States and artists share a common characteristic. Both occupy. If the former take hold of territories, the latter dominate individuals by intervening into their feelings, emotions, and ideas.
The impact of artwork — a novel, a painting, a movie, a play, a dance performance or a piece of music — is so deep that it can penetrate a person’s memory or alter his personality.
In addition, sometimes artists through their artworks conquer physical spaces – as part of their mediums of expression. Like Rabia Ejaz, who got hold of a soon-to-be demolished house in Gulberg Lahore. But with the consent of the building’s new owners, an art-collector couple, Rabia Ejaz decided to ‘use’ the house as the location or the context of her art. So the empty rooms which were offices not long ago, provided not only the backdrop for her paintings, but were transformed into components of her creation.
The moment you cross the gate, you get the feeling of being in an abandoned property built in old style. A debilitated structure, with holes in the wall, gaps in the windows, broken down doors, torn plaster and flaking paint offers a painterly delight. In fact compared to a newly-built residence with its immaculate finish and chic decoration, this place appears to be a work of art, because nature and time participated in converting functional and simple quarters into a combination of textures, engaging surfaces and intriguing views.
Metal wires hanging from the top after removing the false ceiling, marks of human existence left on the walls, dirt and stains, all add to the pictorial pleasure of the place. In the middle of another room is a plant so large that it almost reaches the roof.
An establishment like this is both challenging and inspiring for an artist who has opted to incorporate it in his/her art. But in the case of Rabia Ejaz the challenge was considered to be a source to generate ideas.
On May19, she invited visitors to witness (in the real sense of the word, because the site will be demolished in a few months) her ‘intervention’ which ended on May 24.
Titled Immaculate Decay, it was spread over two rooms, and a section of the wall next to the main entrance. It consisted of paintings in acrylic on paper, vasli and canvas installed in rooms and outside, as well as four tubelights joined in a square format in each room.
Interestingly, the artist did not make all these paintings specifically for the house, but most did fit in that surrounding. For example, at the entrance a canvas with electricity switchboard and two lizards did not look like a painted picture, but an actual image from a distance. Likewise, several other small pieces with switches, sockets, and cracks on the wall were arranged in such a scheme that one was unable to ‘read’ them as artworks. The photo-realistic quality of these paintings enhanced the illusion between real and replica.
Along with these small works, a number of other paintings depicted a light bulb, rows of bricks in white paint, and a noticeboard with faded impression of envelopes, removed after being pinned up for long.
These works define the inner life of living quarters, in which inhabitants leave their mark even after they move out. Not only in the physical format, but in the realm of virtual and mental, we cast off a segment of us in every space or every piece of furniture we interact with. A person sitting on a chair in a public office is a replacement of all those who occupied that object before him. Or a man renting an apartment is just a new addition to the long list of people who spent some time there. We are always entering in others’ dwellings, without our or their knowledge of prior presences.
Ejaz’s sojourn (six days) in the building must be the last activity in that space, yet it can guaranty permanence of some sort to that house, because once the walls are knocked down and the structure is razed, the memory of that place will survive in the minds of those who visited the exhibition.
In that sense Ejaz fulfilled the artist’s role to give a longer life. E. H. Gombrich writes in The Story of Art, that the name for a sculptor in ancient Egypt was “He who keeps alive”. Lisa Gherardini, the model who posed for Mona Lisa died almost 500 years ago, but her face, torso, smile and beauty are still intact, alive and haunt generations of art lovers.
Rabia Ejaz also serves the same cause. The house will be disintegrated but her works will always keep the memory and experience of the place intact.
Two works were created in connection of that location. ‘Secrets’, the painting of a broken-down switchboard on the mouldy wall with pipe for wires, was in fact the exact picture of the same thing on the opposite wall on location. Her work was so powerful due to a small details, the accuracy in the size of her subject and the work she produced. Both were like mirror images.
This reminds of a text by Jorge Luis Borges in which cartographers were assigned to make maps of a kingdom on its actual dimensions; hence no difference between real and record. Ejaz too moves across these tiny, sensitive but hard boundaries between physical and pictorial, because one believes that a representation (image, words) is ephemeral in comparison to tangible objects; but in a way it is also the artist’s or writer’s description that outlives the physical substance.
This debate between the real and the replicated is addressed in another work, ‘Entrails’, in which view of an open switchboard was painted so meticulously that a person could be deceived. The image continued with regular electric wires coming out of the acrylic on paper and extending onto the wall.
The marriage of actual and virtual is an important theme for Rabia Ejaz, since her work is a cause to prolong the life of a house, which like a friend shelters us from others – sometimes from ourselves too!
This article was published in The News on Sunday on May 28, 2017 under the title The private life of a personal space.