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Bitter tenderness

In her recent exhibition at Chawkandi Art in Karachi, Laila Rahman fuses eastern sensibility with the pictorial concerns of western modernism

Bitter tenderness
The Land of Lost Content.

At the still point of the turning world, Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

                                                                                         T S Eliot, Burnt Norton

In the film Pollock, actor Ed Harris portrays the painter Jackson Pollock and says that the contemporary artist is no longer influenced by tradition but is influenced much more by himself. This is an idea that hurls one’s work out of the great circle of dialogue that is where all important art takes its stand and makes its point — by arguing, agreeing, extending or reinterpreting.

Trained as a printmaker and a painter, Laila Rahman has been looking to East and West, picking from each culture what best suited her needs, fusing and assimilating both. The ensuing works (mostly etchings, drypoints and aquatints) — in keeping with the style of the Indian miniatures and the illuminated texts of the Quran — could be read as intricate patterns which took their inspiration from Islamic art: the calligraphy of spiritual writings, the architecture of great buildings, the elaborate weaves of fabrics and rugs.

Although on one level these were direct figurative narratives filled with fabulous creatures apparently taken from some imaginary heraldic bestiary, they could also be understood within the context of contemporary western abstraction — as form exploring form for its own ends. For they were never offered simply as literal illustrations but rather expressions of emotion or mood.

In the current exhibition at Chawkandi Art in Karachi, Rahman brings to her work a freshness that fuses an eastern sensibility with the pictorial concerns of western modernism. Therefore, to surmise that one of her most potent influences is Matisse isn’t entirely out of question. Matisse had, in his turn, been seduced by the colourful cornucopia of Moorish southern Spain and Morocco, the luxuriant fruits and flora, as well as that projected European fantasy of desire, the odalisque, which came to dominate many of his paintings. Although a non-believer, his gouache decoupes expressed “the nearly religious feeling I have for life”.

This, too, could be Laila Rahman’s epithet.

Rahman is much more than her references, since the references were just the beginnings of vastly different journeys. She is not the kind of post-modern and gauche parasite as many artists of her generation, whose work is always as shallow in its snide wit as the subjects they ridicule.

The joyous, vibrant suite of paintings entitled ‘The Blind Oblivion’, full of colour and floating free in its own space, is to give Rahman the key to her own invention of volumetric perspective: a space which she would describe as being like a woollen ball which unwinds without reference to gravity.

There could be numerous interpretations of this work but perhaps it is in the vulnerable pomegranate that we find the key. For the whole implies a poetic harmony between the spiritual and the physical, between the creative and the contemplative. Contained within these paintings are images of birth, procreation and death, the main stations on the journey through life.

But if Rahman’s work is not vapid or ethereal — if harmony is all, the erotic and the body must have their place. In Ship of Fools, the seed-pod shape of the whole is split open with the seeds spilling out, and the lips of the mandorala curl open to reveal the tiny floating figures.

Contemplation, celebration, mystery and stillness; Laila Rahman attempts, through her art, to name the unnameable. Her compassion and her singular vision do not allow her to offer didactic certainties or absolutes, “…only hints and guesses, / Hints followed by guesses; / and the rest/ Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action”.

Rahman’s satiric, and mystical paintings are intricate fusings of classical and modern themes, methods, and images. Symbols, designs, taboos, and stereotypical figures are interwoven with subtle patterns of growth and flora and fauna. Sexuality is celebrated and teased in some works, while other paintings illuminate its mysteries and terrors; the literal and metaphoric implications of violence, horror, transcendence, and apocalyptic destruction are confronted and probed. Here, adoration intertwines with cannibalism; love, narcissism, and dependency descend to a revolting and devouring gluttony.

An angular, wild, and threatening universe broods, sulks, dances, parodies, celebrates, crushes, and eats. Men are usually cast as satyrs and women as nymphs. The sacrifice, redemption, and revelation that course through the violent ecstasy of so much classical imagery are transposed to an orgiastic underworld.

No situation, theme, shape, or creature appearing or recurring in the work has a single definition or function. There is constant flux. At this point, dynamic animism and the anthropomorphic surge of Rahman’s landscapes must be noted. Primary colours dominate many of the canvases divided into either diptychs or quadriptychs, with red an organising principal that makes the traditional suggestions of fire, passion, anguish, and destruction. The birds, angels, and halos of classical painting fuse into combined images of flying creatures. Birds themselves represent force and flight — weapons, liberators, vultures, methods of escape.

Most of the situations and actions in the paintings take place outdoors, the architectural and technological hand of man is almost always absent.  For her own orchestral purposes, Rahman appropriates the silhouette, turning bodies into melodic motifs or dance figures in musical or choreographic ritual forms.

Rahman’s sensibility synthesises styles. Her barbaric strokes function like Goya’s, expressing the world of nightmares, the cannibalistic violence at the centre of mammalian disdain, and a disdain for any form of lyricism that avoids the bitter tenderness and pity of mourning.

Finally, Rahman is much more than her references, since the references were just the beginnings of vastly different journeys. She is not the kind of post-modern and gauche parasite as many artists of her generation, whose work is always as shallow in its snide wit as the subjects they ridicule.

Rahman is an artist of foreboding passion, a woman whose involvement with her era could be humorous but is never about trying to elevate herself above the human shortcomings and frailties inherent in life. Her work contains a heroic commitment to the glands, to tragic recognition, and to the expression of an affirmation so rich in delicacy and force it can nearly achieve the grasp of purity that drives all great literatures. Her eye is on the humming bird, the peacock, the buzzard, the hawk, and the eagle. She understands the long-beaked consumers of nectar, the easily beautiful, the partakers of carrion, the swift and merciless predators, and the feathered inspirations with big wingspans that fly so high above us all.

In her work, these avian creatures symbolise conditions of the soul, and soul, finally, is what the work of Laila Rahman is all about.

Aasim Akhtar

aasim akhtar
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.

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