From home to heaven

In artist Amina Ahmed’s work, geometry becomes an organ that cannot operate like a machine; it instead falters, deviates, delays and distorts

October 01, 2023


n some homes, the most precious memory of the mother is preserved in her sewing machine. Archaic model, worn-out and dysfunctional, this object is often displayed at a prominent place by her offspring. Risham Syed, in one of her paintings (from 1994), rendered the maternal sewing machine as a central, significant – and almost humanised article, adorned with petals of red roses all around it. The fascination or fetishisation with this mechanical product is not only due to its connection with the departed soul – since there must be several others owned by her – but because of its link with her hand, reminding viewers of activities like stitching dresses for children, producing home linen, preparing kitchen napkins.

The mother’s fingers touched the machine’s handgrip, but they also used needles for sewing, stitching and embroidering. Mother’s hands, with their wrinkles, veins and knuckles are recalled – and recorded in Amina Ahmed’s digital video, I Think of Her Hands All the Time, 2019-2020. She has documented her mother, Zuleikha, holding a piece of fabric and busy stitching with care, concentration and affection. The way she handles the bedspread, uses the needle and the thread, probably is not dissimilar to the way her daughter Amina Ahmed manages her art material, since both have created shapes, forms, patterns – with inherent content, which needs to be seen, identified, enjoyed and deciphered.

Amina Ahmed, a New York-based artist “graduated from Winchester School of Art and Chelsea School of Art. She received her MFA from the Royal College of Art, London, in 1991 and was awarded the Barakat Trust Prize.” It was also there that I first met her as a fellow student from the Department of Visual Islamic and Traditional Art. Ahmed, before joining this programme and the institution had been working in the medium of textile; so a course exploring the structure, aesthetics and philosophy of geometry and pattern was a natural culmination of her pictorial practices and concerns. Under the tutelage of the charismatic Keith Critchlow, Ahmed continued her inquiry into Islamic geometry on a formal as well as conceptual level.

In Islamic art, form is not delinked from the content. The act of putting a mark, shape or letter is not merely an aesthetic excursion, but a serious sojourn towards connecting the transient world with the eternal. In Amina Ahmed’s s current solo exhibition, Circle, Square, Triangle, Turtle Fish, at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai (September 14 to October 21), work from 1989 to 2023 reveals how the artist has blended the home, the studio and the heaven. The structure of some of the work stems from patterns that our mothers, grandmother and great grandmothers have been creating in fabric – an authentic, ancient and functional surface/ medium.

Ahmed, after experimenting with the language of textile, and extending the possibility of a needle – for instance drawings in threads – when she reverted to ‘non-textile’ substances such as tempera, gouache, ink, watercolour, coloured pencil and graphite, opted for a vocabulary of restraint and precision. Geometry, as one can guess, is all about calculation, accuracy and exactitude with restrictions of outlines, areas and borders. For centuries, the Muslim image-makers have been adding intricate designs in mosques, mausoleums, palaces and objects of ordinary use. Due to the rigidity and absoluteness of these designs, they allude to eternity and the Supreme Being; manifested in multifarious versions. So, in a sense every circle, square, triangle, rectangle is derived from the primordial forms. When meticulously made, it reverts to those, the archetypes.

Ahmed’s s current solo exhibition, Circle, Square, Triangle, Turtle Fish at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai (September 14 to October 21), reveals how the artist has blended the home, the studio and the heaven.

In Amina Ahmed’s case, geometry makes a compromise; connected to the human hand; an organ that cannot operate like a machine; it falters, deviates, delays and distorts. Ahmed’s art reminds us of the other side of geometry. The aspect that concerns the other gender, too. Go to any Mughal monument in India or Pakistan, and you are bewildered by the skill of craftsmen (men), who were able to cut marble and other stones with such accuracy that these parts fit the geometric motifs in a perfect formation. Hard substance, but once carved, chiselled and modified by artisans, it ends up as a tiny triangle, small square or a measured line; even an Arabic script.

On the other hand, when a woman approaches her material, mostly the textile, she is aware that precise outlines, strict boundaries, sharp areas are possible but end up becoming meaningless. Since a quilt made of identical segments of triangles will never be in an ideal state, its use is bound to modify, mix and move the initial layout. So following a strict order may not be an appropriate course – especially if you are working with geometry through a surface as limp as a piece of tapestry.

Amina Ahmed, in her recent work, does not settle for textile. Her sensibility discloses the artist’s attitude to move beyond parameters. Though all her art is based on geometry, some of the work seems to survive beyond limitations. In terms of mingling, trespassing and softening shapes, Ahmed challenges the confines, which could be a reflection of the artist’s once-nonconformist self but on another level it is a way to reclaim a female’s space in the realm of geometry. Her work on paper has bleeding edges, wavering patches, diffused outlines, hence reaffirming another geometry. Her painting titled For the Women that used Thread (2019) shows how our grandmothers approached the question of art, aesthetics, meaning and utility.

Ahmed has placed a grid of 117 squares in this work. Each unit is differently composed of triangles. Even in the formation of every square, a viewer realises that one, or more sides of numerous blocks are tapered. Thus, there is another note towards geometry, stripping it of power, gender, purpose, to enjoy the way these abstract shapes have always been in our midst, from the archaeological findings of the Indus Valley Civilisation to the items offered at craft bazaars.

The artist’s medium is not textile, but her fabulously fabricated pieces remind us of bright and vivid patchworks made in South Asia. Ahmed takes a step further, she melts, merges and manipulates the concise patterns in her loosely rendered works, collectively titled Circle Square, Triangle, Turtle Fish. Here, the geometric forms expand, converge and overlap to create a narrative that is more about the potential of a human being, in comparison/ contrast to the capacity of a machine. Compared to a programmed gadget, only a human hand can detract, diffuse and deviate. Ahmed accepts these deformations. She incorporates sensibility that could only be described as home-made.

Observing Amina Ahmed’s work from the past 34 years, it appears that the artist, more than presenting, projecting and proclaiming rigidity of form or concept, is moving towards loosely structured, painterly imagery. In the course of creating art, comprising diverse shades, blurred contours, divergent lines; one recognises her urge to seek the sublime – following the hands of our mothers and the eyes of our Abstract Expressionist painters.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.