Before language

September 3, 2023

Honesty, abruptness and impulsive current are some of the features of Rabeya Jalil’s paintings

Globe on the Dog.
Globe on the Dog.


n a post-colonial art world stifled by difficult, uncommon, and incomprehensible labels for exhibitions and works, the titles of Rabeya Jalil’s recent paintings are surprisingly simple: Autumn, Circus, Submarine, Zoo, Lines, Lipsticks, Cow Cart, Dragon and Two Rabbits. At first sight, these appear to have come from a list of illustrations in a children’s story book. Despite their apparent simplicity, sticking to these titles must have been challenging and required a lot of confidence. It is the kind of courage you need when your name is Parveen in a class populated with girls called Aamish, Abeera, Aleeha, Alina, Eshal, Frazeen, Kanza, Ramsha, Reyaan, Soha, Wania, Zeshma, Zunaira etc.

Actually, it is not only in naming her works that Rabeya Jalil’s canvases reject pretentiousness. The honesty, abruptness, and impulsive current – even in works based on some loosely formed structure (grid, lines) – are the main features of the paintings at her solo exhibition, Between Meaning and Making (August 29–September 7), at Canvas Gallery, Karachi.

In order to appreciate her work, rendered with remarkable spontaneity, one needs to compare the format of verbal language with another mode of communication: images. Communication is a distinguishing attribute of the homo sapiens. Gestures, nods, babbles, shouts evolved into elementary language and were inscribed as pictures, marks – till the evolution into writing based on pictograms. Language, undoubtedly, is the greatest human invention. However, its entire history is a chronology of restrictions (which is also the crux of culture, since a cultured person is one who has the power to control, neutralise their natural/ instinctual drives and expressions).

Today, we are entangled in language. Most of a typical person’s time awake is spent chained to words, sentences, messages and meanings. An average morning starts with the call to prayer; early hours’ chats with the family; watching (and reading) the latest reports on the TV; going through the newspaper; checking the emails and text messages; instructing the domestic staff; calling friends, colleagues, acquaintances; praising the gardener; admiring the weather; and paying compliments here and there. The day continues at the workplace, participating in meetings, discussions, arguments, fights; composing drafts; making business deals; delivering lectures; taking notes; memorising lessons; gossip and scandal mongering; commentary on local and world politics; commenting on current fashions, movies, sports; enjoying the latest or old songs; deciphering signboards; scrutinising the price, expiry dates and ingredients of food items in a supermarket; catching a religious sermon or a political speech on the street; writing letters; reading a book and phone conversations, before calling it a day.

Irrespective of the circumstances, situation, profession, region, gender, class, age, or ethnicity, all individuals spend most of their time with words. Even when not actively engaged, or in the company of others; their solitary thoughts happen to be in words. We are always talking and listening to others and to our gadgets and to ourselves in our solitude.

In his novel Blindness, Portuguese author José Saramago creates a city losing its eyesight. Likewise, one could imagine a society without language. A community without a structured and systemised mode of verbal exchange, especially not based on alphabets, grammar, syntax, script – all part of a structure, which along/ after binding the human soul, becomes an autonomous/ superior entity.

Roland Barthes, the French structuralist, recognising this condition of language, replaced the term Author with Inscribe. To him it is the language that writes and not the penpusher. Even a personal, private, intimate and intense phrase like “I love you” is arranged in accordance with the principles established much before the proclaimer or the addressee. Both express their feelings under the control of the medium; which, if further probed, reveals concepts, prejudices, ignorance, limitations in the way words are coined, gender is specified and the grammar is devised.

Bird Flight.
Bird Flight.

Through hurried, vigorous and unexpected brush marks, Rabeya Jalil infuses life, vitality, force and urgency into her characters/ subjects. Her way of painting all creatures - seen or imaginary - is to add a segment of life.

In that sense, the earliest inscriptions of mankind in prehistoric caves record a phase without a control or convention on the expression. These drawings of animals are varied, overlapped and pure. Pablo Picasso, seeing the prehistoric paintings proclaimed: “None of us can paint like this.” However, a number of artists, including Rabeya Jalil, strive to reach that state of purity in their art, an age before language (and its constraints).

Looking at Jalil’s densely dealt canvases, one realises why we need to say the words ‘cows’ or ‘dogs’ (tamed substitutes), because the pictures of animals made long before the inception of language, capture the living creature that is breathing, changing, charging and uncontrollable. Compared to the caves, Jalil’s surfaces are small and more manageable, but the movement of the brush bestows on them a vitality we expect from the animal. Instantaneousness, aggression and constant divergence associated with the specie is reproduced, so these – between dragon and domestic breeds – act as if perpetually moving. An illusion, because it is the brush of the painter in action (reminding one of David Hockney’s Picture Emphasizing Stillness, 1962, with a leopard leaping on two men – and intercepted by the sentence: This is perfectly safe, it is a picture.)

Through her hurried, vigorous and unexpected brush marks, Rabeya Jalil infuses life, vitality force and urgency into her characters/ subjects. Her way of painting these creatures, real or imaginary, is to add a segment of life. A photograph documents living beings, but strips them of life. Snapshots are like momentary coffins to put the best version of a living being for the eternity. On the other hand, Jalil’s version is about life, which is not still, static or stiff.

Although looking at her work, no one is too concerned about the vitality of animals, because their backgrounds are as charged: depicted through scratches, stains, smudges, smears, scrawls, incisions, wiping and layering. Works titled Globe on the Dog, Hedgehog Over the Meat, Cabbage on the Hen and Bird Flight demonstrate that the main form/ figure is not essential in comprehending Rabeya Jalil’s art.

The choice of imagery becomes an incentive to employ and exploit her painterly potential and sensibility. Jalil is one of the professionals trained and taught in a prescribed pathway for her postgraduate degree in art education. She is admired for her precision, thoroughness and structured theory courses in the art academia, but when it comes to her painting, she puts the language of art – or language for that matter – aside in favour of these forceful, dense and inquisitive surfaces that invite a viewer to look, in order to discover more.

In a sense, Rabeya Jalil’s work revolves around language; its absence; substitution; and supremacy. In a number of paintings, one gets the impression of a written text, even if defaced (Lines, Zoo), but these are just textual excursions. Not offering a written or legible script, these suggest the presence of language, like some of her surfaces built in the format of a book page (from the page to passion seems to be the real battlefield for Jalil).

Her work, more than figures, backdrops and text, addresses something more grandiose. Between chance and decision, the former one feels is on the backseat in this age of theorising, critiquing and rationalising (French author Mathias Enard in his novel Compass declares “There is no such thing as chance”); yet Rabeya Jalil manages to reclaim it (though not calmly). Her work is a blend of chance and choice, so in these acrylic-on-boards, it is the medium/ material that speaks, not the painter; like the inscribe in the words of Roland Barthes.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Before language