The unusual feature of Himal, a magazine of Southasian politics and culture, is not only its cutting-edge content but the way it publishes the map of South Asia. Sri Lanka, instead of customary Nepal, is on the upper edge. Likewise, in ‘Upside-Down Map’ (1943) by Spanish-Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres-Garcia on the cover of Beyond the Fantastic, a collection of contemporary art criticism from Latin America, the last tip of Chile is on top of the continent while the Central American region at the bottom.
These attempts are efforts to uproot the deep-seated notion about the superiority of the North (Europe or USA) historically embedded through a simple device — by placing North or West above the rest of the world. In that cartographical scheme, the lowness also conveys political and economic inferiority for continents that are situated under ‘high’ nations.
However, the world was not always drawn like this. Perhaps the earliest found map is the Babylonian world map from about 600 BCE, a terracotta tablet with Mesopotamia in the middle, depicting “the relationship between the Babylonian world and the legendry regions beyond the oceans”. In many medieval Arab maps, the current world order is rotated. For example “the world map of Al-Idrisi, finished in 1154 for King Roger II of Sicily….. was oriented with south at the top”. Much like the al-Qazwini world map from the 14th century, based on the al-Biruni model, with South above and North underneath; similar to the world map from 1086 prepared by Ibn Hawqal.
The drawing of the globe on a flat surface and its demarcation of four directions is a human invention which has led to several social and political connotations. The West is generally associated with European countries that colonised many parts of Asia, Africa and South America. But for a Muslim in South Asia, the West also means the location of the Arabian Peninsula — a land considered sacred since it is the home of the Holy Prophet pbuh and the origin of Islam, with Mecca being the seat of Ka’aba.
The dual notions of theWest are important for Laila Rahman. One came across a number of circular canvases, some with the words North, South, East and West inscribed in Urdu on painted surfaces, in her recent one-person exhibition (December 4-15, 2018) at Koel Gallery, Karachi. Created in mixed media, these paintings surmise several formal schemes and conceptual concerns of the artist, who has been investigating related themes and imagery in the past. The exhibition’s title, ‘Meem Mashreq, Meem Mughrib’ if translated from Urdu, roughly reads: ‘M, East, M, West,’ but loses its subtlety, since in Urdu both East and West start with the same letter ‘Meem’. Thus, the separation between the two worlds/world-views was questioned by the artist. In addition to that, the presence of two Wests — Europe/North America and the Holy land of Saudi Arabia — in our present reality was also dealt with in her art.
While this region was conquered and occupied by the British Empire, in recent years our society has been dominated by the Salafi and Wahabi thought funded by Saudi Arabia. So this country has been colonised in more ways than one. Consequently, one encounters two types of wests (ironically, in the current international scenario, both kinds have merged into one!). The artist has challenged the divide between the East and West, both beginning with the same letter in Urdu.
In her disk-shaped paintings, Rahman inserted “rectangles with steel spikes”, pieces which recalled the Urdu letter Meem; and these were enclosed within a black box echoing the most sacred structure for Muslims. However, the presence of metal in this area indicates the multiple experiences of a person in his surroundings. “Heavily encrusted surfaces” around the square may be connected to our contemporary existence that might appear calm but is not normal by any stretch of the imagination. Violence, terror, and explosions are part of our recent memory. In the work of Rahman, one is reminded of those times and “current hopelessness”, marred by death and destructions. In her work Rahman has conveyed the feeling through the use of material: metal spikes and stainless steel leaves embedded in circular order in another painting (a language perhaps not alien for a person trained in the art of printmaking and has been working with zinc and copper plates).
The artist’s background of printmaking — apparent in a number of etchings and aquatints in the show — was at its best in her mixed media paintings, in which surfaces were manipulated and managed as extra-terrestrial bodies, like the moon (in some, images of pomegranate were separated in sections, resembling different phases of the moon). In her earlier works, Rahman incorporated the outline of the moon, converting the fifth largest natural satellite of thesolar system into an emblem of femininity and desire. But in the latest solo at Koel Gallery, the ambiguity between moon and earth was heightened (almost blended), so one was unable to decide or distinguish between our place of habitation and what we see at night and in our art and poetry all the time.
Another important aspect of Laila Rahman’s aesthetic material was pomegranate — a specie which according to the artist “represents the fruit of Original Sin”, but now “is also a vehicle through which the twin pillars of symmetry and design form the basis for manipulation and seduction”. Though the identity of fruit of Original Sin is disputed — to some it was apple or wheat — but the fruit led to the awareness of the body. Hence, the link of fruit and body weaved in her prints but more in Rahman’s paintings where pomegranate was painted in a sensitive manner, with marks of red bleeding and blending (especially in ‘Meem Mashreq, Meem Mughrib’). Pomegranate signifies “woman’s body, sex, seed, blood and violence” for her; the fruit segments separated in different membranes “are like boundaries between countries”; observed in the way she wrote the names of cities from her place of origin (KP) and the land of her residence (Punjab), on spots and streaks of red around a black cube with metal spikes arranged in spiral formation (‘Ze/Mein’).
This group of symbols — be it about moon, our divided world or fruits of the earth — stands for human condition. It is often painful as seen in the sequence of spiral metal shapes in another work ‘Junoon I’; or square with spikes in the middle of a painted surface that suggests the world — due to its outer shape as well as its division of spaces into continents — in ‘Junoon II’. These and other paintings open up new possibility to read the text of our time and the violence and madness in our midst, minds and mythologies.