Eve to Eve

May 22, 2022

At Tanzara Gallery, 13 renowned female artists are exhibiting their interpretations of Eve

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Mining for Water by Saba Khan.


iorgio Agamben, in his book Nudities, has reproduced “an Eleventh Century silver reliquary, on whose sides scenes from the Book of Genesis are sculpted in relief”, images of Adam and Eve shortly before their expulsion from Eden. The Italian philosopher discusses in detail the panel in which God is forcing Eve to wear her tunic, but she “resists the Divine violence with all her might… also by the gesture of her right hand, which desperately grasps at God’s garment”.

The unknown Christian artist, somehow, created a metaphor. While Adam stands dressed and submissive, Eve acts on her own free will; she refuses to follow man; behaves independently. If one extends the imagery and meaning of historic artwork, one realises that through centuries, men have subjugated women in the name of faith and social norms, particularly on what to wear and how to conceal her body, veil her face and cover her head. Head, or hair; because for some, female hair is as provocative as flesh.

Today, different types of hijabs, head scarves and head wraps are available to conceal woman’s hair. On the other hand, a number of Pakistani artists are using hair as a symbol of body, identity and resilience. Rehana Mangi treats human hair as threads to produce flat patterns of cross-stitch. In a recent group show, human hair neatly weaved on archival paper, but not contained within Oval and Circle, overlap and move freely inside and outside the frame/ format.

Mangi’s work is displayed at Tanzara Gallery, which is “bringing together 13 renowned female artists showcasing their take on Eve in modern times in their own unique ways”. The exhibition, Eve’s I/ Eye, a project of Studio RM, is being held from May 19 to June 2 in Islamabad. It includes a diversity of approaches and interpeations of themes; and becomes an occasion to celebrate how women artists decided not to be muses but makers, thus altered the course and comprehension of art history.

An Eve's Path 1 by Wardha Shabbir.

In our midst, Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) opted to portray herself and women in her surroundings. A marked shift from the way women were perceived as the emblem of ideal beauty by earlier (male) painters; to denote her dark, downtrodden females engaged with their gender and environment. This aspect is found in the current show, especially in the works of Rabia Farooqui and Sana Arjumand. The former has focused on a faceless female holding fish; the latter has delineated a covered-head girl amid a busy pattern.

Actually, a pattern can be a symbol of convention, concentration and conviction; a means to bind a woman to her conditions – although several artists including Laila Rahman have challenged this construct in their imagery. Her two circular paintings with dense, deep (pomegranate like) forms signify not only female identity but also many other aspects of a woman’s life. Rahman blends the cartography of a physical, and emotional existence, through a fruit associated with fertility, fullness and perfection. The round, familiar forms are dealt with in the art of Nazia Ejaz, too. In one panel of her Stories Told, Untold, the blazing circle (constructed with script like marks, or suspended) dominates the entire background of enchanting blue.

Elements of nature are also evident in mixed media prints of Nurayah Sheikh Nabi. Her flowers, stems and plants convey something deeper than what we usually read or recognise in nature. Image is visible in two paintings by Meher Afroz as a decipherable text. A viewer is delighted to glean meaning from the painterly surfaces. The most important in the construction of her imagery is the structure of a (written) letter, in which you don’t read the content by going through every line, but by recognising the layout of these surfaces (titled Guftagu I &II).

Using lines to denote emotions, loss, longing, is apparent in the art of Romessa Khan. In her Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Forbidden Fruits, she has transformed her usual pictorial language, of fluid marks, into something profound and extraordinary; much like the painting and drawing of Rabeya Jalil. In her 16-piece wall installation, Eves, Jalil draws faces of females, stylised, exaggerated, even distorted. Yet, one can guess separate identities of each individual. These figures compliment her other work (named Painting): in which a girl turns away from the viewers while standing against a board (or easel?) with her right hand extended – as if making a mark.

Anatomy of Time I by Nausheen Saeed.

Intriguingly, a singular image is successfully remade 15 times in this Painting. One could define the work as figurative, but in its essence, it is an abstract piece of art, because when you repeat reality, in miniscule detail, you are not reproducing a physical object, but representing an idea of that entity. Every abstract work relates to our world, often alluding to clues, signs, symbols and meanings; the way every segment/ phenomenon of nature, i.e., eclipse, lightening, earthquake, red sky, crow on the wall, spilled coffee beans, etc carries meaning.

The presence of meaning is felt in Saulat Ajmal’s canvases; works which bear the scent of spontaneity. Both canvases by Ajmal (Bare Bones and Phoenix in the Sun), suggest a remotely readable content; but in their aesthetics, these paintings deal with the potential of an artist, who transports familiar aesthetics to different, distant and exciting lands. Her swift, sophisticated and subtle mark-making to build seemingly simple, but complex compositions, is impressive. Signifying an important, but often neglected dimension: the blend and balance of control and freedom, calculation and courage, carefulness and abandon. In the delicate casts of reinforced concrete created by Nausheen Saeed, sheets bear the imprint of a thing, record of a human interaction and documentation of intimate incidents.

Shapes, lines and areas, crisp and crystalline, indicate the contact of another body. A momentary touch that left its ‘permanent’ mark on the host entity/ material. Though Saeed’s works look abstract, especially with their gradation of greys, formation of unexpected areas, and the interplay of tactile surfaces; essentially, her Remains of the Day, Anatomy of Time, and Mapping the Terrain are attempts to preserve what is lost, in bygone eras, abandoned locations and long forgotten pleasures (or pains). Saeed’s magnificently manufactured residues of a place, a box, an unknown object are like lines on our palm, natural, yet tied to our past, present and future.

In fact, no matter how much one tries, one cannot disentangle time into past, present and future. However, the distribution/ disintegration of time, from a mundane existence to an extensive experience remains significant for artists, practicing a historical genre – the miniature painting. Wardha Shabbir negotiates with the past forms, to convert them into a new idiom. Employing the traditional imagery of miniature, Shabbir has produced a complex visual: a green patch, much manicured, perfectly preserved and perpetually protected as a symbol of ones’ origins, a sign of affluence, a shower of power.

Wardha Shabbir, has been rendering inner and outer lawns of large houses in posh localities, but in her An Eve’s Path I & II, she delineates another territory. Rows of flowers and vegetation amid a pink background (and her titles), signify Eve’s passages, both modern and primordial. Shabbir in her exquisite gouache on paper, makes these paths for Eve, while drawing parallels between our earth and paradise.

After being thrown out of Eden, human beings – following whatever faith – have been trying to recreate paradise on earth. An ideal setting with the flow of water, milk, honey and other delights. But we are aware that our planet, unlike Eden, is suffering from the decline/ disappearance of natural resources. Water is one. Probably in the next decade there won’t be sufficient water for all humans. Saba Khan, in her two paintings titled Sonic Signals and Mining for Water, addresses this impending – and unavoidable future. With her highly sophisticated pictorial vocabulary, Khan has depicted human figures and other elements along with text about current situation. In Sonic Signals, a fully clad female amid an indistinguishable landscape holds her mobile phone – to receive this ironic and iconic message: “My Eyes were rendered Useless, I now Rely on Sonic Signals”. It’s a comment on the way our surroundings are controlled, constricted and confined.

In Khan’s Mining for Water, female figures in completely covered heads are digging for water. Using the aesthetics of popular posters, to indicate approaching environmental crisis, Saba Khan suggests a connection between women and their efforts to draw water for survival. Water, as we know can be converted into air, thus it has a link to Eve; “a Latin given name for a female, derived from the Latin name Eva, in turn originating with the Hebrew Chevah/ Havah – to breath, to live, to give life.” In Urdu, the word for Eve, Hawwa, sounds similar to Hawa – air, an essential element for life.

The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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