The anatomy of grey

November 28, 2021

The art of Nausheen Saeed is about creating beauty out of a substance or idea not necessarily associated with attraction, elegance and grandeur

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Sitting at Nausheen Saeed’s studio, I browsed a book on figurative drawing; not the famous Gray’s Anatomy, but another, rather an obscure one, a US publication from 1989. Along with the magnificent rendering of the human body, varying postures and sections of skeleton, it denoted features of different races, labelling them white, yellow, black, red and brown. An archaic and redundant description that certifies our association with complexions/ colours and the hierarchy attached to them.

With the rapid and recent increase in marriages across ethnicities, one presumes that after a few centuries, the human race will be of a single colour – some grey; a hue in-between, which always refers to its parental shades: black and white. In comparison to these two stark, standard, solid colours, grey is a synthesis, a solution an agreement. Nausheen Saeed has employed grey to make her new works. One among several reasons for that hue could be her preferred material. An artist’s choice of material and technique – is a practical matter, a formal necessity, but it is also connected to the maker’s concepts and embodies their concerns.

Reliefs and three-dimensional sculptures from her solo exhibition, Concrete Plans, at the O Art Space, Lahore (November 19-29, 2021) comprises three sets of imagery, which appear separate; but their medium, the reinforced concrete, as well as her approach towards image-making bind them together. As grey is the colour of purgatory, her recent sculptures have an element of process. Surfaces of house plans, imprints of open boxes and feet on the body of another person, suggest a sense of being completed, or the illusion of objects excavated from ancient sites. Fossilised, preserved, eroded, which bear the testimony of centuries. Like the Roman city, Pompeii, that was “buried under metres of ash and pumice after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD”.

Saeed talks about that historic city and houses when she shares her artwork. Because her human figures – sliced feet, cropped torsos, next to the layout of buildings, allude to ruins of human substance and their structures. The sensuousness in her sculptures comes from the discolouration, subtle variations of surfaces, and distribution of random marks. Making the work more human than the marble carving of a perfect body, which portrays every limb, muscle, vein, but restrains from reality. Reality is rough, dirty, exhausted, blemished, disfigured – hence human, in comparison to an ideal creation.

Saeed, who is an associate professor and in charge of sculpture at the National College of Arts, responds to the canon of sculpture, from Greek to Renaissance, from Taxila (another tradition of grey sculptures) to Rodin in her figurative pieces. Two human beings are engaged in intimate postures. Bare soles on uncovered backs, but these casts of living people are made as if they existed hundreds of years ago. Likewise, the plans of sparsely constructed places appear as the foundations of lately discovered locations. Outlines of boxes seem to be etched in soil or coated with debris.

One recognises that the artist is not revising or revisiting the past; her work is about now, if not the future (who knows if our destiny will be different from Pompeii and whether we will be not buried under atomic lava). Our recent global experience is present in these confined structures and boxes, as Saeed shares: “Last year in quarantine I realised that we are all packed in our houses just like packaging, which keeps things safe and secured. It added to my perspective on working with the memory of old houses that I’ve lived in”.

She draws lines which map a space for living beings but her method generates the scent of death. Places which were once inhabited by people like us but those are now gone. Dust. To the land of grey. That longing for loss could be linked to the artist’s past. Her childhood spent at the 4 McLeod Road, Lahore. A family dwelling that she strives to reconstruct in her memory (she recreates her current residence through minimal marks in her art).

Broken lines, spilled stains, uncertain spaces are all about those lost places, originated from her recollections of certain, abandoned addresses. Her art is the meeting ground between a kid discovering large rooms, high ceilings, huge windows – not far from the noise of a nearby busy street; and a grown-up tackling with her situation.

The situation: even though Nausheen Saeed does not mention the feminist cause, the latent tones in her work allude to the state of women in a society. Not necessarily miserable, but marginalised. The dawn of civilisation – as presumed – is linked to ‘man’ acquiring tracts of land and females as his possessions. This mind-set has continued from agrarian revolution to our age of general revulsion. Men in patriarchal cultures consider women as property, like a piece of land, their house.

Not referring to a dictator’s dictum, but responding to her own observation, imagination and experiences, Saeed mainly creates containers. In the past, she produced hybrids of female form and luggage, women and plastic shopping bags, female torsos and milk vessels; but in the latest show the connection is not direct and obvious. It is still readable. Her recent works include three kinds of containers: the house, the body and the box. If a house contains human beings; a body contains organs, flesh, fluids, bones; and a box contains objects of human possessions/ use.

Along with its meaning, the art of Nausheen Saeed is about creating beauty out of a substance or idea not necessarily associated with attraction, elegance and grandeur. Textured surfaces, of multiple shades of grey; etched lines indicating a wall, a corner, a room; corrugated base of flattened boxes, their non-symmetrical outlines, creases; and forms of human figures embedded in the rectangles of grey convey a coarse beauty. Some of her house plans and unfolded boxes transcend their origin and turn into exquisite examples of abstraction. In their minimal quality, superb composition and tactile sensitivity these remind one of Antoni Tapies, because the Spanish artist was also intrigued by depilated walls, cracked plasters and the aesthetics of cardboards.

It is important to register that Antoni Tapies was nowhere around while Nausheen Saeed was busy with her new body of work; only a common interest and vision led to a shared sensibility. The abstraction evident in her intaglio reliefs is also visible in her ‘figurative’ sculptures. Torsos with feet on them, look more like accumulations of spots, patches, and layers of grey, appreciated not for their link to reality but their potential to invite an eye to act like a hand.

The British painter, theatre designer and film maker Derek Jarman noted that “grey is the sad world/ into which the colours fall”. In Nausheen Saeed’s work, grey germinates the sensation of all colours, so each viewer can imagine these shapes, forms, lines, surfaces into colour of his/ her fancy, like we used to do when we watched black and white cinema – movies which were variations of (lovely) greys and are still engraved in our memory and lives.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

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