Thinking About You Frequently
Thinking About You Frequently

'Being Human’, ModA Curations’ inaugural exhibition in New York City was showcased during New York’s Asian Art Week. ModA Curations launched in 2023 with the intention of recentring artists’ positionality in the contemporary art industry traditionally dictated by Western values. ‘Being Human’ featured seven artists and explored the elements that make us human.

Amongst the seven artists featured was Pakistani artist Zahra Mansoor. Mansoor’s 13 pieces commanded the small gallery in SoHo. The first piece one saw upon entering the gallery was Thinking About you Frequently, which comprised two women painted and moulded on to a long Pakistani carpet that was draped from the ceiling.

Beneath it, on a raised platform, lay the artwork I Have a Question...Are You Actually a Princess? — a reclining woman sculpted on to an Indo-Iranian carpet, using fabric and oil paint. Mansoor’s pieces were created on different media — carpet, muslin, wood and a large East-Asian vintage silk fan.

There is a sense of familiarity with the carpet and fabric paintings. Eastern women, textiles and imagery that are exoticised by the West are re-appropriated by Mansoor to create scenes that celebrate the shared experiences of South Asian womanhood and the intimacy that exists within female friendships.

Zahra Mansoor brings a touch of Pakistani womanhood to New York through her inventive use of paint and fabric

The stretched muslin she often paints on is also used to wrap the body in Islamic burial rituals. The muslin represents skin and intimacy, and is painted with rich purple colours reminiscent of a bruise — a dull pain that builds up in layers and vibrates beyond the painting. Looking at the scenes in pieces such as Your Most Amazing Friend in the Entire Galaxy feels almost voyeuristic.

If You Can’t Forgive Me, I Won’t Complain
If You Can’t Forgive Me, I Won’t Complain

The space is stitched together from memories of living rooms Mansoor has shared with women she has lived with. The centre-piece of the living room is a bed, connecting non-linear memories of intimate moments experienced through and with women from different times and places — disconnected yet suspended in the same tableau. There is no urgent quality to the scene Mansoor is depicting, thus lending it the luxury of intimacy.

Mansoor’s use of irony, ambiguous visual metaphors, grey areas and the interplay between public and private life is reminiscent of life in Pakistan. In Pakistani culture, we often employ such mechanisms to cope with the realities of life. If her work were more explicit, it would perhaps be dishonest.

Ambiguity, humour and playfulness are human elements that are so often denied in Western cultures where, it could be argued, there is less room for nuance. Mansoor’s painted topographies allow us to move past this limitation, celebrate ambiguity, and inhabit the liminal spaces that define the human experience. The naming of her pieces is also non-traditional, yet intentional. They contextualise the work, but are not so explicit as to tell the viewer what to think.

My Biggest Fan
My Biggest Fan

One of the curators animatedly told me that, earlier that day, a man had jumped off his Citi Bike outside the gallery, stomped in, pointed at the painting of a woman posing on the round carpet and declared that he “wanted that one!” He then gave the gallery his information and left just as abruptly as he had entered. I wonder what this man saw when he looked at that artwork.

The writer is an urban planner currently working at the Urban Green Council in New York City. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Design and Architecture from New York University and is set to start her Masters in City Planning at MIT this fall

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 31st, 2024

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