A stitch in time

June 16, 2024

A textile art exhibition raises questions of tradition and creative originality


Like a mystery mis[1]tress, 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 aes[1]thetic concerns and picto[1]rial expressions. These concepts and queries often intrigue, in[1]stigate – and entrance a person following the de[1]velopment of a visual artist. Not too infre[1]quently a creative person manages to shock and im[1]press his/ her audience through a peculiar inno[1]vation 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 De[1]sign Department at the National College of Arts, Lahore, has a distinct el[1]ement of originality in her work. It showcases present practices but also responds to the glorious tradition of pattern mak[1]ing in the subcontinent. Textile has been gen[1]erally linked to females imagined as weaving, em[1]broidering, stitching, and assembling patchworks. From the Andes plains to the plateaus of Central Asia, and in various re[1]gions 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 re[1]garded as a parallel and potent form of art mak[1]ing. Faith Ringgold, Mri[1]nalini Mukherjee and other international artists have brought tech[1]niques, materials, aes[1]thetics initially associated with craft or with women into the do[1]main 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 expres[1]sive 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 focus[1]ing on that legacy in order to extract the essence of beauty. Frag[1]ments of sacred geometry appear and are modified in her art. The elemen[1]tary forms - circle, cube, rectangle, triangle and hexagon – are combined, composed and con[1]structed to create con[1]temporary 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 tradi[1]tions. Here’s a culture ex[1]isting on the margin of East and West. Most of its population mixes in[1]gredients 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 sig[1]nificant amalgamation is the flow of language. It has become difficult in our daily discourse to stick to one tongue. A ma[1]jority of us mix Urdu with English in business meetings, lectures at ed[1]ucational institutions, popular songs, political speeches, and TV plays. A great effort is now re[1]quired to think or express oneself in the purity (or limits) of a singular lan[1]guage. Iram Zia Raja ad[1]dresses this shift in cul[1]ture. Her tapestry panels reflect the change in the relationship between na[1]tive and imported; origi[1]nal and improvised; old and new. Her visuals comprise segments of Kufic script; motifs from sacred manuscripts; ele[1]ments of Mughal gar[1]dens; sections of Islamic buildings; and patterns from historical garments, transformed in her dis[1]tinct voice. In her woven works, Raja investigates the aes[1]thetics of design. She de[1]constructs elements and shapes and joins them to create something extra[1]ordinary, fabricating a pictorial vocabulary rooted in the past, yet distinct due to its inven[1]tiveness. In an interview with Art Now Pakistan, she highlighted her posi[1]tion: “In my view and un[1]derstanding, 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 wear[1]ing 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 influ[1]ence on innovation.” Her work illustrates this position. It demon[1]strates the way she has continued her inquiry into Islamic geometry on a formal as well as con[1]ceptual level. Her experi[1]ments with geometry and exploration of the possi[1]bilities of script, as well as her uncanny use of colours, distinguish her art, which free from sen[1]timentality 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, ma[1]nipulated and merged on a canvas these belong to the artist, rather than the nominal source. Iram Zia Raja’s treat[1]ment of tradition follows a similar course. Specific forms, lines, even materi[1]als from her imagery can be identified with a num[1]ber of existing examples from the Arab-Persian and the Indo-Muslim cul[1]tures. If one is not aware of these, her work ap[1]pears abstract. The visu[1]als can then be admired for their formal sophisti[1]cation and exciting play of varying hues with in[1]tricate detail (Thread in Time III, IV). In a sense Iram Zia’s work is not too different from her contemporaries who have revived the tra[1]dition 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 classifica[1]tion: the segregation into textile, calligraphy, paint[1]ing, 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 bor[1]ders; human figures, ani[1]mals, nature; motifs on dresses, buildings and rugs. A historian used to be a philosopher, a med[1]ical practitioner, a math[1]ematician, a poet and a calligrapher at the same instance. Similarly, a textile artist today can, at the same time, be a univer[1]sity teacher and a jew[1]ellery designer. The writer is an art critic, curator and a professor at the School of Visual Arts and Design at Beaconhouse National Universit

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.

A stitch in time