For an artist immersed in mystic poetry, patterns become a metaphor for something sublime
There are birds circulating against a clear sky. In the frame below, a person in dark blue is standing amidst the spread of wheat field. The camera above her moves back, till the artist turns into a patch of ultramarine hue and the wheat stems become a pattern seen from a distance. This video installation, I Am And I Am Not, was produced in 2021, during Covid-19, a period during which humans feared the presence of others and Nature flourished. Hence pure blue sky, white clouds and crop fields – an otherwise rare sight in Lahore.
This work, if “suggestive of succumbing to the course of nature”, also indicates a persisting element of Aisha Khalid’s aesthetics. The recurrence of patterns is also observed in her retrospective, I AM AND I AM NOT. The exhibition, curated by Masuma Halai Khwaja and hosted by Chawkandi Art with the support of HBL, was installed at three locations in Karachi (Frere Hall, Chawkandi Art, and Aan Art Space and Museum; November 28–January 21). A retrospective of such proportions - it includes works from 1994 to 2021 - helps critics and collectors know the artist better and to comprehend her work. Works from her years of miniature major at the NCA (1997) were also part of the show besides a number of imposing and impressive paintings created between 2019 and 2021.
At Chawkandi Art, a cross-stitch piece made by the artist (probably before her joining the art school) was placed in a display cabinet along with her brushes, old photos, student exercises in portraiture, a book of Rumi, and other objects of varying relevance and curiosity.
Aisha Khalid, like many young girls in this society, grew up learning the cross-stich. Unlike many, she elevated this practice to high art. The act of translating a scenery, or bunch of flowers into shapes of flat colours, seems the grammar of her visual language. The genius of Khalid lies not in using this aspect of a domestic activity in her art, but her approach towards pattern that convey cultural, political and metaphysical connotations. Motifs as foundation started appearing in her miniatures in 1999. There were curtains with floral designs, eyes and tiled floors. Occasionally there outlines of burqas; hollow yet suggesting the form of women. (In her earlier years, he artist herself had worn one). In some paintings from 2002, not only females, but tables are also covered.
Miniatures from that period signify a crucial phase our society went through when females were forced to conceal themselves with veils and within houses. In a sense, Aisha Khalid’s work is a comment on it. But then the patterns, on floors, walls and interiors, take another turn. Instead of layering an object or space, they acquire an independent identity, function and eloquence. Looking at her later work, built with intricate motifs on expansive surfaces, one feels that the making of pattern, more than a mathematical method of cutting up an area and filling it with colour, has a spiritual, personal and intimate dimension to her.
Basic geometry, dividing space with symbolic association, has been a hallmark of Islamic art. Khalid has dealt with patterns in this and other ways. Two canvases, roses on a white sheet and on a camouflage cloth drawn by sticking needles and loose red thread, trace her later body of work. In several paintings from 2013 to 2016, patterns are constructed in a chromatic order we connect with camouflage background print. (The same colour scheme appears in her 2018 mixed media pieces; overlapping geometry-based designs on eroded sections of historic wall paintings from Shahi Hamam in Lahore). In addition to that, the needle, an instrument of image making in embroidery, becomes a part of the imagery. You see large-scale fabric in which imagery is formed through gold plated steel pins (Two World As One, 2016). As you move closer, the inserted pins emanate a sensory experience.
Basic geometry has been a hallmark of Islamic art. Aisha Khalid has dealt with patterns in this and other ways. Roses on a white sheet and on a camouflage cloth, drawn by sticking needles and loose red thread, trace her later body of work.
Geometrical motif serves many purposes in the history of Islamic art. If one subscribes to a general belief of Islam prohibiting human representation, patterns – along with calligraphy – offer a substitute/ parallel path. The act of putting a pattern on a surface, recalls a repetition or ritual – not different from chanting God’s name, or rotating beads on a rosary in long cycles.
In a video installation from 2021, Aisha Khalid’s “voice reciting the word Hu”, akin to a Sufi practice links it to the rhythm of human heartbeat.
For an artist like Aisha Khalid, who has been immersed in the mystic poetry of Jalal Uddin Rumi (the most popular Eastern bard on Amazon books site), patterns become a metaphor for something sublime. In a number of artworks, she deals with symbols of religion and spirituality by employing a web of flat marks. At her retrospective exhibition, one comes across work that resonates the structure of Ka’ba (The Garden of Love Without Love, 2019, and The Garden of Love Is Limit Without Limits, 2019); as well as paintings with titles, Two Worlds As One and At the Circle’s Centre, in which circles of complex motifs travel in a tunnel, or meet/ merge with other round forms.
This group of paintings with its intricate interplay of patterns indicates a consistent emergence of Sufi doctrine. It represents the surge of soul to reach its Creator, in order to unite. Conversation between the two points to convergence of two entities.
The same metaphor can be appropriated for the relation/ tension between body and soul. The body is represented by the paint, the craft of making and the physicality of the object; the soul is the idea behind the work, reaching to higher planes. Her video installation, Two Roses (2002), hints at post-colonial situations, besides moving into a split between fabricating and undoing, between making and destroying, between self and the other.
Then there are some other splits witnessed in a number of large-scale works following a certain format. A picture frame denotes a precisely rendered image: a hawk, a roaring lion, moving horses, red flowers, advancing elephants – all resonating traditional miniature painting; while accompanying panels are built primarily with flat hues. On one hand these composites are highly impressive in their size, execution and theme; on the other they refer to the history of miniature paintings extending its imagery to the entire Muslim past.
In these paintings – all called I Am, And I Am Not, one encounters lances aimed at a lion, arrows shot at a hawk, or directed at a stem of flowers and weapons targeting three horses. An expedition of elephants with birds hovering above recalls the episode of King Abraha attacking the Ka’ba with and being routed after flocks of birds threw stones at them. References to religious, cultural and pictorial narratives in her work allude to how an artist internalises and personalises the past – private, public, intimate, secured, sacred, secular.
“Memories of the past,” Philip Roth wrote, “are not facts but memories of your imagination of the facts”.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore