EXHIBITION: THE SELF AND THE OTHER

Published January 10, 2021
Mouj (2020), Shah Abdullah Alamee
Mouj (2020), Shah Abdullah Alamee

Allama Iqbal’s poetry has had an exceptional influence in the cultural make-up of not just Pakistan but the entire South Asian landscape. He reintroduced Islamic ideology by weaving the philosophical traditions of Islam with the recent developments in human knowledge and society. His writing is timeless and, unsurprisingly, his vision is still subconsciously employed in the intellectual, cultural and spiritual renovation of the modern Islamic world.

Iqbal is credited for the genesis of a lineage of poets, musicians, politicians and thinkers. Those who are more spiritually inclined, have regularly found inspiration in his work and it is more apparent in the creative domains. The recent exhibition, Bood-o-Nabood at Koel Gallery, is a prime example of how Iqbal’s literature continues to suffuse contemporary art practices in Pakistan.

A collaboration between Lahore-based Amna Manzoor and Shah Abdullah Alamee, the exhibition is a visual interpretation of Iqbal’s poetry from both the artists’ individual and joint perspectives.

By limiting themselves to a purely monochromatic palette, the artists manage to highlight the concept of dualism. The stark contrast between black and shades of grey against white evince how seemingly opposite forces may be complementary, interconnected and interdependent in the natural world.

Amna Manzoor and Shah Abdullah Alamee portray Allama Iqbal’s message of self-discovery and human resilience

Alluding to the human psyche and its reflective consciousness, they depict the ‘self and the other.’ Or in simpler terms, what is introspectively within against that which is externally beyond. The two interrelate with each other and elevate the other. After all, these entities cannot metaphorically exist in isolation. Both the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ occur in the form of a dyad.

Throughout most of her practice, Manzoor has employed the silk thread as a metaphor for the experiences and conditioning women in our society undergo. For this exhibition, she uses this symbol to create visuals replete with fragile and intricate mesh. The threads are taut at some points and slacking at others. The artist further explores the characteristics of thread by capturing moments when it is about to rupture, severely tangled or disintegrating into individual fibres.

For Manzoor, the strands represent our human potential. Horizontally stretched from edge-to-edge in a dauntingly infinite horizon, the paintings remind us that both our limitations and potentials are tethered solely to our cerebral realisation of our abilities. She endorses Iqbal’s philosophy of selfhood — that to achieve self-fulfilment we must look both within and outside ourselves and connect ourselves with nature.

The detailed networks look similar to the vessels in human eyes, which disguises the images into microscopic lenses. The tiniest of particles carry enough potency to build an entire universe. The white lines overlaid on a black background, and vice versa, is a deviation of the yin and yang concept. To understand light, we must experience the dark, since they can only be defined relative to each other.

Alamee’s visually striking calligraphies portray human resilience and perseverance. In some of his pieces, the script mutates into abstraction that aptly resembles the ocean waves and the ripples they imprint on the sand.

Since time immemorial, the sea has continued to try ascending the coast, shortly receding before it attempts to approach again. Its rhythmic, endless motion and unabated vigour is evidence of nature’s ability to persist and not lose hope.

Khak-i-zinda I (2020), Amna Manzoor
Khak-i-zinda I (2020), Amna Manzoor

The fluid strokes and fluctuating lines also make one think of seismographs and electrocardiograms. By highlighting parallels between the function of the minuscule cardiac muscles and the gigantic inner structures of the Earth, Alamee assures us that ‘what goes up must come down’ is an inherent law of nature.

Alamee has been indulging in Urdu-Persian poetry since his childhood, and his current series is a visual translation of the verses he is so enthused by. He repeats and overlays the lettering on itself in gradation. The translucent layers indicate the nuances he keeps discovering upon every read. They also lend a three-dimensional effect to otherwise two-dimensional paintings and, consequentially, render the multi-faceted nature of our celebrated regional poetry. The lyrical imagery captures the metrical knowledge and the rhyming practice used in writing couplets.

Echoing Iqbal’s point of view, the two artists remind us that there is always light at the end of the tunnel and that our potential fully blossoms only in our tough times of resilience. In doing so, they commemorate the esteemed poet and recognise his ability to both intellectually and viscerally stimulate us with his writing.

It is a reminder that, while Iqbal was a philosopher and thinker who is credited with conceiving the idea of Pakistan, he was truly a poet at heart.

“Bood-o-Nabood” was exhibited at the Koel Gallery in Karachi from December 22, 2020 to January 05, 2021

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 10th, 2021

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