Some artists like to cull images from everyday life and even art history, in order to create new works of art that transform and challenge our understanding of the medium, technique or tradition. As viewers, we may be left momentarily unsettled when something from its usual context is reimagined in an unfamiliar setting, but that is precisely what is gratifying about this experience. We find ourselves immersed in the artist’s vision and engage with the work from an entirely different perspective.
This was one of the underlying themes behind the three-person show held at O Art Space Gallery, Lahore titled Peculiar Speculations. The exhibiting artists included Abid Aslam, Sana Arjumand and Rabia Farooqui.
In terms of technique, Aslam’s works stand out. Whether it is his laborious marking, the expansive scale coupled with his extensive use of gold, the result is dramatic to say the least. His works derive from tradition but also redefine its understanding. The artist uses a unique method of engraving and building a profusion of marks on the surface of paper used specifically for miniature painting (Wasli).
The images themselves are appropriated from various schools of miniature painting. Instead of the vibrant profusion of colours, portraits and detail in gouache one normally associates with our traditional understanding of miniature painting, Aslam removes the facial details, opts for dark silhouettes and a neutral palette offset with a generous and expansive use of gold paint. The strokes of the brush are replaced by the rhythmic strokes and precision of his tools.
Zohreen Murtaza examines how an exploration of the surreal and fantastical in a group show makes for a riveting experience
In his painting titled ‘With The Beat’, which lives up to its title, we can feel Aslam’s peacocks and dancing female forms pulsating with life. This is because, in certain areas of the composition, one can sense it is the density of mark-making in the form of ring shapes and what appear to be flower patterns that build the subtle variations in rhythm and movement in the composition.
‘Rasa’ is defined in Indian aesthetics as the indescribable emotion or feeling induced by a visual, musical or literary work of art. Despite the use of the grid and other innovations in Aslam’s work, one still imbibes and experiences ‘Rasa’ that is not dissimilar to what we experience in traditional miniature painting, which we are familiar with.
Farooqui’s compositions, with their languid depiction of flesh and fabric, provide a glimpse of the surreal and fantastical. Men lounge about with missing faces, composite figures with animal heads converse casually, and table tops with birds’ legs move on their own as if it is the most normal thing in the world.
It is the presence of the unexpected and the subtle relationships between figures that compel us to examine the sardonic wit behind works such as ‘The Itch-Scratch Cycle’, where a man with no face tends to a man with the head of a wolf. Are they metaphors for human qualities or do they reveal the flawed nature of men?
Arjumand has been exhibiting extensively over the years and her oeuvre and practice has evolved and expanded tremendously. Exaggeration and scale has remained a consistent characteristic of her work though. Her monumental paintings of large otherworldly birds recall myths and mystical stories such as Farid-ud-din Attar’s ‘Conference of Birds’.
Each painting of her birds is unique and seems to evoke a specific mood, motive or quality. This is particularly noticeable when one examines their backgrounds. An emerald backdrop, iridescent greens with a hint of a hilly landscape, ruby red, fiery orange — Arjumand’s riotous colour palette is exemplified by richly textured colour.
One teeters between considering whether these are paintings of dreams or a depiction of a primordial past, because motifs that are suggestive of life and birth symbols such as eggs, halos and trees recur. None of the birds seem earthly or ordinary, with their abstract patterns, shapes, textures and luminous almond-shaped eyes.
All three artists have exhibited works whose content is certainly peculiar; none of it seems to be situated in the real world, yet it is evocative both in character and style. Exhibitions such as Peculiar Speculations prompt viewers to consider why artists and art is important in our lives — it contests the boundaries of our world as we know it.
“Peculiar Speculations” was displayed at O Art Space in Lahore from February 19, 2021 to March 1, 2021
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 14th, 2021