If a picture is more than a thousand words, an art exhibition can be a book in several volumes, almost like Marcel Proust’s novel ‘In Search of Lost Time’, split into seven parts. The art works are tools to communicate, first with the maker and then the viewer — the ideas unravelled to their makers and receivers at the same time, even if in varying degrees.
But what happens when two artists are showing at a group exhibition. Who do they speak to — to themselves, to each other, their audience, times, to none or to all? Questions like these are invoked at the show of two important artists of the current times: Dua Abbas and Wardha Shabbir. NCA graduates of 2009 and 2010, they held their two-person exhibition Maps of Skin and Spirit at Canvas Gallery, Karachi from Aug 29 to Sept 9, 2017.
Abbas was a student of painting while Shabbir trained as a miniature artist, but the remarkable element is that both deviated from the norm and prescribed modes of production. In their degree show, the miniature graduate also displayed a video installation, and the painting major presented works made in pastel/crayon on paper.
The choice of medium is not arbitrary. It delineates a frame of mind which isn’t comfortable in containing art within a genre. The two artists deal with a realm of imagery where ideas are more crucial than usual definitions of art forms. The art works suggest how an artist leads the viewer away from the benign to sublime, since interacting with a work is not different from a spiritual voyage in which you levitate and attain other heights.
Although showing together, the two artists are exploring their personal and private worlds. But what is a personal and private world if not a reflection of the outside. In that sense, both Dua Abbas and Wardha Shabbir have developed their separate ways of negotiating with the world.
Works at Canvas Gallery denote how the reality of our present can be preserved through an idiom that is classical, yet contemporary. Actually, the conversation within the two-person show of Abbas and Shabbir is not a discussion between them but a discourse between classical and contemporary art; and is not reduced to individual artists’ practices but the larger understanding of art. One must not forget the two artists have been teaching at NCA where the debate about contemporary and classical is as normal as ordering a plate of French toast from the college cafeteria.
In the work of Dua Abbas, like any artist of substance, the material, medium and technique are employed to address something else. In her large pastels on paper, Abbas has created characters who may have had definite personalities, but it is the hand of the artist which bestows a unique individuality to them. Now we see them as symbols or representative of specific ideas.
For instance, in ‘She Had a Certain… Ruin-Lust’, Abbas forms a realistic yet impossible scenario. The face of a young female is converted into part of a plinth, placed in an ordinary domestic arrangement with people engaged in their indoor games, while the television is transmitting footage of a killing, perhaps on the name of religion or on the basis of honour or on some rumours. In the work, three pictorial segments — or systems of representation — exist simultaneously and independent of each other.
In her other works, Abbas offers a range of images which are complex in their weave. Like the title or theme of an essay, they have a major focus along with other supporting arguments/information/visuals. For example, in three works, all called Displaced Hearts you see a main poser with a surrounding that completes her existence and context. It can be an accumulation of animal heads, section of landscape, or scene of a city: backdrops to understand these female figures.
Along with pastels, there are a number of oil paintings with people amid medieval architecture. These indicate the artist is not using ‘props’ (a favourite word among artists and educators in our midst) but creating a narrative which is about our circumstances. For instance, in ‘She Had a Certain… Ruin-Lust’ the news on TV is about lynching of two boys by a mob. Or in other pieces, construction of characters through family archives is a way of suggesting a world that exists between the real and unreal. In fact, if one refers back to her sources — the family photographs — all that existed once, seems extraordinary now. We do not encounter those spaces, personages and relationships in the present times. Yet, through these, Abbas has managed to offer a world suspended between the actual and probable.
Wardha Shabbir, with her inspiration from the classical Indian miniature painting, clearly defies the tyranny of optical experience in favour of information received from other senses. In her paintings and wall drawings, Shabbir focuses on a realm that is infused with characters from myths, epics, poetry and popular imagination. Using the idiom of Indian miniatures, Shabbir has created orchards, groves, and passages which are green but not natural, because either these are crowded with extraordinary entities or surrounded by fishes of different sorts (winged, man-faced, or under growing trees).
These works can be a minimal and contemporary interpretation of One Thousand and One Nights: a text in which improbable events take place but are presented in a believable manner/tone. Shabbir may not be taking direct reference from that book, yet is linked to a tradition that does not rely on physical simulation but an accumulated version of reality through myth, mystery, magic, observation and imagination. Hence, fantasy and reality mingle in her work.
Shabbir incorporates that impossible hemisphere by making her images so real that even when you know flying fish or man-fish does not exist, you tend to believe in what is projected by its visual construction.
The two artists recognise the constraints of realism because both — like the writers of Magic-Realism — extend the idea of the other world. But keeping in view the techniques of Magic-Realists, they add incredible segment of reality in their works (what is art, if it is not reality!) through their command in presenting their ideas. So, no matter if it is the sensitive rendering of a figure against a medieval setting, or an intricate almost web-like mapping of grove with familiar and/or otherworldly creatures, all speak to us as if they are living. Like art, it is something that does not perish with our death on this planet.