Bodies and homes

December 15, 2019

Sculptor Nausheen Saeed explores themes of belonging and outer forms in her latest exhibition

For someone familiar with Nausheen Saeed’s work, her latest exhibition at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, may come as a surprise. Perhaps not so much to one who knows the artist and the history of her art making process. Unlike her earlier sculptures shown at solo exhibitions, international and domestic group shows; her recent body of work is not about the body.

Saeed’s earlier work took direct casts from human bodies, eventually converting them into female figures built from layers of discarded clothes, roses, bread, milk containers, pieces of luggage, or plastic shopping bags. Irrespective of the material or posture her women appeared — full figure, heads replaced with the lid of a steel container or an ostrich — without outer layers invented for decency, protection and pleasure. Saeed’s females were nude.

So are the new sculptures from her recently held show Last map of a lost location at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, from December 3-12, 2019. But, instead of human body parts, there were structures of houses; complete or in segments. You saw walls, corridors, passages, doors and windows: spaces of different orders constructed in glass fibre, reinforced by concrete and steel. But the most prominent feature of these sculptures was their raw surfaces, revealing marks of moulding, textures and colours of the materials used. Unlike a familiar building with a coat of plaster, a layer of paint, another storey, some furnishing, these were bare structures.

Her treatment of materials made the sculptures look rough, pure and primordial. In their basic state, both human bodies and buildings, reaffirm the essential form that is later covered, concealed and controlled. It is how some visual artists tend to admire a certain ‘crudeness’ in their creations and a sensuousness of surface.

American architect Frank Lloyd Wright preferred a bunker-like finish for his projects. Just like artists leaving brush marks on a canvas, the cut of chisel and hammer on stone, imprints of hands on bronze and terracotta — allowing a view of the substance in its natural, malleable state.

In this sense, these sculptures representing various houses are bare, yet they’re covered by another form of material crudeness. Because the visitor while looking at these pieces placed on the gallery floor, encounters a built area within an existing layout — of the Canvas Gallery. These works refer to actual places in which Saeed has lived (the titles, 416/A, 48 L, 13-A/3 are addresses of the locations). Some of these plans are joined and complete, while other are in fragments, representing how memory survives. Some years after leaving a house, its dimensions dissolve in our minds, till it becomes difficult to determine if that certain structure emerged from one’s experience, readings, desire or dream — or a blend of all.

The houses that Saeed recreated in her solo exhibition have a personal connection. Some of these were resurrected from her recollections of being a child. “I was inspired by a visit to my old house. When I went there it had been unoccupied for quite some time, and had spider webs and dust everywhere”, she said.

Saeed’s mother loved to alter her home, to the extent that her children were forced to enter a door different than the one they left from in the morning.

The focus and fascination with built areas is not a new element in her art. During her postgraduate degree in Site specific Sculpture at the Wimbledon School of Art, UK (1997), Saeed had created works in which existing spaces were covered with layers of muslin and metal wire mesh, transforming actual structures into illusions.

22 years later, Saeed has reverted to the house theme, almost a retrospective of her life at various addresses.

These intriguing sculptures, which lie between shared and private, offer a different interpretation if we associate gender with the maker. In conventional societies like ours, a woman is assigned the task of a ‘homemaker’. She rears children, looks after the husband, takes care of her in-laws and manages domestic chores, whereas a man still pretends to be a gatherer and hunter. This division of labour is misleading and mistaken, because in today’s world as well as in other periods of human history, the roles could never be so clearly defined or described.

Women do spend time improving their physical surroundings. Saeed’s mother loved to alter her home, to the extent that her children were forced to enter a door different than the one they left from in the morning. As per her own account, in the span of a few hours, walls were erected, windows re-fixed, doors relocated, rooms reorganised. In a way, Saeed has continued this process in her art, but being a visual artist she has linked reality to imagination.

Thus, someone who looks at these ruin-like pieces scattered on the ground might long for his own place of belonging. Only because the layouts of her houses are beyond the demarcation of localities associated with power, affluence, heredity etc.

Here, the spaces manifest the bare minimum, yet are sufficient to realise that these maps in concrete are the places we carry when we leave our houses. Her decision of working with such plans is interesting, because once you make a map, you shift physical reality to a conceptual realm.

Her three-dimensional sculptures, and reliefs on walls, Pursuit of Persistence, 1, 2, 3, 4 — show that skeletal frameworks of an existing space can also be lyrical. The approach echoes French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s book The poetics of space: “Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived. These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tonalised on the mode of our inner space.”

For Bachelard, that inner space is home, but “memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets”.

The author is an art critic based in Lahore

Nausheen Saeed's art exhibition in Karachi: Bodies and homes