on display. Some tilt outwards while other clusters seem to be in full bloom. They seem to be alive as they twist sinuously, gesticulating and moving while the sharp edges of the petals belie the claim that they are delicate or transient.
This effect is heightened by a monochromatic still from the iconic Japanese film Roshomon featured against the backdrop of the “stage” — a woman gasping in horror as she clutches a knife with its razor edge glinting, much like the metallic flowers in the foreground. The viewer oscillates between thinking about an extreme and impending act of violence and an act of contemplating the beauty of nature. Where and at what do we look at first?
This space between representation and presence is also re-enacted through some of Syed’s jewellery exhibits that recall the tradition of miniature dioramas, which were introduced in the 18th century. They featured a three-dimensional exhibit, with stage curtains in the background.
For instance, ‘Honey’ is a wearable sculpture and pendant with a silver chain. Flowers crafted from silver are placed in a small glass bottle filled with golden yellow liquid. The pendant is like a mysterious character with a story to tell. It appears as if on a stage, spot-lit with crimson red curtains in the background.
Similarly her work titled, ‘The Art Of Eye Contact’, is an intimate experience of spectatorship. Recalling the omnipotent eyes of Byzantine icons and saints in mosaics, it features a pendant in the shape of a pair of eyes in silver that can be opened and closed. They are suspended, glinting in midair as they are placed against the stage curtains with a single slit of light illuminating their metallic surface.
The tables are turned; as spectators we are confounded and look away. It is worth considering then, how the conventional parameters of a functional object can be challenged, or how an object can enter the realm of the sacred.
In fact, this is an inherent feature in the choice of material and execution of all of Syed’s pieces. She does not shy away from unconventional juxtapositions. As a result, paper lighthouses can become pendants and whisky labels can be wearable earrings. Eccentric or kitsch, quirky or crude, Syed’s works are statements that encourage viewers to reconfigure their notion of the boundaries of art and design.
“The Art of Eye Contact” was on display at O Art Space in Lahore from November 19 to November 23, 2020
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 6th, 2020