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Travels in the heart of a country

The set of small drawings by Aqsa Shakil, as part of her solo exhibition at the Koel Gallery, are a travelogue of her experience

Travels in the heart of a country
Air Hose.

Writing on Joseph Brodsky, Susan Sontag observes: “For as long as we are, we are always somewhere. Feet are always somewhere, whether planted or running…. For reasons not hard to understand, the making of art at the highest plane of accomplishment during the last century or so has required, more often than not, an exceptional development of the talent for being, mentally, in two places at once.” Thus a creative individual is always a wanderer. A person leaves a territory in order to search and reach other destinations (or destinies). What happens during that journey is different for many individuals: they read or write, a few are content in conversing, several enjoy seeing the variety in nature and urban areas, while some just contemplate.

All these activities can be conducted in one act — making a drawing. It is a way of registering a landscape; passing views of a city; writing, recording and reflecting about outside world; communicating with the audience in one’s time and beyond; and thinking and finding truth. These pursuits are present in the set of small drawings by Aqsa Shakil, as part of her solo exhibition ‘Delineate’ (July 14-23, 2016) at the Koel Gallery, Karachi. In these drawings, the artist has transcribed her journey from Dallas to New Mexico (2006), by scribbling, sketching and pasting various papers. Thus the drawings are a travelogue of her experience from one location to the other.

A journey which she undertook with her two friends is part of a long voyage, which started in 2002 when she moved to the USA and lived in different cities, currently San Francisco. Shakil studied miniature painting at the National College of Arts, Lahore before doing her B.A. Summa Cum Laude, University of Texas, Dallas (2005) and M.F.A., Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University, Dallas (2007). From 2007 to 2014, she also taught in various capacities at Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Dallas.

Her work is a testimony of an artist who resides at diverse locations at the same time; the work shown in Karachi and produced in the US reminds of her years spent in Lahore when she was a student at NCA. Interestingly, the work does not invoke a sense of sentimentality or a feeling of nostalgia, because if a person is not familiar with her imagery the drawings can be about any place or period.

Human figures, actually her relatives (mother, grandmother, kids), friends and acquaintances appear as fully or partially painted or in outlines next to patterns randomly placed in the compositions. There are images of buses, trucks, horse-driven carriages, children’s cycles, toy cars etc. along with drips of ink scattered across the surfaces. In one drawing, visitors can glimpse the long gone traditional wedding tents.



Shakil’s initial training in the art of miniature painting is crucial in formulating her aesthetics, since the meticulous drawings of bodies and other objects (like electricity poles, posts, gates, sections of houses) impress a viewer.

She includes designs of different scales in her drawings, which are created using plastic disks (spirographs which are still sold in the streets of our towns and villages). The distribution of these designs does not follow a certain order; except the necessity of pictorial balance and interest. The other more important part of her imagery is the splashes and drips of ink on paper. These were created through snow (one of the mediums as described in the captions of her works), and as the artist explains that she put the wasli paper in rain, hails or snow and then added ink, which spread and set depending upon the snow or rain drops on the paper; “the random splatters of precipitation have a strange orderly pattern, and I intervene with my orderly splatters that have a strange randomness”.



Thus her work, in an interesting way, becomes a combination of the artist’s intention, intervention and action. The work moves from convincingly-rendered images to geometric shapes to pure abstract marks. Most paintings in the exhibition are constructed through this course. The other part of exhibition comprises of drawings made on tracing sheets combined as overlapped collages. In these works, photographs of her past are converted into line drawings and joined together without any logical or factual sequence. The third part of the exhibition is the series of sketchbook drawings executed during her travel from one state to the other in America.

Actually the whole exhibition of Aqsa Shakil can be summarised into one simple word — memory. Her work is based upon her past spent at different locations, either a distant one (in Pakistan) or immediate one (travel in USA since 2014). But everything comes back to recreating observations, feelings and experiences of a time that is lost in reality but still alive as it is recollected and reconstructed. Recalling the past is at the same time a pleasant and painful exercise. Yet when the past is resurrected, it often comes in the form of fragments: diffused, overlapped and crowded with unnecessary and strange segments.

Through her visual vocabulary, Shakil captures the essence of memory in art because, like physical travels, dreams (another kind of voyages) are also journeys into familiar yet unknown territories. Thus the journey to a distant and new land or an event from the past are stored as part of memory that Shakil manages to capture and convey through her medium and techniques. Perhaps it would be relevant to know her background and present situation in order to comprehend her work fully: “I was born in Tanzania, raised in Pakistan, and have had a taste of the Far East, Middle East and Europe. Moving to America has been, let’s just say a piece of cake….My work is heavily influenced by travel. Having been rooted, un-rooted and re-rooted from Tanzania, to Lahore, to Dallas, and now San Francisco, I have a constant inherent obsession of tracing every slipping moment”.

In more than one way, her work represents not only her self and situation (a person who is always on the move) physically or emotionally but a large population of our times which is constantly recreating the past in order to deal with the present both in one’s homeland and outside. Though there hardly exists a difference between the two because with social media the concept of homeland has been transformed tremendously. Now home is where the computer (or smart phone) is, along with its Facebook and Instagram to construct and consolidate the collective unconsciousness envisaged by Carl Gustav Jung in the last century.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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