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Between the lines

The many layers of meanings in Aisha Abid Hussain’s latest show at Rohtas 2, Lahore

Between the lines

‘Books are disturbing, without any doubt, as disturbing as mirrors: book, tell me who I am. The reply is always ambiguous: you are yourself even while being other.” — Abdelfattah Kilito

For Aisha Abid Hussain books, more than being disturbing entities, are items that dislocate a person in time and place. A person who writes a book captures his surroundings or reflects upon his times. Though unlike a work of visual art that is never translated (even though it is perpetually interpreted), most books are translated into other languages.

Today when we think of War and Peace, Brother Karamazov, The Divine Comedy, The Thousand and One Nights, The Trial, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, these literary pieces survive in our minds in their translated versions, instead of a singular or definitive text by the authors.

Hussain has transformed books into works of visual art. The link with text and image is not new for the artist who has been interested in the two since she was a miniature student at the NCA (2004-2007). In her degree show (January 2008), she had displayed works constructed with unbelievably minute and miniature lines. These pieces heralded her future works because she followed artists who, using lines as their main motif, eventually explored ‘writing’ as their mode of pictorial expression.

This is logical since line is important for everyone engaged with text — words are normally composed between the lines of a page. Mohammad Ali Talpur, who has created incredibly complex works based upon lines — flowing, straight and overlapped — eventually explored calligraphy and utilised this art of beautiful writing in his black & white paintings which traverse between strict formal order and personal lyricism.

In the case of Hussain, writing is addressed in another format. It occupies a space/scale usually associated with book: rectangular, vertical and small. This aspect is visible and reinforced at her solo show ‘A Fine Balance Between Love and Despair’ being held from May5-31, 2017 at Rohtas 2, Lahore.

One can guess that Aisha Abid Hussain’s work has a personal overtone to which the invitation text alludes. The reference to anatomy, letters and personal diaries found in her work supports the artist’s desire in building a narrative that appears intimate besides being intricate.

Her display includes one installation and a few other works, yet all have a common characteristic: small surfaces filled with unreadable inscriptions. Even though one is able to pick a few words but by and large the text becomes the texture in her work. Occasionally, it is overlapped like a misprinted/discarded paper from the printer, and sometimes contains part of a human bone, monochromatic reproduction of a traditional Indian painting, or random marks on or next to repeatedly tiny lines.

The most intriguing element is the intricate and intertwined lines of text, weaved on top or close to each other in a way that it is impossible to know what the text signifies. In a sense, the work reminds of secret messages composed in a shape that only the recipients are able to decipher.


On another level, these appear as pages of illustrated manuscripts with the inclusion of miniature painting or drawings of bones. In her large installation — composed of 40 separate surfaces of layers (wasli) of papers — one is able to read Urdu script or recognise pages from other books with sections of writing, along with crossed out as well as faded written parts.


There can be two approaches to interact with her work or two ways to ‘understand’ it — from meaning to meaninglessness. Nothing in the universe is devoid of meaning, whether created by God or produced by human beings. Man has the tendency to add meaning into everything from his surroundings. Hence, the primitive practices of worshipping stones, trees, animals and other entities of nature to the later day admiration of commodities/products.

Regardless of logical or historical basis for these intended meanings or beliefs, one is conscious of human need to ‘read’ everything that he confronts. More than that, it is the fascination for what lies between the lines; hence commentaries on literature, interpretations of art and explanations of gestures, human behaviour and natural phenomena. A surge that must have made humans into humans, as Roland Barthes comments: “We are well aware that what separates human beings from animals isn’t communication (animals communicate very well) but signification.”


So what does the art of Aisha Abid Hussain signify? One can guess that the work has a personal overtone to which the invitation text alludes. The reference to anatomy, letters and personal diaries found in her work supports the artist’s desire in building a narrative that appears intimate besides being intricate. Yet, her tools to construct it invite some other interpretations.

Most of her work can be about the decay of material and body, since both the papers in her installations and images drawn on them look exhausted. The frequently drawn bones suggest disintegration of body too, because apart from x-rays/ultrasound scans, one can spot a bone, only when it emerges out of a body that has been operated, dead and disappeared. The placement of these bones in the middle or prominent sections of composition, with text as the background, conveys the artist’s comments on the death of a person; and how his voice, identity, and belongings cease to exist with time. This could be understood as a means of remembering an individual beyond his death.


But if one recalls a loved one (Hussain lost her father in March 2015), one contemplates on the idea and effect of death. In an uncanny scheme, death is not dealt with parts of human skeleton but with language too. Because the way Hussain has written or drawn the text, the language recedes from it along with its meaning! One tries hard to pick words and phrases but in most cases is unable to ‘know’ it. In a sense, her work also indicates a general disappearance of meaning/content from the form. We are surrounded by acts, expressions and creations which ‘look’ perfect but on a closer investigation are a mere façade — nothingness.

Aisha Abid Hussain’s work may be a response to the death of her parent, but it can be a lament on the loss of meaning in a language which does not communicate, yet is full of discourse on politics, faith, love and art.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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