A stitch in time

June 16, 2024

A textile art exhibition raises questions of tradition and creative originality

A stitch in time


ike a mystery mistress, future is unknown, elusive and distant, yet desirable. To an artist, future embodies a sort of surprise. For both the maker and the viewer of an image, the prime question or issue is what the artist will produce next; how the past will shape or enhance the present and emerge into a new form related and relevant to one’s aesthetic concerns and pictorial expressions.

These concepts and queries often intrigue, instigate – and entrance a person following the development of a visual artist. Not too infrequently a creative person manages to shock and impress his/ her audience through a peculiar innovation and imagination visible in the work of Iram Zia Raja, especially the tapestry-based art from her solo exhibition, Texture of Time (June 11-24, Canvas Gallery, Karachi).

Raja, a trained textile designer and academic, currently the dean of Design Department at the National College of Arts, Lahore, has a distinct element of originality in her work. It showcases present practices but also responds to the glorious tradition of pattern making in the subcontinent.

Textile has been generally linked to females imagined as weaving, embroidering, stitching, and assembling patchworks. From the Andes plains to the plateaus of Central Asia, and in various regions of India, Africa, Far East, Central and South America, women are the makers of quilts, shawls, spreads, runners and wearable stuff. Having previously been exiled from the discourse of art history, today textile is acknowledged and regarded as a parallel and potent form of art making. Faith Ringgold, Mrinalini Mukherjee and other international artists have brought techniques, materials, aesthetics initially associated with craft or with women into the domain of mainstream art.

Recognising this, Iram Zia Raja, has invested in a vocabulary/medium that travels between the functional and aesthetic, between traditional and modern, between expressive and calculated. In her work on fabric, Raja incorporates conventional Muslim motifs in a range of tones including gold, silver, bronze and copper. In these compositions, the history of geometric design is reinterpreted by manipulating basic shapes; not replicating the past forms, but focusing on that legacy in order to extract the essence of beauty. Fragments of sacred geometry appear and are modified in her art. The elementary forms - circle, cube, rectangle, triangle and hexagon – are combined, composed and constructed to create contemporary visuals.

Raja’s imagery is not limited to the craft of making. It assimilates the fabric of a society that breathes in multiple times and many traditions. Here’s a culture existing on the margin of East and West. Most of its population mixes ingredients from various sources and histories to forge a new entity and identity. The current fashion of wearing Kurta with leggings and tights or fusing qawwali or other conventional music with Western notes and blending local dishes with European cuisines are signs of a dismantling territory.

Perhaps the most significant amalgamation is the flow of language. It has become difficult in our daily discourse to stick to one tongue. A majority of us mix Urdu with English in business meetings, lectures at educational institutions, popular songs, political speeches, and TV plays. A great effort is now required to think or express oneself in the purity (or limits) of a singular language.

In traditional societies everything was part of everything else. Hence a miniature painting was composed of script; decorative borders; human figures, animals, nature; motifs on dresses, buildings and rugs. A historian used to be a philosopher, a medical practitioner, a mathematician, a poet and a calligrapher at the same instance.

Iram Zia Raja addresses this shift in culture. Her tapestry panels reflect the change in the relationship between native and imported; original and improvised; old and new. Her visuals comprise segments of Kufic script; motifs from sacred manuscripts; elements of Mughal gardens; sections of Islamic buildings; and patterns from historical garments, transformed in her distinct voice.

In her woven works, Raja investigates the aesthetics of design. She deconstructs elements and shapes and joins them to create something extra-ordinary, fabricating a pictorial vocabulary rooted in the past, yet distinct due to its inventiveness. In an interview with Art Now Pakistan, she highlighted her position: “In my view and understanding, tradition is the continuity through which we know ourselves. Here I would like to quote my favourite example of the priest king statue from the Indus Valley Civilisation. He is wearing a shawl that has a trefoil motif carved on it. Today’s ajrak has the same motif. This is the power of tradition - an unbroken lineage of over 5,000 years. One cannot overlook this power of tradition and its influence on innovation.”

Her work illustrates this position. It demonstrates the way she has continued her inquiry into Islamic geometry on a formal as well as conceptual level. Her experiments with geometry and exploration of the possibilities of script, as well as her uncanny use of colours, distinguish her art, which free from sentimentality or an overt love and longing for the heritage. The past in her mind is more like a palette in a painter’s hand, where colours are obtained from various tubes. Once mixed, manipulated and merged on a canvas these belong to the artist, rather than the nominal source.

Iram Zia Raja’s treatment of tradition follows a similar course. Specific forms, lines, even materials from her imagery can be identified with a number of existing examples from the Arab-Persian and the Indo-Muslim cultures. If one is not aware of these, her work appears abstract. The visuals can then be admired for their formal sophistication and exciting play of varying hues with intricate detail (Thread in Time III, IV).

In a sense Iram Zia’s work is not too different from her contemporaries who have revived the tradition of Persian-Mughal miniature painting: among others, Shahzia Sikander (her class fellow at the NCA), Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Ambreen Butt, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Talha Rathore and Tazeen Qayyum.

A problem for the present age is classification: the segregation into textile, calligraphy, painting, pattern making etc. In traditional societies, where these arts first flourished, everything was part of everything else. Hence a miniature painting was composed of script; decorative borders; human figures, animals, nature; motifs on dresses, buildings and rugs. A historian used to be a philosopher, a medical practitioner, a mathematician, a poet and a calligrapher at the same instance.

Similarly, a textile artist today can, at the same time, be a university teacher and a jewellery designer.

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

A stitch in time