Rabia Zuberi’s sculptures bathe in soft warm lights in a dark sombre room at the VM Art Gallery. The exhibition, titled ‘Forms of Existence’, draws from the gallery’s permanent collection of the artist’s works that were created between 1970 up until 2012.
Zuberi has been a pivotal figure of modern art and art education in Pakistan since the late 1970s. More than that, the artist’s organically moulded sculptures in many mediums and versatile scale evince interest in their strong attributes and the diligent treatment of their materials.
Previously, scholars in Pakistan, such as the historians Salima Hashmi and the late Akbar Naqvi, have engaged with Zuberi’s works under humanist themes that discuss familial relationships, personal peace and social justice. Often, the works are read biographically.
However, with this show, I found that the exhibitions are a perfect opportunity to review Zuberi’s sculptures and rethink their significations. What do the organic forms communicate? What do her chosen materials signify today? What enables the artist to choose one material over another? These are just some of the questions that pop up in my mind while viewing the works in the gallery.
Rabia Zuberi studied sculpture at The Lucknow School of Art in India in the 1960s. To join their family, Zuberi and her sister Hajra, who’s also an artist, migrated to Karachi sometime in 1963 or 1964. Zuberi set up an informal art school at her home that was later turned into the popular diploma-awarding institute Karachi School of Arts. Between 1970 until 2015, Zuberi produced many series that revealed semi-abstracted and stylised anatomical forms.
An exhibition of sculptures offers an opportunity to review the artist’s work and her engagement with materials
Often, a comparison is drawn between the artist’s works and those of modern English artist Henry Moore (1898-1986). Many of Zuberi’s reclining figures and sculptures of mother and child have been taken from Moore’s anatomical forms, whose influence can be seen in the works of other Pakistani sculptors, such as Shahid Sajjad, as well.
The figurative resemblance and integration of design elements, such as the ovals and semi-abstracted figures, between Moore and Zuberi is uncanny. While Moore worked with stone and bronze and was concerned with a modernist paradigm in art, Zuberi worked with conceptually rich forms of clay and fiberglass, alongside bronze casts.
Zuberi often painted her non-metallic materials, such as malleable clays and strong fiberglass, to imitate a bronze finish. This raises an important concern: what can bronze communicate that these other materials cannot? Bronze has always been an expensive metallic alloy. It is often cast into a form using different methods; we know that Zuberi uses the lost wax casting process that required materials, moulds, equipment and a dedicated practice.
The piece Beauty of Human Form (1975) is created with bronze in glossy and complete opacity, in tones of black and reddish brown. In this work, an anonymous, semi-abstracted figure is seated with its arms resting on its midriff. The legs of the figure are wide open and resting on the ground too, where the unusually raised but resting knees remind me of Italian Modern and Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni’s bronze pieces, especially Unique Forms of Continuity is Space (1919).
The comparison is only visual, however, while Futurists were concerned with depicting movement via sculpture, Zuberi used similar visual idioms in her modern works to gracefully illustrate just the opposite.
More bronze works impart attributes of resistance through the material’s historical authenticity — bronze is a renowned medium of choice in ancient African, Chinese, Greek and Roman sculptures — and robust tactile feel.
Through Zuberi’s hands, in works such as Quest of Peace (1988) and Design Motifs as Elements of Sculpture (1984), bronze is unyielding, even though the material is stylised very organically. The medium signifies strength, not because it is moulded by the artist to represent various facets of the human condition, but because visually the material makes meanings in ways that other mediums may not.
Fiberglass is a very tough material and its versatile use in contemporary art has been widely successful. However, its painted bronze versions, such as in certain works from the ‘Drapery’ (1983-1987) series, are derivative of the material they are mimicking [bronze].
The analysis presented above raises another point: if not visually, then can a medium be critiqued, at least conceptually, as the material it is mimicking? In the current dearth of printed resources on the artist, perhaps more exhibitions that display Rabia Zuberi’s modern sculptural feats will prove to be useful for scholars who intend to conduct fresh analysis of her oeuvre and her dexterity in material treatments.
‘Forms of Existence’ was exhibited at the VM Art Gallery in Karachi from December 10th until December 28, 2021
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 9th, 2022