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January 24, 2021

Exploring white pepper neighbourhoods and complicated relationships


January 24, 2021

An art exhibition titled ‘Parting the Clouds’ and featuring the works of Ayesha Shariff and Shanzay Subzwari is running at the Koel Gallery until January 27.

The catalogue released by the gallery states that Ayesha’s artworks featured in this show form the second chapter in a series of exhibitions that reflects on a world undergoing self-transformation after the Covid-19 outbreak. Her first show titled ‘The White Pepper People’ took place in Gavle, Sweden in October 2020.

The catalogue quotes the artist as saying that both black and white peppercorns come from the same plant but are processed differently, with the white pepper being the fairer, pricier and spicier of the two.

“The ‘white pepper people’ is a term I came up with for the privileged citizens of Karachi, myself included. Additionally, my use of pointillism and spray paint on paper creates a ‘peppery’ effect.”

She says that the relentless, record-breaking rains in August 2020 transformed the Karachi cityscape overnight, as roads turned into canals and boats replaced cars. The combined effect of the pandemic and the monsoon brought her city to its knees, she adds.

“Thus far, Karachi’s white pepper neighbourhoods had been cribbing about the isolation under lockdown, from the comfort of their cushy homes. We were now stranded without power for days on end, with floating furniture in ankle-deep water flooding our laminated floors and Persian carpets — a struggle all too familiar to the less fortunate.

“If you like, I can take you for a walk around the city of drifting cottages and sinking condos. Under the molten moonlight and textured smoke are the quarantined quarters of fused lightbulbs and entangled electric wires.

“The air may be uncertain and unsettling but a pinch of humour lightens the mood. My recent experience of working with children has translated into an interest in book illustrations and a childlike wonder that imbues this body of work. These paintings could be read as pages from a book, and the titles as chapters.”

Ayesha is a Karachi-based visual artist and art teacher. Her work relies on a language of personal symbolism, merging surrealism with realism. For example, an electric wire represents a running sentence or a pair of socks stands in for married couples. Humour is key to this mix and employed cleverly to comment on serious conversations.

She plucks everyday objects out of context and suspends them in unfamiliar settings. She uses oil and acrylic on a variety of surfaces, and tempera for miniaturistic detail and translucent effects.

After graduating with distinction from Lahore’s National College of Arts in 2000, she had her first solo exhibition titled ‘Conversations (to be contd.)’ in 2003. This was followed by an art residency awarded by the VASL Artists’ Association and a scholarship in London by the British Council Charles Wallace Fellowship Trust.

She has exhibited her works both locally and internationally while continuing her teaching practice in Pakistan and Connecticut, USA. She also took up writing art reviews for one of Pakistan’s most prestigious English dailies.

She has served as juror and speaker at various art institutes, and her work has been showcased by universities like Yale and Columbia in the US, including a solo show titled ‘Tempered Stillness’, and she had a Master’s Tea (informal Q&A) at the Yale University as well.

The year 2013 saw a dramatic shift in both style and imagery with her show titled ‘A Time. A Place. A Prayer.’ Her interest in public art surfaced through her vibrant mural designs for ‘Walls of Peace’ by the IAMKARACHI project for the rejuvenation of public walls in Karachi. This was followed by ‘Lines in the Sand’, an Imago Mundi Project by the Benetton Foundation in Italy.

After a rewarding teaching career at the country’s leading colleges and universities, she single-handedly launched her dream project titled ‘The Canvas Courtyard’, an on-site and online art studio for both children and adults.

As for Shanzay, her work stems from the human condition. “By weaving together stories in the varied mediums of Mughal miniature painting, paper-cutting and video installation, I explore the complicated and ever-changing relationships between nations, and of human beings with themselves and the world around them,” the catalogue quotes the artist as saying.

“Most recently, as part of my MFA programme, I delved into the art of paper-cutting and multimedia to create a cinemagraph video piece made from various paper-cut pieces.” She says that her new series and the first art exhibition post-MFA also takes forward her practice of painting on archival prints of currency notes, but with the transformation of colour palette and imagery.

These pieces, as well as the paper-cuts and video, are born from her experience in our strange, new dystopian world where we live in a constant state of flux, uncertainty, fear and mourning, she adds.

“Currency too does not hold value in the way it did before. Nevertheless, chancing upon a piece of inspirational literature during these strange times brought into my work elements from spirituality, as it reminded me that it is time for us to look inward and to hold onto hope, rather than to fear.”

Shanzay recently completed her Masters in Fine Art with distinction from the UK’s School of Art, Architecture & Design at the London Metropolitan University on the British Chevening Scholarship.

Her work combines elements from Mughal miniature paintings, currency notes, popular culture and kitsch. She completed her Bachelors in Fine Art from Karachi’s Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture in 2014 and graduated with a distinction in her dissertation and the Sher Asfandyar Award for Academic Excellence in Fine Art.

She has been exhibiting her works internationally and within Pakistan since her student days. Internationally, she has had her works displayed in London (2020, 2019, 2016), Venice, Italy (2019, as part of Imago Mundi at The Venice Biennale), Fribourg, Switzerland (2016) and Istanbul, Turkey (2011).

Her work has been represented by London’s GraFFik Gallery. She was invited as a fully-funded ‘Watch and Talk’ participant at the Festival Belluard Bollwerk International in Fribourg in 2016, the SAARI artist residency in Mynamaki, Finland in 2018, and was a part of the Dean’s Seminar on Art and Value in Madrid, Spain (2020).

Her work is a part of the Hundal Collection at the South Asian Institute in Chicago, USA among other notable collections. Since 2014 she has been writing art reviews, articles and catalogue essays for numerous publications, and has a private teaching venture called ‘The Art Lounge’.