1994-4, Oil on Paper | Photo from the book
1994-4, Oil on Paper | Photo from the book

To say or think that Ayessha Quraishi is simply an artist who creates abstract art is a disservice to her. From her early drawings and doodles that began in the mid-1980s, to muted oils on paper last year, Quraishi has shown us much that we may possibly expect from an inventive, contemporary artist.

Her intelligent body of abstract art is chemical, to say the least, for it continues to transmute during an ongoing career that spans over three decades. Readers, collectors and art enthusiasts can now observe the trajectory of her art practice in the limited-edition print monograph Ayessha Quraishi: Between Light, Works: 1985-2020.

Between Light is edited by Zarmeene Shah, who last year curated a mid-career retrospective for Quraishi at Karachi’s Koel art gallery, which examined the artist’s works from 1985 till 2020. I recall the premises bristling with visitors on the exhibition’s opening day and I was not surprised. A show that brought together Quraishi’s numerous works created over 35 years was tantamount to a visual archive on display that was not to be missed.

A monograph on the artist thus becomes important, because a critical and historical analysis of Quraishi’s works has been long awaited. Between Light is a handsome and heavy volume of diligently documented artworks. The book includes three essays by educator and curator Zarmeene Shah, and experienced art critics Quddus Mirza and Aasim Akhtar. Also included is a single-page text by writer Maha Malik that works as an exhibition statement.

“How does one begin to address the work of an artist that one has known for decades?” posits Shah at the beginning of her scholarly essay ‘In This Thundering Silence: A Space of Retrospect — On the Works of Ayessha Quraishi: 1985-2020’. The writer suggests that Quraishi’s art may be well understood if the characteristic approach of writing critically about an artist by placing her within a wider historical arc is to be largely abandoned.

A limited-edition, handsome monograph on Pakistani artist Ayessha Quraishi serves as a semi-scholarly documentation that can be of critical value for Pakistani art academia

Instead, Shah proposes to comprehend the artworks by bringing the artist’s various experiences, including a formative and perceptive childhood, into consideration. And so, the “sensorial experience” as a child adds to the later preoccupation with textures, materials and techniques, which allowed Quraishi to evolve as an artist.

The essay is divided into four sections that discuss Quraishi’s experiences and techniques with many materials that have blossomed into a prolific trajectory, which sets her apart from her contemporaries. Shah’s analysis is informed by the writings of many critical theorists and philosophers, including Gilles Deleuze, Marcel Proust, Jacques Derrida and Irit Rogoff, and artists including Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon, among others.

While Shah’s scholarly approach expands her dialogue by engaging with influential Western critical thinkers, the esoteric quality that the piece thus emanates as a result can be a hindrance to many readers.

In ‘Magic of Things Past’, Quddus Mirza aligns Quraishi’s abstract art with American Abstract Expressionism, Action Painting and Impressionist works. As opposed to the energetic, abstract and expressive quality of these movements, which have come to define Western modern art, Mirza writes about Quraishi’s dignified hues; the writer is on point when he contrasts the bright atmospheres in the works of Western artists to the muddy tones of skies in South Asia.

“She stands alone in the narrative of Pakistani art,” writes Mirza. Here, the writer recognises Quraishi as a stand-alone by comparing the artist and her art practice with the Pakistani art canon (without citing any other artist from the country), and referencing several Western modern painters. The singling out of the artist’s work to not fit into any category — Pakistani art history or Western narratives alike — while borrowing from the writings of Western thinkers when discussing the artist’s grand oeuvre, is a premise that most of the monograph pushes hard to establish.

Aasim Akhtar writes how Quraishi’s works can be treated as a “school of unlearning.” In his complex essay, ‘Thinking with Two Hands’, Akhtar writes about the textural and visual qualities in the artist’s works, that are a result of casting aside what the artist may have learned about art and sensorial experiences. The writer takes formal qualities such as colour, line and shape, and paints an account that may allow the reader to understand the many artworks included in the volume, provided that the reader spends significant time carefully observing the works and closely reading the text.

For many readers, the volume will oscillate on a scale that precariously balances their joy and frustration. Here is why: considering the dearth of publishing houses in the country (and their reluctance to print a book on art for a niche audience), the

fact that the monograph is published and available for sale is a triumph. The book is filled with 300 colour plates that bear high quality images of Quraishi’s artworks, some of which are cleverly folded to delight readers by opening to reveal larger prints.

However, the relatively compact size of the book reduces the impact that a larger sized volume would have visually achieved with these numerous colour plates (there might be several reasons for that: printing costs, managing an affordable selling price, etc). Moreover, only three essays that aim to bring an over three-decade-long art practice to light makes the collective critical contribution feel slightly incomplete. Readers and scholars will want to read and know more about Quraishi’s art.

As a critical volume, however, Ayessha Quraishi: Between Light, Works: 1985-2020 is a purposeful archive of the artist’s works, that serves its intent of thoughtful writings and documenting most of the artist’s drawings, paintings and journals.

The reviewer is an art historian and teaches liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration. She tweets @nageenjs

Ayessha Quraishi: Between Light, Works: 1985-2020
Edited by Zarmeene Shah
Topical Printers, Lahore
349pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 14th, 2021

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