A room with another view

September 23, 2018

At ‘O’ Art Space Lahore, a bond between traditions, territories and tastes is witnessed in the works of two artists, Hoor Imad Sherpao and Noormah Jamal

A room with another view

The difference in the titles of Hoor Imad Sherpao and Noormah Jamal is evident in their works too. Sherpao selected terms such as ‘Aureus’ (gold coin of ancient Rome); ‘Aurum’ (Latin word for gold); ‘Carneus I & II’ (Apollo or a Peloponnesus divinity); ‘Roseus’ (Latin adjective for rosy, pink); ‘Vesalius’ (surname of Andreas Vesalius, the 16th century Flemish anatomist). On the other hand, Jamal preferred simple combinations: ‘Enter One’, ‘Heredity’, ‘Maryam the Sacrificial’, ‘The Holy Man’, ‘The Pollinators’, ‘The Wave’, ‘They Call Us Seasoned Lovers’, ‘Young and Tragic’, and ‘Sacred’.

Whether complex and convoluted, or direct and accessible; both types of titles tell the story of a woman, in varying tones, along with the artists’ respective styles, their approaches towards traditions of image-making (old and new, of here and outside).

The two artists are graduates of Fine Art, NCA (2016). They belong to KPK, and no matter where they live this link is important in formulating their imagery; even though they are not keen on exploiting their place of origin or conditions of those areas. Still, the work offers a reading from regional perspective.

Both artists were trained in the discipline of miniature painting but their recent work in a two-person exhibition, at ‘O’ Art Space from Aug 31 Sept 10, 2018, Lahore reveals their attempt to come out of that boundary, and see the world beyond the confines of conventions.

Hoor Imad Sherpao has been rendering females shrouded in shuttlecock burqa since her student days. This is reminiscent of other artists addressing similar subjects, in particular Aisha Khalid. In their choice of visuals and technique, those earlier paintings were in miniature format. But in the present body of work, Sherpao seems to have stepped out of all these ‘safe’ demarcations, secure in the name of heritage, and custom.

She still portrays women but not of the Mughal period, nor from her homeland, nor even connected to her time. These are an amalgamation of our peculiar personalities: partly indigenous, partially traditional, bit historical and kind of global. Painted in the style of Mughal miniature, these can be Pre-Raphaelite figures. Generalised, elongated, and stripped of any cultural attire, women in her work come from a timeless zone where past and present breathe simultaneously. These appear more than actual entities (although "all known to me in either a familial or communal society") but are archetypes.

Sherpao has also made use of references from popular truck art and elaborate patterns on the borders of European manuscripts. Constructing them in painted brass or aluminium frames, she adds a sense of monumentality to these momentary maidens; turning them as part of an iconography, not confined to a locality or era, but to a common state of womanhood. The best thing about the formation of her imagery is that she likes "to borrow, steal and combine decorative elements that already exist". I remember a talk by Ijaz ul Hassan on Shakir Ali at NCA, where he claimed that artists are like thieves; they pick and store whatever they think can be utilised later.

Both artists were trained in the discipline of miniature painting but their recent work reveals their attempt to come out of that boundary, and see the world beyond conventions.

An intelligent and original artist uses material that is available, regardless of how far it is from one’s geography or age. Sherpao attempts this in her depiction of single females in settings not related to a specific time or place; and further by puncturing the composition of miniature painting in one work ‘Vesalius’ in which a girl is portrayed separately in three acts. Not on a wasli paper, instead on the wall of gallery space, where she was placed in different pictorial units along with other props, suggesting multiple compositions, and reverting back to ancient story-telling in which structure changes with each new audience, setting and environment.

The content of miniature painting was also altered by Noormah Jamal in her paintings executed in gold leaf and gouache on wasli paper. Her imagery reveals the artist’s flight from her place of origin: be it her ancestral land in the Northern Areas, or the empire of Mughal art. She has even deviated from the much exhausted option of modernising miniature because she seeks to shape a vocabulary that contains herself, her acquaintances and her readings in art history.

The work incorporates the sensibility of Magic-Realism, in which factual and fantastical comingle. She denotes her personal memories and private concerns besides communicating the state and stance of a woman surviving in a male-dominated society. Where a woman is usually identified as the extension of a man: mother, daughter, sister, wife, or mistress; everything that reduces her individuality. This is observed in the world of art too, where compared to men, women artists are not equally/justly present. The group ‘Guerrilla Girls’ defines our art museums as the ‘Women’s Museums’, because in these establishments females are represented as an outsider entity -- a model, muse and as an object (of desire).

In the work of Noormah Jamal, one notices an inkling to pose oneself as that character who has witnessed and withstood the oppression of his-tory (like in ‘The Pollinators’, a woman sitting close to a figure dressed in men’s attire, yet under a transparent shuttlecock burqa). It reminds one of writer Elizabeth Hardwick saying, "Experience is something more than going to law school or having the nerve to say honestly what you think in a drawing room filled with men".

Jamal’s work not only involves herself, fellow students and friends at NCA, but includes other visual manifestations too: Japanese woodblock print of Hokusai, vegetation of Henri Rousseau, small toys that express different emotions, and popular visual vocabulary from our surroundings. A gleaming heart pierced by a sword, an ordinary man crowned with a ring of sunflowers and a golden halo (echoing the headdress of the Statue of Liberty), characters with masks/heads of animals seated next to people at some normal gathering are all ingredients to form an individual narrative. In her words, "I have also developed a keen interest in human connection and how they morph over time. The strains and constraints that those relationships may have".

These and other works disclose how our existence is dominated by the real and imaginary, factual and fantastic, funny and furious. The incredible skill in dealing with her imagery turns the work of Noormah Jamal into something more than mere exercises in modernising the language of miniature painting. It communicates how different languages are combined to convey one content (possible in art).

‘Tarhun’, the title of the show is "a Pushto word means contract between two. Usually it’s used to symbolise a marriage but it can be used for any other permanent bond". For an ordinary onlooker, it is a word to describe the exhibition of two artists. For others, it signifies a matrimonial affair between traditions, territories and tastes, as witnessed in the works of both artists following separate, independent ways to a visible, yet invincible destiny.

A room with another view