Patterns of the past

October 10, 2021

Artists use textile to unravel conventional notions of art, heritage, nation and identity

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Memory May be A Paradise.

The most visible war fought during the summer in Pakistan was the ‘lawn war’. The battle grounds were those huge hoardings, promoting designer after designer with their latest collection of prints. Money, craze, competition and energy consumed in this fad, eventually persuaded a person to pick a piece of plain fabric; or to ponder on reasons for decorating surfaces of objects we possess for practical purposes.

Human beings have been adding another layer – pattern – on everything created, from ancient civilisations to the 21st Century. Display units in an archaeological museum are not much different from the shelves in a super market today. Both showcase objects, necessary in a society, but covered in motifs, designs, pictures and script that often do not match their function. For example, a porcelain teacup manufactured in China does not need blue floral imagery, just as earthenware from Mohenjo-Daro required no bands of oxide dyes on its surface. Yet, mankind has indulged in this – apparently futile – act.

It would be interesting to probe the origin of patterns, their meaning and link with the artefacts and utility. One speculates that the ancient humans ‘discovered’ the presence of patterns in nature and followed those. For example, lines on zebras, stripes on tigers, spots on dogs, shades on butterfly wings, shapes on leaves may have some scientific justification – but for our ancient ancestors these were variations of surfaces, perhaps an observation that led to cover the things forged with hands or/and elementary tools.

These were mostly small items: for a limited group of people, on a manageable scale, and for specific use. Actually, the patterns were not merely surface decoration but a language recognised, deciphered and enjoyed by members of the community. Dr Zehra Jumabhoy, picking the strands of these vocabularies, curated Patterns of the Past at Grosvenor Gallery, London, in collaboration with Canvas Gallery, Karachi, (from September 11 to October 1). The exhibition included works by artists with a link with Pakistan and who “use textile to unravel conventional notions of art, heritage, nation and identity”.

The show’s title brings to mind patterns and the past, seen usually as burdensome luggage in the aesthetics/practice of contemporary art. However, works in the exhibition extended the notion of pattern as well as of the past. Artists responded to their personal, political and social points of references. For instance, Adeela Suleman employing the technique of applique produced images of combat. In her Memory May Be A Paradise (1 & 2), soldiers are attacking their opponents.

The Threads of Time.

As Jumabhoy has noted, the artist did not choose visuals from Mughal miniatures, preferring a Pahari painting, Manaku of Guler’s: The Nightmare Dream of a King: The Fearsome Aftermath of the Battle of Kurukshetra (circa 1740). Suleman’s focus on the war of Mahabharata, in a tone that is ordinary, accessible and identifiable connects us to the idea of conflict rather than a particular event. At the same time, the preference for ‘gaudy’ hues, turns her tapestries into the domain of public sphere (understanding); a sort of ‘local’ pop art. One feels that Suleman is the rightful heir to Karachi Pop, individuals who intended to bridge the gap between high and low in art.

One of them, David Alesworth, has created archival prints on satin with cotton embroidery.

There are different pasts and different patterns for each individual. A lived life is cast into a pattern (read routine). The route to routine is comfort. If anyone disrupts this, it causes a disturbance. Traditional arts had a regular scheme of inscribing flowers, leaves, animals (mostly stylised), so a work, whether a stone mosaic, a textile print, a weave, a ceramic glaze followed the norm.

In these four works, one comes across subspecies of Dark Rosa, but for an ordinary viewer – and the reviewer – there is no obvious demarcation between one plant and the other. These immaculately constructed pieces delineate several concepts, simultaneously. A colonial explorer trying to document local flora, as well as a comment on colour and race, because even though four panels name four different types, these seem identical due to an easy adjective, ‘dark’. In Alesworth’s work, a form of critique on the imperialist outlook, all flowers are similarly dark as all Indians were considered equally dark by the British, despite their varying complexions and appearance: a blue-eyed Pathan, a fair-skinned Kashmiri, a brown man from the Ganges plane, a dark person of the south, or an Assamese bearing oriental features.

This construct of hegemony became a norm in the minds and lives of locals too, has been questioned by several, including Bushra Waqas Khan. In her meticulously fabricated costumes, which consist of small letters from indigenous legal paper, she tends to address the situation of females in a conventional society. Where ceremonial, festive, and wedding costumes are drenched in the stench of official document (for example, the marriage contract is as much a part of a matrimonial ceremony as the bride’s exquisite dress). In a sense, Khan is reminding us of the nature, symbolism and power of patterns on a functional item.

However, textile to some, could be – and has been – an excuse for great fun. Like the mixed media by Liaqat Rasul. Almost every imaginable material, e.g., threads, tissue paper, plastic packaging bags, cello tape, fluorescent and glitter cards, egg boxes, found paper receipts/ invoices/ travel tickets, bank statements, napkins, used dish cloth are added into collages that “are inspired by the ‘multicultural’ streets of London”. Rasul “started his career as a textile designer: having studied fashion at the University of Derby”, yet his works at the exhibition push the boundaries of all type. These collages, as the artist described them, “are not social or political statements”, but “more abstract and cartographic”, hence most unconventional when we imagine pattern or think about the past.

There are different pasts and different patterns for each individual. A lived life is cast into a pattern (read routine). The route to routine is comfort. If anyone disrupts it, it causes disturbance. Traditional arts had a regular scheme of inscribing flowers, leaves, animals (mostly stylised), so a work, whether a stone mosaic, a textile print, a weave, a ceramic glaze followed the norm. Ruby Chishti, in her mixed media pieces, composed images of flowers, and women sitting in a circle. As the title, Lost and Preserved (I & II), suggests, a viewer plucks segments of flowers, arrangements and backgrounds to reconstruct the initial scenario. A memory that is personal and momentary then becomes shared and monumental in Chishti’s works imbued with her remarkable painterly sensibility (first witnessed in 1985, while she was pursuing her painting major at the National College of Arts).

The works by Ruby Chishti and other artists reaffirm that the past has not passed away. It is reincarnated in diverse directions and formats. We cannot ever get rid of it, because when we touch a thread, visit a historic building, send a letter, see a historic miniature, or travel in the Tube we are constantly reminded of the past, near and far, here and there, ours and others, in multiple patterns, collected and curated with a sensitivity, precision and passion by Dr Zehra Jumabhoy for this show.


The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.



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