Having participated in the prestigious Jameel Art Prize 2018, The Space Within (November 20-29,2018) was her next exhibition, so one was able to draw links with and find references to her pieces installed at the V&A Museum. In both bodies of works, the artist appears to have expressed in a language that she had formulated several years ago. Inspired by the rendering of plants, trees, flowers and leaves in Mughal, Rajput and Pahari paintings, she transformed these details in her installation at a gallery space (2012, Rohtas 2, Lahore), for a structure during her residency (2013, FLACC Artists Residency, Belgium), as well as extended them into wall drawings along with the display of her paintings (2016, Rohtas 2).
A similar engagement was witnessed in ‘Way to Paradise’, a public installation at Bagh-e-Jinnah for Lahore Biennale 01, 2018. In addition, her works on paper were primarily adorned with a variation on foliage, branches and leaves; in some cases next to flying fish and other real and imaginary beings.
In her latest solo exhibition, similar visual elements were evident, indicating that she is not after ‘presentation’ of foliage purely. Instead, she is pursuing something more sophisticated and subtle — the comparison and connection of nature and culture; of organic entities and man-made items. Thus Shabbir formulates leaves, twigs and trees into structures that are not possible in nature.
The difference between her source of imagery and her creation is the same as the difference in a forest and garden; one an outcome of a natural phenomenon, the other made by humans. From Mughal gardens to Versailles Gardens, there have been attempts to introduce geometry in the unkempt beauty of nature. In Muslim societies, the garden was not merely an aesthetic project; it was a humble attempt to reproduce the symbolic garden of Eden. Thus, one finds most mausoleums situated in beautifully laid-out lawns, flower beds and rows of trees, conveying that the dead are resting in paradise.
Apart from the religious aspect, garden signifies man’s ambition to ‘correct’ nature: to tame it, to use it. It is hard to find a straight line, pure cube, absolute circle and sharp triangle in natural objects. But man has made tools — axe, saw, cutter, pencil, etc. — to inscribe these shapes as well as to build forms based on them. In Shabbir’s work, one finds natural substance settled in geometric areas. A flattened circle, a squat hexagon, or rectangular structures, all allude to this bond and blend of chaos and order, spontaneity and control.
In a sense, this group of work suggests a merger between the outside and inner space. One constructs geometric walls, paves floor, inserts windows within a house, but one hardly has control on the number of leaves that will sprout or in what direction will the branches grow (interestingly the word culture is derived from cultivation, ‘preparing and using land for crops and gardening’). A good gardener tries to cut, bend, tie, so what we enjoy is an ‘edited’ version of nature.
This updated version is largely a generic practice. However, the difference in the layout of a garden in medieval Europe and Muslim Persia is not only of style; it also embodies how the world and otherworld were perceived and imagined in these societies/ages. Moving from her strict and not so strict geometric constructions, Shabbir has ventured into other forms too. If the works which delineate the interior of a room, layout of two blocks (‘In a Conscious’ and ‘Leaf Lined’) remind of this paradox between nature and culture, there are other pieces from her show that deal with the idea of a drawn shape in open format.
Beyond these structured visuals, Shabbir’s recent work also suggests a shift in the artist’s practice towards ‘nature’ or freedom. In ‘Stemming Line’ and ‘Of an Orchid’, nature takes over, emerging from two sides of rectangular sections of greenery as well as in the swirling body of a tree, culminating in ‘Follow the Line’ and ‘A Dictation’, in which the artist seems to be enjoying the journey of ‘line’ — an entity that in her and others’ opinion “does not exist in nature”. These works, in their lyrical nature, appear more like the text of poetry, recalling the script (or spirit) of Chinese Calligraphy. Here the lines, fabricated with layers of leaves, stand as if branches from a garden in a breeze. Tilting, shifting or overlapping, these marks look like a new script.
Personal for the painter, this scheme is relevant for others too, especially if examined in relation to the design of display at her solo show. These works on paper were not hung on the walls as is customary, but were placed at an angle so that the viewer did not see a painting but read a ‘manuscript’. A scripture about tradition and times.
Along with the meticulous manner of painting her imagery and choosing her colour palette, the work of Wardha Shabbir denotes how a contemporary artist (trained in the traditional discipline of miniature painting) breaks away, yet is linked to the past. For example, the colours opted for her surfaces echo the background hues preferred in Rajput painting, particularly the Basohli School. The artist’s connection with the legacy of miniature painting is found in the way she draws her leaves, but beyond that it is a narrative about space, within and outside.
In a literal sense, when it is within, it is a bunch of grass encapsulated within a transparent stick (‘A Different Reality’) or a minimal structure (‘A Green Landscape’). No matter if the form is enclosed within a natural looking substance (a branch) or in a simplified block with slanting (yellow) top, the artist is trying to create a balance between art and reality.
One could address these issues in other manners, but in the context of tradition and treatment of miniature painting, the history of a genre has also become solid, real, pretty and precious. In that sense Wardha Shabbir is stepping out of dual reality — of nature and convention. But like a fugitive, the chains is always there to haunt you. If the art of Shabbir is a step outside of tradition, it is also a tool to perceive the past, not as a redundant entity or an attractive antique but a means to read and recognise the present.