More than just an exhibition of photographs ‘Baraka silsila-e-nisbat’ by Farah Mahbub hits the eye as inspired art—a devotee’s declaration—essentially a paean to Sufi thought. Currently on at VM Gallery, Karachi, the show marks Mahbub’s return to the gallery exhibition circuit after a hiatus of seven years, an absence well-spent in not just consolidating her art practice, but also moving miles ahead in her quest.
Regarding her ‘learning and awakening’ Mahbub says, “the more I discover, the more there is still to uncover.” Delving deeper into her recurring themes as well as introducing new vistas, Mahbub’s ‘Silsila’ series is segmented into architecture, still-life, landscape and environmental portraits. The works are shot with medium format or 35 mm digital SLR cameras and produced with Epson and HP printers on archival inkjet papers using archival inks.
The first chapter, ‘Ard-o-sama’, is an appreciation of the wonders of the heavens and the earth. Most of the tranquil and spectacular photographs were taken mainly in Jordan and some in Pakistan. There is a dramatic change in the ‘Nisbat kay rang’ sequences where Mahbub aligns manmade artistry with sites of divinity.
Aesthetically photographed tombs and mosques are composed within miniature album folios replete with intricate arabesque border patterns. The rich ornamental frames of illuminated Quranic texts are also reinvented as contemporary manuscript art. The ‘Jashan’ series pulse with rhythms of the sama mehfil that Mahbub regularly attends in Konya, Turkey. A montage of script, and oriental pattern with primary emphasis on the whirling dervishes these prints sport flaming hues suffused with luminous lights.
The quiet and contemplative ‘Rah-e-tareeqat’ photo prints of roads, trails and pathways are essentially site based with minimal digital manipulation. Mahbub confesses to photographing them instinctively at first and very consciously later on when the larger meaning dawned upon her. Dilating upon the reflective aspect of paths fading into infinity she opines that “a ‘tareeqa’ is a road and more specifically a road to perfection” and adds, “My murshid once said, ‘still waters eventually stink’. To travel and seek and learn as you go forward, movement is essential for enlightenment from the apprentice to the highest in spiritual station. “
For sheer visual delight and joyous encounter there are no better prints than the ‘Firdous-e-mun’ series in the show. By no means novel, such photographs are often found in nature magazines and websites, it is their incredible content coupled with photographic expertise that ensures instant impact. But then you need a believer’s eye to extract such beauty from nature. The ‘Rahnuma-e-khayal’ illustrations feature scientific, medicinal and astronomical instruments from the famous Bimaristaan al Nouri in Syria. Built as a hospital and medical school by Nuruddin Zangai in 1154, this noteworthy building was the most advanced medical institution of its time. The Damishq interlude spotlights the “radiant energy” and architectural splendor of a historic Islamic city.
Yet another deeply meditative set of photographs is the 'Suhanee raat’ series. The title of this gallery comes from a poem by Allama Iqbal. As a photographer Mah’bub has tried to capture the mysterious grandeur of the darkness of night illumined only by the faint strains of moonlight. The monochrome images are powerful and lend credence to the nocturnal theory of contemplation and communion with one’s maker.
An art odyssey deeply synchronised with her spiritual journey, Farah Mahbub’s synthesis of passion and profession can be a limiting exercise as far as range of photography is concerned. Fortunately she has a wide assortment to her credit. Her reach is vast and she regularly travels to various regions of the world with her camera in tow. While most series invoke the divine there are some like the ‘Suhanee raat’, ‘Rah-e-tareeqat’ and ‘Firdous-e-mun’, which can stand independently mainly as pure photographic exercises.
As a photographer, Mahbub’s handling of light, as radiance, sparkle and glow or as a chiaroscuro technique is also very noticeable as a distinct sharpness and clarity pervades the photo prints. Human beings are noticeable by their absence in her work. She locates the divine in the bounties of nature, through architectural emblems, spiritual symbols and whirling rhythms? But where does she situate ashraful makhlooqaat, the highest of divine creations in this spiritual journey?