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Of spiritual serenity

Transcending and translating colour is the sojourn that Ayessha Qureishi takes at Koel Gallery in Karachi

Of spiritual serenity
In the absolute presence of a distant light.

“August 1998, Washington DC, The National Gallery of Art played host to a historic show of Mark Rothko. Walking through the show was an experience that was nonpareil. You couldn’t walk for long. There was an uncanny sensation that made you sit, made you want to contemplate, for seconds, minutes, hours. It was the inane experience of ‘silence’,” recounts Uma Nair.

If colour could only paralyse the viewer’s mind and imagination, it was here. Think of the opposite sensation. Of colours soft, sombre, so filled with angst that it could be a bleeding piece of heart. Contrast the tenor of hues in this show entitled ‘Open Presence’ — a suite of paintings on paper and timber, and sculptures — by Ayessha Qureishi at Koel Gallery in Karachi. The years reflect the phases of meditative melancholy, and solitude becomes a choice that celebrates the stance. The shades of the setting sun, the autumnal instincts in time all seep through to give at times a ranged horizon that appears, not as a forbidding pulsation that we cannot traverse, but as a presence that has been scattered by the sky’s weight.

For Ayessha, the sky dispels the darkness but also brings in a distilled diffusion that distinguishes the tenets of time in the experience that mirrors its own terrain. When the deeper tones revel you can sense an avalanching, of the freight of sienna and burnt charcoal towards the eye. Indeed, these perspectives are often so precariously projected that, ideally, the viewer ought to adopt a silent stance to do them justice.

“I have always been preoccupied with the distinct possibilities of space,” whispers Ayessha. ‘Space forms the foundation of the abstract expression. Why should I talk about it?’ Her question sets the tone for the emphatic silence that she expects the viewer to imbibe. Whether light or dark, it is the formless sensation of colour that grows with the meditative monologue as well as the monochromatic miasma that enfolds. It is here that one understands the Zen that pervades Ayessha’s idiom. Subtle minimalist renditions skim the interiors of the contemplated terrain.

Ayessha’s personal choices seem remote, so singularly ascetic, and extremely bare in terms of the resolutions that it makes you wonder if the artist asks for a little more than solitude, a stillness perhaps like the pause in a concerto in which she can layer over those first memories, the experience of a rare other openness that she has sought out. In all her works, there are only two distinct planes. There is the horizontal break of single spatial construct that speaks of the language of classic minimalism. In more ways than one, you wonder if the painted moment is the artist’s haven, if the painting itself is her notion of a spiritual home. Could the painted moment be the escape of a time when she felt trapped? She characterises the seizing of the cataclysmic encounters to metamorphose it into a calming effect, so as to dim the dismal degrees of despair.

Reading the phases of Ayessha’s evolution over two decades is akin to reading the canonical texts of Buddhism; they are so much the only durable dictates that you can carry with you in the imagination.

And of skies it is said ‘there are seven’.

And of skies it is said ‘there are seven’.

You look for signs to see if her pain is palpable. Tensions are created on the surface, and then intentions and dichotomies break cover. As the paint is banked down or piled up, or stroked in brisk staccato bristles, a mystery of infinitude develops.

There is no grandeur here in these ‘landscapes’ — there is only a spiritual quietude that propels itself into the extension of the self that retracts from the universe, to find another world — a world that diminishes the desire for external alacrities, and multiplies the quest for transcendentalism. For Ayessha, this desire is propelled by an overriding sense of mingled vulnerability to the outer world which results in the magnification of both curiosity and abject desolation.

The dialectic between the inner and the outer world is not the only one mediated in these paintings: Ayessha’s ‘landscapes’ (read mindscapes) are like mappings that reverberate with a series of adjacent assimilations and associations. This is moody lyricism at its best, it is like the sunset that swathes the sky in its tenacity of multicoloured hues, it is the torrent of darkness that creeps into the shade of trees, it is the ghostly galleon that vanishes from sight when the cloud of anxiety disturbs its very entity. Silence for Ayessha does not merely mirror a day; it is life in itself — the sunset of expectation that has drowned in the abyss of destiny. This is why silence becomes the negotiator as in ‘touching blind, inside out’.

There is no unpredictability here — metaphors are intimately reflective of natural processes, and part of her own structure of evolution that emerges out of a logical conclusion in terms of the dictates of her own conscience. These works are the embodiment of the natural forces of life; they define the compositional pole of the projection of suppressed desires. A fine-tuned spiritual sensibility operates here, it is as if the artist is heaping broken dreams on a dark plateau and opening doors that lead into shadowed hills of angst. The tranquil renditions lead to a rhythmic exchange between the tentative tremolo of terrain and the assurance of the darker in-depth reaches that swim through them, the viewer then is caught between the atmospheric magic of maximal intent and the contoured nuances of visual moorings, as in the series entitled ‘in the absolute presence of a distant light’.

A horizontal shard of light often pierces the surface of Ayessha’s work and splits the pictorial plane rupturing the surface into two schizophrenic spaces. One reverberates with the din of the materialistic world; the other recalls the yogi’s renunciation. The restlessness of one frame is counteracted by the calming expanse of the other. One senses the artist’s torment as she flits between the two, trying a delicate balancing act, attempting a reconciliation of these two apparent contradictions within her interior universe.

One senses her yearnings to break free of life’s entrapments and to abandon herself to an introspective space where she can attain a divine, joyful oneness. An existence shorn of complications, a life pared down to the essentials. So she shifts spaces, trying to expand the contours of this meditative expanse. But the boundaries remain resilient, impervious to her entreaties, a reminder of her all too human frailties. Yet she doesn’t give in, employing other means instead to liberate the self from life’s complications. Like a soothing swathe of light that seeps into the humming space from the outer edges, illuminating and enlightening as it travels along. Perhaps one day the horizontal shard of light that pierces the plane will fade. Perhaps one day, the ruptured plane will heal and become whole again.

If you have seen Mark Rothko, you will understand the language of spiritual serenity. You will also acknowledge the wisdom of Rothko’s words when he said: “the people who weep before my paintings are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” Transcending and translating colour is the sojourn that Ayessha takes, it is as if she has stepped out of the slow road of reality into the hills of obscurity, that she has walked for over two decades, past forms suggestive of placid lakes and isolated woods surmounted by the clouds of the tides of time. Towards the end, the sojourn becomes a ritual, formulaic in its gestures, but completely ridden with the isolation of angst; and the artist then begins an inward transcendence.

This transcendence evokes the embracing of pensiveness and the charm of solitude. It becomes the very abacus on which creativity blooms to personify the crucibles of creation. The colours of Ayessha’s inner travails leave us with an experience of truth even as we absorb the nuances of her own meanderings and ponder over the significance of the unsaid predicament. This is perhaps the history of a person, of a society that traps, nurtures, challenges and even liberates her if she battles against the unequal forces with commitment and integrity. There are no semantic niceties in these works, because Ayessha herself is an extremely introverted individual.

Aasim Akhtar

aasim akhtar
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.

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