The great grey zone

February 4, 2024

Female figures frequent selective, semi-dark set-ups in Sadaf Naeem’s solo exhibition

The great grey zone

If one watches how a visitor is looking at a painting in a museum or art gallery, one notices a choreography of movement. The viewer advances towards the work, then steps back, or stands in the middle, bending sideways to get the full view; occasionally so close to the displayed piece that it draws the guard’s attention who then urges the viewer to keep a reasonable distance. With the invention of various gadgets, we are now able to enlarge, minimise, or maintain the dimensions of an artwork while sitting in front of our computers, or with mobile phones in our hands.

This facility is so widely enjoyed that many times you find kids trying to stretch a printed picture with their thumb and index finger. One wonders if this habit, practice and facility have also altered our vision as the makers of art. Not consciously, but may be on an unrealised level, artists are responding to this change. This is noticeable in the recent paintings of Sadaf Naeem on display at her solo exhibition, In Connection With (January 9-29, at O Art Space, Lahore). The artist is known for her depiction of selective, semi-dark set-ups frequented by female figures (often as silhouettes), or with details of woven tapestries usually produced by and identified with women. In her past work, there has been a suggestion of space, to which plants or segments of built structures have been added. In her latest canvases, the artist has opted for a different kind of spatial construction. Flat. The inclusion of rug- and handkerchief-like formats in two paintings, Splice, and Inlaying, and another canvas, In Connection With, partially treated as tiled area, enhance the essence of a flat image being a two-dimensional reality fixed to its scale, unlike a photograph, which can be zoomed in and zoomed out with the flick of fingers or printed on any size.

However, Sadaf Naeem’ images evoke photography. A snapshot is about isolating one instant from innumerable sequences of time that can be unearthed years later with new readings, meanings and contexts. In that way, Naeem’s latest paintings, depicting a face (Ethereal I), a flying bird (Inlaying 2), two people or a group (Configuration I and In Connection With), a pair of feet (Inlaying I) are about the memory of a real experience or recollection of a particular place. In both cases, we sense a freezing of time, rendered with an unearthly atmosphere. There is no specific light, thus no clue about the passing hour. In front of these visuals, a spectator is not conscious of the dates, documentation, history and death.

The question then arises: if Sadaf Naeem is not inclined to convey the identity of her characters, physical spaces or the suggestion of time in her art, then is it more about what it is than what it is about? These paintings probably become the private and individual home the painter has built for herself. It could be a coincidence that 10 out of the 12 canvases are square, but a square, rather than a rectangle, circle or oval, is generally associated with a house. While talking about one’s home, one often mentions four-walls (chaar-diwari). A child typically draws the picture of a house as a square, sometimes under a rectangle (the roof).

The great grey zone

These paintings probably become the private individual home the painter has built for herself. It could be a coincidence that 10 out of 12 canvases are square, but a square rather than a rectangle, circle or oval, is generally associated with a house.
The great grey zone

By this interpretation, if we enter the four walls of Sadaf Naeem’s painted constructions, we find alienation, bleakness, blood, depression and demise. We try to deny the painful presence and unbearable existence of what we come across outside and sometimes within ourselves. One element that connects these paintings is a living being enveloped in external matter, natural or man-made. A face is thus being wrapped in an embroidered piece of fabric (Ethereal I) and a girl squeezed between a plant with green stems, leaves, scarlet flowers and a rug in the background (Interconnection).

There is the torso of some grey shape on a length of cloth stained with blood (Splice II); a girl is squatting in a prayer posture (or a state of submission/ wait?) on a circular woven piece amid a chequered area of varying blocks of blacks and greys (Melding into).

What a viewer picks from these sensitively rendered surfaces is a list of clues. Tapestry, blood-like red and dominance of grey. Seeing these paintings displayed next to one another, one had an uncanny sensation that one was not looking at paintings but at X-rays or fossilised versions of the paintings. In both states, a human being shuns the outer, extraneous and unnecessary cladding, and turns into essentials (bones). The chromatic composition of Naeem’s work kept reiterating this connection.

Painting in grey or using black and white is presumably an easy tactic, adopted by several Pakistani artists. One does not have to balance the composition of diverse and worry about disagreeing hues. There is also no need to spend money on purchasing a full range of colours. But in Sadaf Naeem’s art, one recognises that this preference complements the content. The primordial grey of her palette intensifies the sense of desolation one gets from her figures, pictorial environment and brush strokes. The act of making marks on her paintings is important to read the subtext of these paintings. It is restrained, restricted and disciplined; and like a pattern of tapestry pieces it follows a premeditated sequence of hands, emotions and ideas.

In that sense, the fabrication of Sadaf Naeem’s painted surfaces is not different from the making of a patchwork or a woven piece by our mothers and grandmothers. Actually, the network of brush strokes on a canvas reveals more than what an artist intends. The almost invisible shading of neatly put tiny brush marks in a miniature painting is about a painter being part of a large group of makers; on the other hand, artists emphasising their brush movement, mainly in the American abstract art, celebrate their individuality and proclaim their independence. The academic art accepted by the French salon at the dawn of impressionism confirmed the supremacy of the subject, style, narrative in place of the painter, since the hand of the maker was hidden beneath the smoothly laid shades of melting tones.

Sadaf Naeem’s conscious tendency to include a number of rug-like motifs in her imagery, which justifies a restrained and refrained handling of brush and paint, could be connected to her content: a woman’s world. However, her route is remote, deep and well thought-out. TS Eliot once remarked that the only quality a critic needs is to be highly intelligent. In the same lieu, the most essential (if not the sole) quality a visual artist requires is to be extremely intelligent. That intelligence seeps in slowly, softly, subtly in the work of an artist, not in his/ her diction or dress. Sadaf Naeem is a precise and prime example of it.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

The great grey zone