April 6, 2014


If Sana Arjumand’s paintings could be rendered as sound, one would hear voices, music and noise in equal measure: the hum of everyday Urdu, snatches of English manifestos, Arabic prayer calls, medieval liturgical chants, Schoenbergian dissonance and Persian maqams, explosions, sirens, the crackle of radios, screams of joy and pain, footsteps, mechanical clicks, and whispers at the threshold of audibility, and the sonorous birdsong.

The overall experience would be jolting, unsettling, and strangely compelling.

The source of this aural experience could be her painting Nectar of knowledge.

The surface is covered with ornamental motifs and geometric abstractions. At the centre of the work, a barely discernible geometric form floats in a warm glow of light. A garland of painted flora swirls out from this shape: white splotches of paint, stylised red blooms, and green acanthus leaves curling against a background that darkens towards the edges. Nestled in this gestural vegetation but flushed with the surface are three perfect geometric shapes, their opacity a stark contrast to the lighter ground. Drips of paint run through the work like wash or tears, creating a sense of melting fragility.

In the recent exhibition entitled, Ascension at Khaas Gallery, Islamabad, Arjumand draws on a historic vocabulary of classical ornamental motifs, geometric abstraction and gestural painting to create an image of painterly disintegration. Like many of her recent works, it uses the intermediary of ornament to question the status of painting and its relationship to history.

Ornament, Islamic art historian, Oleg Grabar has reasoned, is a visual form with no referent outside of the object on which it is found, which allows the artwork to communicate with the viewer directly, through beauty and pleasure. These forests of flowers and vegetal motifs fall firmly within that definition, yet recontextualised in paintings -- artworks involving appropriations, process-oriented practices, and anti-aesthetic gestures -- they acquire a new social relevance.

What the artist refers to as cultural nostalgia is important to understanding her approach. If the flowers and acanthus leaves signed a history of ornament that conjures up Islamic scrollwork, then the rigid geometry of her mixed-media works just as redolent of Modernism’s early avant-gardes of Suprematism and Constructivism.

Our understanding of these histories is always mediated by the desire they satisfy in the present day. Given that the exotic painterly motifs in Arjumand’s paintings are taken as markers of her South Asian origin and its authentic otherness, one way to level the playing field is to subject Western Modernism to a similar projection.

As a political and spiritual ideology, Modernism’s utopian urges were no less about beauty, pleasure and the need to organise the world than any other worldview. Once ornament’s embeddedness in a constellation of histories and desires is likewise acknowledged, painting’s fear of being merely ornamental subsides in favour of larger stakes: its relevance to the historic moment.

Sana Arjumand leads us into an aviary where cranes and nightingales, storks and kingfishers, larks and swallows coexist. One is reminded of King Solomon’s world of winged creatures -- the hoopoe bringing news about the Queen of Sheba; or of Farid-ud-Din Attar’s ‘Mantaq-at-Tair’ (The Conference of Birds) in search of the Simurgh -- the thirtieth bird.

Birds feed, soar, carry messages and weave and unweave webs of desire with loose ends of thread holding in their beaks in Arjumand’s universe. Are these celestial beings angels in the sky? The reference to Walter Benjamin’s angel is more than an elucidation of content.

Arjumand’s faceless angel, bathed in a blank glow and surrounded by cross-historical motifs, becomes a witness to history: rather than piles of wreckage, the world unfurls in a process of liquid disintegration, to be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognised and is never seen again. The rigid Modernist forms are buried under smears of paint, recalling Adolf Loos’s assertion that the urge to ornament a surface is like smearing profanities on toilet walls -- erotic at best, scatological at worst.

While the Austrian architect was perhaps overreacting to the preciousness of the Vienna Secession, "Ornament and Crime", the title of his notorious diatribe, has come to signal Modernism’s demands for rational purity. The rationalist urge was the site of Modernism’s intersection with fascist rhetoric -- the very catastrophic storm witnessed by Benjamin’s angel and reconstructed by Arjumand.

Arjumand’s layering of disparate symbols and motifs, then, not only reproduces their interdependence, but also the violence of actual histories. Violence is more explicitly articulated in Nectar of knowledge. The composition is roughly the same, but red paint takes on a more iconoclastic dimension: the stylised garland is defaced with smears of ink. On its surface, however, a perfect circle of bright red punctuates the mathematical serenity of a floating structure echoing the fading shapes beneath. If for Grabar, ornament gained meaning through its process of mediation between artwork and viewer, then in these paintings, the destruction of ornament and the ornamentality of geometry embody the jostling reality of their present-day histories.

Caveat may be necessary here, for these paintings are far from didactic. I am not suggesting that decapitated blossoms are emblems of a war-torn East, or that looming triangles signify the imperialism of Western rationality. Any clear meanings are destabilised by the experience of visual forms that take shape and cancel themselves out on the surface of the work. If they have a comparable model, it is music: a remix of samples that creates a new texture of sound. They gain their meaning not from a strict iconographic approach -- that is, symbols that represent concepts -- but from an iconoclasm that relies on mediation and layering.

The pictures I have described, lush and appealing as they are, simply indicate a direction, perform certain virtuosic operations, and fill the eye with sometimes indigestible information. Arjumand wants to complicate the question of where the viewer is in relation to the image, and she does, though an impression of clutter distracts from the strength of her line and her dexterous application of paint.

Far more effectively terse, dynamic and coherent compositions are achieved in works that make emphatic use of light, rendered as starbursts, speckles, crescents and spots of pure white bleeding through shrouds of rich purples and blues, like collaged decals of light. An arresting mix of the abstract and the concrete occurs when Arjumand exercises more overt control over both. A salient example is In the heart of the tree there was a voice, I belong with him, where the tree form, rooted in a circular segment of camouflaged earth, sprouts and blooms into colour, the budding efflorescence of which is tipped with rising fire. It could be a less specific evocation of the merger of beauty and violence. At the very least, what we are looking at is somewhere albeit a phantasmal rather than a photographic somewhere.

A radiantly seductive alternative can be seen at work in paintings such as Between water and sky where a solitary bird wafts through a sky of repeated gradations of blue emanating from a central effusion of light. More obviously afflicted, or blessed, are the avians of ‘paradise’ which experience incineration while perched on clouds skidding above a pyrotechnical display of floral origin. Or this might be the rapture of the raptors; at a certain altitude and beatitude look rather alike.

Arjumand’s latest paintings revisit many of the forms she has previously used, reconfigure them and introduce new ones. For the most part, they have a succinct and immediate effect, bringing the eye instantly to their primary shapes and subjects. There are shapes that evoke the mehrabs of mosques, empty niches that indicate the direction of Ka’aba. The mehrab concavity has its architectural double in Coptic devotional niches and recesses in Catholic churches used for statuary; again, Arjumand invites multiple readings that emanate from the idea of faith -- belief, the ineffable -- with a light-handedly droll touch of skepticism.

In other new waslis, Sana Arjumand reworks the carnivalesque with heightened fervour. She sets a signature bird atop a chequered ground in ‘mountain of light (Jabl-al-noor)’, blanching it into an ominous ectoplasm and sending a paling green and blue aurora borealis shooting out from it in spectacularly shaded ruffles. These pictures compel the eye to a central point where we simply can’t give a name to what we’re seeing.

Even Arjumand’s most pared-down and bluntly assertive works elude the construction of narratives in the same way that dreams, according to many studies, are not narrative at all but scattered mental pictures the dreamer fashions into a story upon waking to make sense of raw material in the unconscious. Arjumand’s visions capture tumult and turmoil, and in the work over all, a certain lividness troubles the exuberant depiction of, for lack of a better phrase, the enthusiastic sense of life - the fireworks, the extravagance of mystical illumination, the glory of meditation, the spectacle of religious triumphalism. For however sumptuously or deliciously Arjumand presents it, she’s picturing the apocalypse, the human finish line our digitized, cybernetic lives are racing towards, as an ever-more demanding empire of signs banishes the subjective space for reflection.

The process of abstraction calls forth painting’s motivating anxieties and ornament’s violent histories by remaining radically open to interpretation. Only then does the hum of sound I invoked above become meaningful: not as a narrative or symbol, but as a constellation of meanings demanding to be acknowledged.