Instead of fetching the ideal (artistic) form from an imperfect (existing) reality, artist Wardha Shabbir has created a segment of the physical world, elevating it to the level a metaphor
n a book of his interviews, novelist Amos Oz reflects upon the creative process: “Take an apple. What makes an apple? Water, earth, sun, an apple tree and a bit of fertiliser. But it doesn’t look like any of those things. It’s made of them but it is not like them.” This is how works of art are. Wardha Shabbir’s creations derive from multiple sources such as the Mughal miniature painting, Islamic geometric patterns and abstract art and evolve into an independent narrative.
The latest of this metamorphoses was seen during the recently concluded Lahore Literary Festival ’23 (LLF). From February 24 to 26, her work was on display at the Alhamra Art Gallery. The venue, familiar to artists and public since its inception in 1984, was transformed during the Shabbir’s solo exhibition, If A Tree Could Wander. Her display comprised works on paper, marks on the walls, video-based pieces and an installation.
Wardha Shabbir was trained in the art of miniature painting at the National College of Arts (2007-2011) under a strict and stiff discipline that relies on learningtraditional technique, imagery, methods and mediums; often through reproducing examples from Mughal, Pahari and Rajput schools. Along with numerous motifs, portraits, figures, their activities, scenes, one of the favourite subjects in the Indian miniature was flora and fauna, usually the local vegetation. Trees, plants, shrubs, vines, flowers, grass have been rendered in stylised and somewhat decorative manner, to carve – borrowing a phrase of James Fox – “(pure) ideal form from (impure) real form.”
Latter-day followers of this genre have copied, extended and appropriated foliage, stems, leaves, blossoms in multiple manners, participating in the practice of creating a substitute world – or an eternal world (the Garden of Eden). Wardha Shabbir, however, has preferred other paths. For her solo exhibition held at Rohats 2, Lahore, in 2012, the artist had “converted floor of the gallery, originally made of ceramic tiles – into a bed of natural grass.” She had also added tiny, delicate images of flies and insects on the gallery wall, thus transforming the arty white cube into an unkempt patch/piece of land.
At the LLF exhibition, Wardha Shabbir finally achieved what she had sought to attain in the past (a site-specific structure at the FLACC Artists Residency, Belgium, 2013; a public installation at Bagh-i-Jinnah for the Lahore Biennale 01, 2018): extracting, exporting and extrapolatinghistorically rendered images of plants into space. Instead of fetching theideal(artistic) form from an imperfect(existing) reality, she created a segment of the physical worldand elevatedit into a metaphor.
At the gallery steps and its landing, one passed a jumble of trees, plants, leaves, with sounds of birds. It was not a landscape displayed inside a gallery space, but a landscape sliced and transported to a built structure. Grey walls, dim lights and controlled enclosures, momentarily displaced a visitor from an urban setting to a pastoral place, to a tropical garden, to one’s backyard.If A Tree Could Wander was an endeavour that took her two years to visualise and just four days to transform into reality at the venue (Alhamra Art Gallery).
Wardha Shabbir was trained in the art of miniature painting at the National College of Arts (2007-2011) under a strict – and stiff discipline that relies on learning traditional technique, imagery, methods and mediums; often through reproducing examples from Mughal, Pahari and Rajput schools.
Talking about her infatuation with plants (she repeatedly draws them in her paintings, too), Shabbir describes her childhood experience of cleaning each leaf of every plant in her mother’s home garden. “My inspiration does not change, it evolves.”Today,she performs the same task but now washes them in dyes of different hues. At the exhibition, the artist displayed four works on paper, where vegetation, water, rain, spaces, enclosures, perspective and geometric shapes are represented. She combines geometry with the natural substance, and small and insignificant marks with exuberant and exquisite areas.
Actually, the artist has reinterpreted the bordersin a traditional miniature painting into spatial, political and social boundaries. Flowering trees, bright and colourful vegetation, overcrowded growth are contained ina cube,Mosaic of Processes 2. Confined to two curved forms,The Stairwell of a Garden covers the inner surface of a circular structure.The Grass that Keeps, consists of a wall with sharp turns and edges.
In a way, these compositions are about conversions between nature and nurture, discipline and freedoms, between stillness and movement.These can also be read as metaphors for another confinement:the enslavement of women inside built structures. In patriarchal societies, females, conventionally considered as beautiful, delicate and vulnerable as roses, are forced indoors. These restraints are imposed on the pretext of convention, religion, honour, but essentially todeny a woman’s rights and constrain her space.
Many citizens can still recall reading a news report on September 11, 2020, about the gang rape of a mother in the presence of her children while she was driving on the Lahore-Sialkot Motorway. This heartless, inhuman and heinous crime took place in a field away from the road. In the past, Shabbir has produced a single-channel video with the footage of rice paddy fields, bent by the force of wind, focusing on a location one could associate with the site of the assault, (in upper Punjab, rice fields are spread everywhere).
At the LLF exhibition, this footage is resurrected into another, different body of work. Once a visitor moved from one side of the display to another area of the gallery, he/she walked amid two illuminated walls of paddy fields, with stems swaying in the wind. Passing through this split wall of paddy fields couldalso echothe parted waters of the Red Sea, as Moses led his people away from the cruelty of the Pharaonic Egyptians. The small journey in the middle of this installation with leaves and stems shifting with the breezewas a reminderof the helplessness of the female traveller, and women in general in our surroundings.
The present body of work by Wardha Shabbir is about multiple manifestations of reality, and its representation. At one end, there were natural plants, metal, wood, pebbles and local soil along with bird’s sounds,If A Tree Could Wander, and in the next room there were (four) pictorial descriptions of eternal bliss in the form of various plantations. The bridge between the two realities was the video installation of paddy fields (A River) that revealed another side of existence, related to painand loneliness.
In her single-channel video projection Tanhai/Solitude, a round disk was layered with swiftly moving clouds. In an uncanny way the circle with clouds appeared like moon due to its shape and fluctuating clouds. In the presence of Tanhai/Solitudeone close to the moon. Thus the video – and the other works on display, stitched the sky and earth in front of our eyes and inof our minds.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore