Sometimes the most beautiful creations emerge from the darkest parts of our being. That’s how I felt looking at the vividly painted, incredibly detailed and brilliantly imagined gardens at an exhibition by two sisters in Karachi recently.
Khadija S. Akhtar held an exhibition of her work with her sister, Rabia S. Akhtar, called ‘Gardens at Rest’. The exhibition at the Canvas Gallery left onlookers in awe. Khadjia’s work was focused on capturing the fleeting joy of what once was. Her collection was an intimate journey through which she was recovering episodic memories, processing her trauma and questioning her history.
She appeared to be seeking and depicting quiet places of comfort and adding such detailed beauty to them, as if to drive away the unending sadness brought upon by episodes of depression. Her section of the exhibition was a story of triumph, filled with luminous beasts that roam free, gardens that take on a life of their own, abandoned decadent picnics and wilderness unleashed.
There were no humans present in her work and, even with all of the detail, there was a haunting emptiness in the paintings. It was as if the artist craves human attention and closeness, yet thrives in alienation. The body of work was complex and all of its aspects were not immediately apparent at first glance.
Through vividly painted gardens, two sisters depict beautiful, fantastical worlds born out of darkness and an existential threat of extinction
In contrast, Rabia’s gardens, while sharing many elements of her sister’s work and style, had a more ‘zoomed out’ perspective. While her sister’s work showed everything up close, with Rabia’s paintings we took a few steps back.
The gardens and its inhabitants appeared smaller and there was space to breathe. There was an element of intense fantasy in her work. We saw fish upon bushes and two-headed peacocks flying in the air. There was an airy lightness in her work, interspersed with a tender fragility. You got the sense that these gardens were holding something temporary, threatened, that will not exist if we leave it for too long.
That was perhaps the artists’ intent. “Surveillance and interruption disrupt the weather patterns, as tempests rage before their time and worlds go under the water,” reads her statement.
“Ghost kingdoms emerge, fluctuating with death. Nostalgic dreams of flight and birdsong, iridescent feathers, the secrets of fluff and flesh, prompt desperation to mimic, consume and possess. Human figures invade these gardens, stained with animal colours, playing the music of birds artificially, as the processes of metamorphosis and transformation strip away the artifice of civilisation, unearthing a detrimental coexistence on the verge of collapse.”
There’s an increasing trend of artists, rightly so, conducting exhibitions which serve as a larger commentary on climate change, a reality that threatens our very existence. Rabia seemed to be touching upon that and the sheer fragility of life and the human elements that are driving it to ruin. This is an exhibition well worth re-hosting again.
‘Gardens at Rest’ was exhibited at the Canvas Gallery, Karachi from December 27, 2022-January 5, 2023
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 22nd, 2023