The enigma of silence

June 12, 2016

In Madyha Leghari’s solo show at Rohtas 2, form and content coexist inseparably

The enigma of silence

Arthur C Danto, writing on Francis Bacon, observes that the sentence ‘I am screaming’ can be grammatically correct but is factually wrong -- because a person cannot speak while shouting. Similarly, a text-based exhibition titled ‘Notes Towards Silence’ is intriguing since language is the greatest human invention to counter silence.

Yet at Madyha Leghari’s exhibition held from May 25 to June 4, 2016 at Rohtas 2, Lahore, one observed the power of silence through words. Any art created with language in a sense invites silence because, instead of looking at the images, language evokes a silent discourse between the viewer and the art piece.

The first solo exhibition of Madyha Leghari, a graduate of Fine Art in 2013 from NCA, Lahore, created an atmosphere of quietness. Viewers were inclined to sit in front of the wall text, read and concentrate on the words composed in a certain order. While they did so, the unusualness of the optics and the extraordinary conceptual dimension left them speechless. Normally in conceptual and textual works, the emphasis on content is enough to communicate. Various text-based works are executed in a way that they are devoid of pictorial pleasure. These works in a way affirm the triumph of content over form, or the supremacy of thought over sensation.

Interestingly, Leghari’s works offer not only a link to her thoughts but also impress with the visual interplay of forms, colour and spaces. Particularly the large wall piece with its moving clock hands placed on intersecting circles of varying hues, surrounded by words arranged in different sequences. The execution of text, the division of spaces and shapes and the distribution of colours all add into enhancing the meaning of the work. Even for someone who does not fully understand the intent of the artist, the visual impact is enough to convince him about the credibility of the work on display.

The sophistication of pictorial language is significant because, in most cases, one tends to divide the works of art into categories such as conceptual and pictorial. This often means that a work that deals with ideas may not necessarily affect the senses, or if a work is emotionally charged, it must be devoid of any intelligent content. Madyha Leghari seems to have defied this distinction. In her work, one is first entrapped by the visual sophistication before being impressed by the content. This reminds one of Marcel Duchamp who believed that "three-dimensional objects are projections of four dimensional ones, as two-dimensional shadows are projections of three-dimensional objects".

Madyha Leghari seems to have defied this distinction between conceptual and pictorial. In her work, one is first entrapped by the visual sophistication before being impressed by the content.

In her case, the content is inseparable from the work itself which consists of the concept. The artist extends the normal existence into two domains of time and matter and defines how our existence is marked with these stops, of life, in which a human being awaits the coming emotion or action -- like the next station on a bus timetable. Almost replicating the schedule of an urban transport route, Leghari has placed different emotions and actions of person on a map, segregated by two directions -- time and matter -- which if one follows the theory of relativity, are embodied in the same framework. Or have an interesting and often hilarious link; for instance words in connection with TIME such as ‘find, lose, spend, save, own, free, use, waste, pause, past, crunch, hit, kill, serve, consume’ in comparison to ‘a list of suggestive activities with MATTER in an arbitrary order’ which were as grave as ‘Adapt habits of highly effective people’ to such banal instructions like ‘Wear your helmet’ and ‘Smile at the waitress’.

This kind of listing echoes Jorge Luis Borges’s text quoted by Michel Foucault in the preface of the Order of Things. It’s a body of knowledge in which the profound and profane merges, and where you realise the whole act of classifying negates the custom of categorisation because a list, at the end of a day, is an arbitrary piece of information -- subject to alteration, argument and refutation.


In her solo exhibition, one becomes aware of various human actions which mean a lot on the surface (on the gallery wall, literally) but, in the larger scheme of things, diffuse their differences. Once a viewer spots the human actions and emotions marked, like in a diagram, that refer to either time or matter, he realises the invisible difference between the two. Since, in both cases, one is aware that beyond the human intention and action, there lies chance or fate, which despite its unexpectedness operates in a perfect and harmonious order. Thus the demarcation of Leghari’s work becomes the chronology of an individual’s acts and activities which can be interpreted in multiple manners.

Perhaps, that aspect of multiple interpretations is the key to comprehend the idea and intent of the artist as she creates a bridge between the word and world. Imagine if humans had not arrived at the stage of language, they would have still multiplied, loved, hated, quarrelled and killed but not left these experiences for a later generation to use or extend. Human beings, despite their cultural differences and regional identities, share some basic emotions and actions. Yet, each community possesses a distinct system of symbols and signifiers to denote these.

Madyha Leghari seems to have invoked these links between words and actual activity -- by presenting language as the substitute for action or aesthetics. In her installation with small booklets, it appears that language is not a tool to enter the world of visual art but occupies an independent position as was demonstrated through its layering of lines and (dis)continuity of narrative.

Her solo exhibition has stirred reactions of all kinds -- most unfavourable from quarters that believe in the supremacy of pictorial as opposed to textual. For them, any attempt to liberate both the word and image and take them into the realm of ideas seems offensive. To them, one can only advise what Leghari wrote in the section of ‘Matter’ in her solo show: ‘Drink 7 glasses of water everyday’!

The enigma of silence