One can communicate in various ways: murmur, mumble, mutter, whisper, stammer, slur, speak, scream and yell. We may use the same words but a shift in volume, timing and gap changes the content of what is being uttered. Likewise, in visual arts, more crucial than what is presented is how it’s produced; like the tone of voice, formal features mould and fix the final content of an art piece.
In Rabeya Jalil’s recent works, I too was tempted to ask the standard question —what has she painted — to know the genesis and meaning of her imagery. But, I was soon moved by the pictorial quality, textures and tactility of her canvases.
The work of Rabeya Jalil at her solo exhibition ‘Something Else’ (Aug 28-Sept 19, 2018) at Koel Gallery, Karachi reminds one of artists who are not keen on a ‘subject’; instead their work is a documentation of a frame of mind. It is like the testimony of a hand that negotiates paint across blank surfaces, and traces of those sojourns are more significant to them than a ‘comprehensible’ theme. However, being in that situation, an artist also deals with a duel between a visual and its readability and context — one cannot get away from it no matter how much one wishes to or avoids or evades it.
In reality, a sensible artist is aware of the marriage, no matter how incompatible, of ideas and their pictorial manifestation, because the two — like a loving couple — are inseparable. Jalil is also conscious of this link of her visuals with their possible connotations. Her approach reminds one of V.S. Naipaul’s comment on a similar state in literature; “Plot is for those who already know the world; narrative is for those who want to discover it”.
Her compositions comprise a history of search, but her manner of drawing brings to mind what Arthur C. Danto writing on Cy Twombly defined as ‘demotic drawing’, “a certain kind of drawing of which each of us is capable…… and it is probably part of the human endowment, like speech”, in contrast to academic drawing “a learned skill, [that] builds on and refines”. Jalil’s work, executed in multiple scales and combinations, offers a number of variations in handling of image, and simultaneously of material: mixed media paintings with screen prints of a notebook page and impression of scotch tape, linear rendering of different objects in a sparse colour palette, surfaces reduced to subtle shades of white, loosely constructed compositions with fluid marks and overlapped imagery. Amid the last category, one finds contours of a scooter, lines of a rickshaw, the shape of a ferocious beast, portraits, scribbled words and scrawled numbers.
All these are rendered in a style and chromatic scheme that is not classified as ‘naturalistic’; yet the artist’s observation is at its best, since marks of canine fangs, features of a face, outlines of a vehicle, details of bathroom fitting are presented in a sensitive and convincing way. It affirms Naipaul’s quote: “imagination is memory” and confirms the artist’s command on observation and training in realistic representation.
Often she applies layers and layers, just for the pleasure of putting one colour on top of another, circling one area with the band of another hue, coating differing tones of similar shade to get that complex, seductive and evocative appearance that a painting deserves.
A work of art must excite the ‘spectator’. In history, numerous painters have manufactured works on the idea of beauty, spirituality, faith, mythology, but due to their weak visual vocabulary, their canvases remain like essays that never elevate to high literature. The painterly quality is evident in many of Jalil’s works, but more than the loud colours of ‘Clan’, it is remarkably achieved in ‘Marks, Moments, Mistakes’ with a subtle distribution of hues, succeeding to a poetic semblance.
In most of her works, Jalil aims for an idiom that surpasses the ‘trained’ mind and hand. It is not of a child but is beyond the limited circle of art academia that educates and supports one solution and suppresses other possibilities of pictorial expressions. The structure and system of an art school guide and ingrain a young person into the discipline of formal drawing, besides talking about art in certain modes/formats. It seems that Jalil is questioning that construct. And who could be better equipped than her, an individual graduated in studio art from NCA, with an MA in Art Education from Columbia University, NYC.
Somehow, the work of Rabeya Jalil is a map of the artist’s split personality, an academic with precision and a painter without boundaries. She incorporates references from a notebook — seemingly a kid’s attempts in scribbling. Jalil focuses on this feature because, within each of us, there is a battle of emotion and education, strain and spontaneity, restriction and recreation. It is our disposition to opt for one or the other. It appears that Jalil prefers a naïve expression in her art work, particularly in portraying her characters.
It is not surprising the main figure of Naïve art, Jean Dubuffet, who based his art on marks and drawings of those who never had formal instruction of art, wrote some of the most complex and philosophical texts collected in Asphyxiating Culture and Other Writings. Anybody heavily immersed in theory needs to let it go. In the art of Rabeya Jalil the presence of this allegedly ‘uncontrollable’ imagery is necessary to satisfy an academic involved in intellectual pursuits, crucial to have some unexpectedness, like what we come across in poetry, “… if human nature were not a mystery, we’d have no need of poets” (Rushdie).
However, the problem is whether art making is an intellectual act or merely an emotional/intuitive outburst. It seems that Rabeya Jalil feels her work, carefully created despite looking random, can be a bridge between a thinking mind and a spontaneous hand — a mind that thinks about an impetuous hand or a highly active mind that tames an impulsive hand. Her solo exhibition provides all these options, solutions and possibilities.