The artist recently opened her retrospective, I Am And I Am Not – at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Zealand, and peels back the layers of the motivations and concerns shared between herself, curator Masuma Halai Khwaja, and gallery director Zara Stanhope.
here is a certain spontaneity and exuberance to Aisha Khalid’s manner. If you look at the work she has created over the last three decades, give or take, you might be pleasantly surprised by the pure beysaa-khtagi with which she expresses herself.
A miniaturist by training, Khalid joined the National College of Arts (NCA) quite by incident, in a direction wholly opposite to which she had planned her life. In Salima Hashmi’s 2001 written collective of women artists in Pakistan, Unveiling The Visible, Khalid refers to being forced to sell their family’s lands in Sindh and relocate to Lahore in the 1980s. It was a turning point in her life. Before, the artist had aspired to a place in the medical field, and afterward, she was forced to look for whatever option that wasn’t the “second rate women’s college” she attended in Lahore.
Always focused on academics, Khalid dutifully practiced her studio skills at NCA, and as anyone who has done any miniature painting, or indeed looked at one knows, the discipline required is exhausting.
Aisha Khalid’s initial art stemmed from her personal experiences, the geometric pattern of her family home in Sindh showing up more often than not in paintings. Miniature painting often employs repetitive motifs, which are painstaking to replicate identically. To stereotype, you’d expect the miniaturist to be at the very least, very restrained. But that’s just stereotyping. Khalid speaks openly and from the heart, and everything about her practice sounds like she followed and found her bliss, and lives it every day.
A few years ago, Khalid was looking for a Karachi-based curator, and connected with Masuma Halai Khwaja through a mutual friend.
“There aren’t many museums in Pakistan, and I feel more and more like I need to show my work to a Pakistani audience,” she says, “Especially in Karachi. I come from Sindh, and still feel very connected to the area.
“A lot of my practice comes from my childhood, my memories. It is rooted in my home, in rural Sindh; it shows up in the geometrical patterns that mimic the tile of its floor. I learnt to embroider back then, and use embroidery now as part of my practice. So much of my work comes from that land, that time, that background.”
Khalid soon found funding as well as heritage spaces to showcase her work in Karachi, and started looking for someone to curate the show.
“I know people in Kara-chi, but I don’t feel connected to them. When a friend mentioned Masuma, it clicked instantly; I had known her for years as an artist and a teacher, from when she taught at NCA, and I saw her work with Karachi Biennale, and it just fell into place.”
Thus came about the first edition of I Am And I Am Not, and Masuma Halai Khwaja, artist and curator, feels that the body of work is important, and maybe not in the ways one would think. Sure, it is always
phenomenal to see women succeed, and since Halai Khwaja employs the ‘domestic’ arts of sewing and embroidery in her own practice, it is exciting to see what two artists with a similar approach will do together.
These are the details Halai Khwaja is not interested in. They are by-the-way. She looks at the entirety of Aisha Khalid’s work as a vehicle for something else. So, when the opportunity to show the retrospective at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Zealand presented itself through Zara Stanhope, Director, they were thrilled.
“Firstly, of course it was exciting because New Zealand is so off the grid,” says Halai Khwaja. “But once I visited for the first time, I realized what an important step this was going to be, and how important it was to show Aisha’s work here.
In an abstract way, Aisha’s work has the ability to not only bring her personal reflections and that sensibility of understanding to light; it enables a space for people to think about reality through a spiritual lens or through a lens of a feeling in particular and from the heart, which no matter what belief system you have is a space you can find yourself in. – Zara Stanhope
“People here don’t know much about Islam at all, and Aisha’s work gives a very soft opening into the matter.
“There is one work, The Garden Of Love Is Green Without Limit, which Aisha made for the Burda Sharif, and it is a gentle segue into who we are as a people, as a nation, and I feel it can give the Pakistani community in New Zealand a voice too. Once they see themselves represented here, they will find the space more accessible, and will be more inclined to visit it.”
Putting the retrospective involved the very crucial task of sourcing work that now rests in private collections.
“We had to borrow those works so that we could show how Aisha’s thought process has traveled, and how it started from personal things, personal concerns, focusing on the cultural, moving onto socio- political commentary after 9/11, and then organically dedicating itself to spiritual exploration,” explains Halai Khwaja.
What Zara Stanhope aimed to achieve through the showcase aligned well with both Aisha Khalid and Masuma Halai Khwaja’s core concerns and values surrounding this particular body of work.
“At the gallery, part of our purpose and ambition is to expand the possible,” says Stanhope. “So, in a sense, it really means expanding people’s ideas and worldviews and not just focus narrowly on an academic, very didactic sort of idea of creativity or art but all the possible things that art can do to teach you about people in the world and what the world is without saying it.
“In a more abstract way, Aisha’s work as Masuma says, has the ability to not only bring her personal reflections and that sensibility of understanding to light; it enables a space for people to think about reality through a spiritual lens or through a lens of a feeling in particular and from the heart, which no matter what belief system you have is a space you can find yourself in.”
Stanhope points out that Khalid’s work has very obvious references to Islam and the Kaaba, and perhaps quietly or unintentionally challenge the “cultural politics and worldviews between the East and West”, but the tension that is created with those questions is exactly what creates room for debate, reflection, and maybe minor revision of ideas.
“And of course,” smiles Stanhope, “there is that sense of beauty [to her work] that has been mentioned before.”
Great art has always been about more than just beauty. It might force you to look closer and think deeper, and whatever elicits a reaction – even slight confusion – is clearly making an impact.
“What we’ve found is that our audiences through their curiosity find that the greatest experience is when an artist leads them to something without showing what that narrative literally is. Aisha does that beautifully in her work,” says Stanhope.
When voices from the world over are within our reach, we might be forced to contemplate our own place in the world too.
For Aisha Khalid, if we are to very loosely describe it, the mere act of living is art. “I like cooking, I like embroidering, I work with ralli patchwork,” she says. “My farm is my canvas. It changes all the time. From green to gold to yellow. Flowers bloom in mustard and azure and maroon. It is my ongoing project.
“Whenever I hear talk of ‘reviving art’ I think that we already are living in art, there’s no need to revive it. We have a rich heritage, and there is so much beauty around us, I want to bring it to the world every day.
“The day I start feeling like the world doesn’t need or want to see this beauty, I will stop making everything. But being here, right now, having my work recognized as something to share with the audience in New Zea-land, I feel very privileged. That what I do, offers something to the people who see it, makes them think or rethink, that is what art is about, and it is an honor and a privilege to be a part of it.”