ne of the many attractions of Articulate Studios, Lahore, besides seeing art displayed there, is the opportunity to buy fresh fruit en route, the kind you don’t get at stores and supermarkets. Also, you don’t come across such work at most galleries or usual art venues. On my way to a recent event, I bought a bunch of bananas. Soon I was confronted with another banana; in a video installation by Faseeh Saleem. It was an overpowering image of the fruit - skin peeled and the edible part splattered, squeezed, turning into a mesh, a pulp, almost a viscous secretion. The work was part of a recent exhibition curated by Kiran Khan, Faseeh Saleem and Eisha Liaqat.
One did not expect this or any other video, in the show, Retrospective: Fibre and Textile Expression (August10 -16) that included works of 21 graduates of Textile, Fashion and Accessory at Beaconhouse National University from its history of 20 years. Textile, or cloth is usually considered silent and static. However, the fabric moves and rustles. Saleem’s video, titled, Reimagining the Body, manipulates the movement on a sensory, rather sensuous, level. The way fruit and its outcome were captured, rendered and revealed, it could be connected to some human organ and its fluid, along with ideas and concerns on trampling and destruction of nature.
Bananas were a good choice for the Fibre and Textile Expression exhibition. The fruit contains considerable (dietary) fibre. There was another video, relating to food, but without human presence. Tayyaba Sabir had created a sequence of flour being kneaded next to a steel utensil. The viewer recognised various stages of the powder transforming into an elastic substance, ready to be baked as a roti or naan, without human hands. Female hands actually, because in our social environment it is a woman’s task to knead the flour, prepare the perfectly round and steaming bread for her father, brother, husband – and son.
So is the domain of textile. Historically in our culture women have been weaving, embroidering and stitching (besides putting buttons on the shirts of their male family members). From the Andes planes to the plateaus of Central Asia, and in regions of India, Africa, and other parts of the world, women are the makers of quilts, shawls, spreads, runners and wearables. Realising – and revising - these circumstances, today textile is recognised and regarded as a parallel and potent form of art making, previously exiled from the discourse of art history. Faith Ringgold, Mrinalini Mukherjee, and some other international artists have brought techniques, materials and aesthetics associated with craft or with women to the domain of mainstream art.
One felt the same at the exhibition, initiated by Kiran Khan, the Head of TFA at the BNU, through work that cannot be confined to a single category or label. For instance, the sculptural constructions of celebrated fashion designer Fahad Hussayn (who along with Faseeh Saleem was among the first graduates of Textile from the BNU). Armour like vests incorporated traditional techniques such as “silk thread embroideries, dabka and tilla work, weaving and embellishment” that led to the basic question for any fashion designer: when you drape, what do you reveal and what do you hide. You cover the body, but not entirely; you also highlight and accentuate the human contours. So a designer trespasses the boundary of what you see and what you guess. Hussayn has taken that conflict a step further. In his tops, you notice the rib cage exuberantly produced and placed outside the torso part of the dress.
On meeting a stranger, you are keen to know his/ her background, before engaging in a dialogue/ deal. Anam Khurram’s installation, based upon her experience of being a seminary student, was one such case.
Aiman Gillani’s large scale hangings employed textile as a medium, or a metaphor for larger issues than one’s personal or social position. These stemmed from memories, inscriptions, stamps, notebooks, memoirs and poetry of her grandfather. In her soft, subtle and multi-layered mixed media lengths, Gillani blended two objects related to the departed individual: clothes and writings. Even if one were not aware of – or interested in - the genesis of her imagery, one could identify with it. In some houses one does come across dysfunctional dresses kept in a box, or old inscriptions left in a closet.
More than merely recalling the past, the work deals with our present. Using the same vocabulary, scale and materials, Rafia Shafiq had fabricated two hangings referring to the painful episode of attacks on the Army Public School, Peshawar, in 2014. Shafiq mapped the site and casualties by drawing lines and inserting Urdu letters, added with “Swat’s Phulkari” that “spoke a language, but terrorism disrupted it, replacing motifs with fear.” The amalgamation of alphabets, layout of the school, and points/ marks of calamity, turned this work into a tactile pictorial field, which could survive, with or without its historical reference.
However, some of the artworks at display demanded the context. Like on meeting a stranger, you are keen to know his/ her background, before engaging in a dialogue/ deal. Anam Khurram’s installation based upon her experience of being a seminary student was one such case. In an all-encompassing spread in the room you saw a cartography of words, shapes, stains that referred to strict training at a religious academy, accentuated with the sound of caning as part of her installation. One presumes that to be a child in these surroundings is difficult; being a female child is definitely more traumatic. Khurram had represented the atmosphere through a mix of gauze and muslin, occasionally joined with felt patches in skin tone; adding words like mistake, stumbling in Urdu into her mesmerising display.
The entire exhibition, an impressive view of what took place over 20 years of an institution, showcased how the terms textile and fibre have been reinterpreted, reframed, extended and turned around. For example, in the art of Rehman Younas, who hand-weaved – almost hair thin – constructions in his circular frames. The control in this sensitive substance that compels you to look for something beyond can be compared to the work of Muhammad Atique, the most uncanny of textile artists. He had picked the structure of interwoven fabric/ pixels, and composed a sheet of news reportage that keeps on shifting with the movement/ attention of a spectator: commenting on how the information – packed as knowledge and preserved as history, is merely a matter of who transmits or accesses it. His work is a critique of the post-truth scenario. While addressing the current political/ social constraints, it deals with how we see, read and believe without registering the veils of times, angles, approaches, interests and gains in the phenomenon.
Eisha Liaqat had decided to blend multiple periods, perceptions and proportions in her work. Responding to the location, she had created an amazing mixed media piece that depicted a portion of the place (where it was displayed), and assimilated physical objects such as the electricity fuses, wires, window frames, chicken mesh and wall prints. She further stretched layers of painted/ perishing segments like eroded plaster and embroidered plants underneath. Liaqat’s work is a brilliant specimen of expanding the notion of textile and fibre in a cultural and historical context.
A strong aspect of her work is that journeys between the past and the present, between here and there (site specific that could be applicable to several neighbourhoods of Lahore). Liaqat had not limited herself to a single material or technique, thus contributing to the premise of the exhibition, that seemed to stir the idea/ use of textile, from the earlier experiments in covering the body in fur, felt, fibre, to our fashion houses, boutiques, tailoring shops and our personal, private and prized wardrobes.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore