Paper possibilities

The Patterns exhibition showcases the works of Mahbub Jokhio, Tahira Noreen and Waleed Zaman

Paper possibilities


Years ago, students at the National College of Arts used to get a project for their second year design course: to take a metal sheet and make three folds. This might appear simple on the surface but is very difficult in practice, because in the absence of an apparent example, i.e. a face, body, object or element of nature, creating a piece of pictorial art that might be appreciated for its aesthetic quality is quite challenging. Lacking a physical reference from the outer world, artists revert to the world within – self awareness feelings, emotions – and to the formal aspects of art making.

One comes across specimens of these practices in the history of image making across continents and cultures. Presence of geometric patterns found on pottery, textile and jewellery items from the ancient cultures testifies to how the human mind – or spirit - drifted from the physical to metaphysical through a passage of lines composed in a sequence, circles and repetitions to reach a supernatural realm and can have a divine experience. The quest continued, expanded and evolved in subsequent societies, with elaborate patterns and complex motifs that are not only decorative but also loaded with profound meanings. Celtic interlaced patterns and Islamic geometry are two such examples among many.

With Modernism and the invention of photography, many visual artists were inclined to render reality around them. Each of them transcribed it in an independent and unique accent, yet at the same instance a few moved away from a harsh external world to explore the internal self (accentuated because of theories of Freud and Jung).

The trend to follow Eastern religious practices (Haray Krishna, Buddhism) and joining the hippie movement (famous for consuming hallucinatory drugs) were attempts to detach from the unbearable circumstances and find peace by reverting to a sublime realm.

In the visual arts, abstract expressionists sought to attain a sublime experience, by creating images that negated any reference to the outer world. Their surfaces comprise squares, circles, rectangles, stripes and irregular shapes. By looking at these the viewers were expected to experience a momentary detachment from their immediate surroundings and be transported to another, higher realm (for instance by gazing at the canvases of Mark Rothko).

This disconnection with the physical world had another streak in the history of visual arts. After Paul Cezanne, the Western artists recognised the separation between three-dimensional optical contact and its representation on a two-dimensional surface. The independence of pictorial art from being an imitation of tangible objects, has been long practiced in the East, manifested in various forms such as the Islamic geometry, Chinese landscape and Muslim miniatures.

A group show, Patterns, being held from April 28 to May 9 at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, brings together the creative practices of three artists, varied in their training, experiences, exposure, techniques and concerns. Mahbub Jokhio, Tahira Noreen and Waleed Zaman studied at different institutions, and have distinct styles, mediums and imagery. However, seeing their work on paper, one can link them all to a frame of thought that focuses on the essence of things rather than appearances.

Paper possibilities

The term ‘abstract’ has been the most misused word in our art circles. Any mindless exercise in splashing and spreading paint on canvases, or scrawling pencil marks across papers has been called ‘abstract art.’

An abstraction? The term ‘abstract’ has been the most misused word in our art circles. Many a mindless exercise in splashing and spreading paint on canvases, or scrawling pencil marks across papers has been called ‘abstract art.’ The awareness that embodying abstract on a visual surface is a conscious, intellectual and intense act has been lacking. Mahbub Jokhio, Tahira Noreen, and Waleed Zaman have impressed the viewers with their seriousness of concerns, and in communicating their content – ranging from personal to spiritual.

Jokhio has been exploring multiple ideas through a number of strategies. His level of formal skill can only be matched with his conceptual sophistication. In the current exhibition, the artist has displayed large charcoals on paper, drawing folds of a paper, first made in origami forms, illustrating items (and their titles) that allude to the biblical story of the Fall: The Apple, The Peacock, The Snake, The Heart.

Later, physically flattened, these forms served to facilitate a dialogue between three-dimensionality and two-dimensionality. Paper is generally treated as a two-dimensional item, for its flatness, as well as its use in art to translate physical reality into a two-dimensional idiom. In an intelligent way, Jokhio has drawn the smoothed creases in a meticulous manner, showing all details and dispersion of light into varying tones. When a viewer looks at these large-scale pieces, he/ she is gazing at a paper made out of another paper. The travel from reality to image - the passage from physical to flatness - seems to be the real concern for Jokhio.

The matter has been made more pertinent in the era of computer technology as human information, interactions and emotions are transmitted and received on/ through a flat screen; a desktop, laptop, iPad, tablet or cellular phone. Although other, more conventional sources of knowledge such as books, newspapers and TV are also flat, the development of the internet and the widespread usage of social media platforms have reduced human interaction and activity. You meet friends, attend classes, join official meetings, express personal feelings and strong emotions via a glowing screen. This is a miracle of illusion; basically a deception. Tahira Noreen reverts to her private world and carves lines. This is a seismic record of her changing self during her journeys. The thin marks incised with a precision cutter on wasli document the travel, which according to the artist “can be both an inward and an outward experience. It can be a journey back in time, a reverie, or a challenge to our concept of time and movement.”

In reality her wasli paper (traditionally used for miniature painting) looks like cardboard sheets of uniform colour. Noreen extracts multiple possibilities from it by employing an ordinary instrument and creates numerous lines, patterns and rhythms. These fluid maps more than document her physical journeys “especially when travelling by air,” or “an uncharted road journey leading to a distant horizon or an unknown destination.” These invoke strange and strong sensations in a spectator, almost a spiritual voyage.

The realm of spiritual and sublime is explored in Waleed Zaman’s paintings on paper, each a subjective portrayal of the outer world, which – besides an individual’s exclusive vision – follows the tradition of describing celestial elements, which otherwise cannot be captured through conventional methods of illustrating reality: like the sun, the moon, the light and the black hole. One feels that every attempt to depict the solar body, from a student of nursery classes, to Sumerian carvers, to Persian miniature painters, to Vincent van Gogh and to Olafur Eliasson is real and true, because this blazing sphere is impossible to grasp through the limitations of five senses.

As the realm of the spiritual is hard to comprehend objectively, every interpretation of a work of art is subjective but valid, valuable, correct and accurate. The work of Mahbub Jokhio, Tahira Noreen and Waleed Zaman, currently at Canvas Gallery, confirms this fact.

The writer is an art critic, curator and a professor at the School of Visual Arts and Design at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Paper possibilities