Durre Waseem migrated from Lahore to Los Angeles in 2001. Before leaving for the US, she taught at the Punjab University, Lahore (1990-1997) and the DHA College for Girls in Karachi (1997-2000). What made her distinct was her landscapes painted in a lyrical manner. The choice of subjects was culled out from her surroundings: buildings, streets, vehicles, pedestrians, stray animals, birds, and green patches not far from civic centres.
Most landscape painters idealise and follow the camera: a tool for recording nature in its utmost accuracy. A photograph, usually considered a true representation of reality, hardly matches the human experience of viewing the world. David Hockney observes that camera consists of only one viewfinder from which the image is captured whereas human beings possess two eyes to see everything, so what we get is a blend of two ‘pictures’ in our head/vision.
Durre Waseem goes a step further. For her, reality is not a static snapshot nor a conventional landscape but an ever-changing state. Anyone who has ever painted in the outdoors or even a living model in studio knows it is impossible to render reality since it is always changing. Light shifts its intensity, amount and direction; breeze causes leaves to stir, plants to sway and water to reverberate; sky modifies its shades; clouds drift; and men, animals, birds and insects are in constant motion. Thus, in the process of painting, the subject transforms a lot. So, what an artist puts on his canvas is an amended version of reality.
Yet we all are caught in that lie — reality. Waseem recognises the limits of representation, and hence, approaches the question of reality differently. For her, the most important aspect of a landscape painting is the essence of a phenomenon which is in perpetual flux. She translates this through a simple device — on an intuitive level. She uses a brush which never stops or hesitates, and swiftly travels across the surface of her canvas, merging tones, mixing hues, blending shapes, and gluing characters to their backgrounds. Thus, what is presented is a residue of the artist’s encounter of reality in its totality, rather than a superficial glimpse. Thus, a viewer gets a similar sensation in front of her canvases as in front of nature or individuals from a crowded area of city.
In the paintings at her solo exhibition being held from July 4-13, 2017 at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, her use of colour is significant. For a painter, things do not have local colours. Their surfaces are modified with reflections of other objects in their environment, so an apple is never red, a tree scarcely green, sky not blue at all times of the day or season. Also, it is the artist who decides to ‘translate’ the language that still communicates but does not replicate. In many works, we see shadows painted in purple, tints of green on portraits, steel grey skies, water buffalos in blue, and brown roads — all acceptable, plausible and credible.
Waseem recognises limits of representation and approaches the question of reality differently. For her, the most important aspect of landscape painting is the essence of a phenomenon which is in perpetual flux. She translates this through a simple device — on an intuitive level and uses a brush.
Her compositions communicate not the inventory of all components but an interlocked vision that is as convincing as reality or Art. One spots the inclusion of a fruit-seller and his cart, men on motorbikes, people sitting on benches, cows crawling on roads, lanes with passersby in different directions, goats underneath makeshift tents, rickshaws on empty morning streets, gates on railway crossing, skyline with electricity wires and poles with birds perched on them, and outlines of buildings; but what is retained is an overall impression of a busy urban situation not the separate details.
Perhaps it is the method of making that ensures this impact of ‘reality’ in her work. It seems Waseem does not draw but builds her imagery bit by bit through applying brushstrokes which lead to a complete painting. Complete in the sense that the work is signed, framed and installed in the gallery, otherwise one could still find areas which are not ‘finished’ in a conventional scheme. Like reality which never dies, the painting is not stopped at any point, and it is the viewer who in a way participates in completing it by contemplating and comprehending its various components.
Durre Waseem has a number of exhibitions to her credit, here and abroad. But the present exhibition at Canvas Gallery consists of works based on views from Lahore, Murree and Islamabad and a few still-lifes. This division or decision of location adds a new reading into her work.
The earlier works made of meadows of Los Angeles, bridges of Venice, interiors of hotels in California and coffeehouses from the East Coast along with vegetation from southern state of US reveal her skill and command on rendering her subject. But these lack a feeling of ‘liveliness’ while appearing decorative, forced, colourful — even gaudy to an extent. Compared to those, her recent works with ordinary situations in which there are no historic structures or fashionable setting or a picturesque part of land, the artist is at her best. The ease in handling paint, the confidence in tackling the presence of light and the ability to produce interesting compositions mark these works as her best pieces so far.
There are two reasons behind this achievement. Most paintings are on small scale — manageable while working outside. More than that, it is the focus of her gaze on a land where she belongs, despite having lived in the US since 2001. That is the crucial factor. This reminds me of an architect friend who was living in Istanbul for several years. I asked if she missed Lahore, and she replied: ‘Missing Lahore? I am still in Lahore!’