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Between artists and their artwork

Saima Munawar’s surfaces with textile design reveal an eagerness to extract from the painter’s personal history

Between artists and their artwork

At Saima Munawar’s recent exhibition at Taseer Art Gallery in Lahore, an art critic commented on how her imagery, comprising overlapping tiny dots and vertical marks, reminded one of textile patterns. The critic’s statement was supported by an art teacher, as both recalled Munawar being a textile design graduate from the National College of Arts (1998).

One could find pictorial connections between her visuals and embroidery, weaves and motifs. The background knowledge of her regular training in textile design was nevertheless the main reason to locate the link with her miniature paintings.

Executed with gouache, watercolour, and coloured pencils on wasli paper, her six works (part of the group show Real Spiel) are a sensitive exploration of mark-making, using either circular shapes or horizontal bands, to convey a richness of surface. The tactile quality — misleadingly read as textile quality — is managed through layering of subtle hues; thus a depth of space is created in the otherwise flat shapes like circle and rectangle.

Her paintings also refer to violence in our midst or its memory; and the turbulent culture under numerous restrictions. A cross made in red, superimposed on a circle with sprinkles of red paint in the work The Heart Wants What It Wants, reminds of the sites of bomb explosions stained with blood of victims; or small vertical marks on horizontal lines like the page of an exercise book in Here We Are. They suggest multiple interpretations — from keeping count of days in solitary confinement cell to a simplified version of barbed wires.

Her other paintings suggest a more formal approach in which the interplay of dots and daubs offers a density of surface, inviting a spectator to gaze into an image that is apparently meaningless, yet contains a segment of reality: of emotions, feelings and passions. These cannot be drawn but are sensed, remembered and stored in minds. The abstraction of these works (Hold Everything Dear I & II, and Look Closely: For I am What I am I & II) belong to contemporary miniature painting’s practice in which several artists, instead of portraying human figures, buildings, landscape, animals (some of the favoured subjects of miniature painters in the past) prefer a minimal, geometric and non-representational imagery.

Artists like Aisha Khalid and Waqas Khan have been employing this vocabulary. One could associate their visuals with textile patterns or weaves, but seldom does one find this angle in writings on their art. Aisha Khalid did do cross-stitch as a young girl but to describe her aesthetics in terms of this activity would be an exaggeration. In fact, numerous female artists may have learnt embroidery while growing up, yet their artworks in later life have no impact of that early training.

So identifying Munawar’s surfaces with textile design reveals an eager attempt to extract from the personal history of the painter — a strand that she or others may have forgotten or are not conscious of; and which may not have a direct or relevant link to understand the present work. One comes across this attitude in the writings on A J Shemza, as the threads left on the sides of his small canvases are bracketed with his ancestor’s profession of carpet weaving in Kashmir.

Critics across the world try to act as psychoanalysts, investigators and even archaeologists. For instance, John Berger while commenting on JM Turner’s loosely rendered seascapes, mentions his father’s barber shop in London. “Consider some of his later paintings and imagine, in the backstreet shop, water, froth, steam, gleaming metal, clouded mirrors, white bowls and basins in which soapy liquid is agitated by the barber’s brush and detritus deposited. Consider the equivalence between his father’s razor and the palette knife which, despite criticisms and current usage, Turner insisted upon using so extensively”.

One could quote many examples of this kind. These biographical and contextual details are not essential to reading the expression of a creative person or to determine his/her content.

We all belong to a particular family, class and community each. If we reduce ourselves to these points of reference, we limit the vast possibility of belonging to other options/identities, which were not given to us but we chose them. If an artist is born in a family of butchers, you may assume his imagery would be about blood, violence and slaughter; if she comes from a family of farmers, you could decide her passion for landscape draws on her initial exposure to fields, crops and harvest. But following this path poses a problem: we negate the artists’ conscious decisions about imagery, technique and materials; or their presence in a certain moment of art history and bondage to its thought and practice. For example, Huma Mulji, after her graduation from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (1995), incorporated toys and Rexene to create her sculptures and mixed media paintings dealing with diverse personal and public issues. One explanation for the selection of medium is her father’s business of toy manufacturing. Another, probably stronger, factor lies in her being a student in Karachi and working with artists who were appropriating and assimilating popular visual culture and industrial/commercial material in their art. They included David Alesworth, Durriya Kazi, Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi.

In that sense, the early life of artists is not as crucial as their later preferences in the field of art. Once exposed to the world of art, they join a larger group, accumulating similar information, exposure and experience. Thereafter, it is the way a creative mind transforms what it receives that determines the identity and worth of an artist.

Thus, the source or the personality of artists is not as significant as what they produce. However, there is a trend in art schools to inquire about and even stress on references of personal nature: family pictures, photographs captured by the artists and their hometowns. But all these sincere attempts to explore the artist’s background actually blur the perception and limit the expression. If, as prescribed by tutors, art students remain interested in their own selves, in references based upon their own photography, in views of relatives and places of residence, they may end up becoming invisible (in the wide world of art). You cannot see yourselves unless you look into a mirror. The world that stands outside you and encompasses you actually makes you.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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