Magic and paint

February 23, 2020

Ayesha Quraishi’s sensitive marks, basic shapes and subtle textures transfer the viewer to another realm

I recall an interview with one of the greatest Urdu writers, Intezar Hussain. On a question, rather a criticism about The Castle: that nothing happens in the entire book and the protagonist takes so long to reach his destination. Hussain admired this very fact, the ‘in-action’ in Franz Kafka’s novel.

Somehow the paintings by Ayesha Quraishi hardly suggest action; bringing to mind the monumental canvases of Abstract Expressionism, described as ‘action painting’ by Harold Rosenberg. In contrast to those works, which envelop, overpower, and mesmerize the viewer, besides overshadowing the maker; Quraishi’s art is private, poised and poetic. Unlike some huge fields of colour or battlegrounds of brush strokes from all directions, merging, confronting, cancelling and controlling one another; Quraishi’s surfaces are quiet. Nothings happens there.

Not really. Because you need to look carefully, listen attentively, touch softly and stand closely for the works to unfold in your presence. The common custom is to see art, especially an abstract work removed from the personality of the painter. But the character, behaviour and outlook of a person contribute towards shaping his/her product, as well as his/her physical, political and cultural position.

Touching Blind

Quraishi has created a particular language to express the landscape of her personal world; visible at Between Light (her midcareer retrospective, 21st January to 4th February 2020, Koel Gallery, Karachi). Her visual vocabulary is linked with a number of art practices in our surroundings, some initially not recognized as art. Tapestry to start with. Her surfaces remind one of traditional textiles, due to their texture and chromatic order. Colour, in the form of paint, is usually not associated with any cultural/economic connection. It is just a shade from the long list provided by manufacturer. But historically colours always have a cultural, social and religious significance. Royal blue, lapis lazuli, saffron, not only signify certain shades on the chromatic chart, they also denote a long history of trade, power and privilege.

In her paintings, Ayesha Quraishi employs a palette that echoes fabric dyes, pigments from natural substances. Her dense embers, deep greens, dark blues, dull yellows and diffused browns map a familiar world of a painter who is a woman, and of a person from this part of the world. The tone of these works is significant because it is reminiscent of manuscripts. Pages that witnessed history. However, by no account do these paintings refer to nostalgia or recall surfaces of antique objects. On the other hand, they invite and encourage a spectator to become a reader, to come close, and decipher the script, of a contract between the maker and the viewer, renewed on each contact.

These paintings invite and encourage a spectator to become a reader, to come close, and decipher the script, of a contract between the maker and the viewer, renewed on each contact.

The exhibition comprising works from 1985 to 2020, curated by Zarmeene Shah, appears as an internal document of a private painter. The show reveals a journey from small and intimate paintings to other experiments, by shifting to wood, aluminium foil, and finally panaflex. In this body of work one is unable to comprehend fully (the first stage of controlling) the meaning, except to find the painter’s love of mark-making evident in every shape, hue, tone, and texture.

Through these alphabets of the pictorial diction, Quraishi constructs a complex set of images. Her paintings of 2000 offer hieroglyphic-like marks, indicating body parts, elementary human figures and other structures, which due to their presence in lines – often arbitrary and broken – suggest a script. The artist, through these works, is not fleeing from reality, but perhaps aiming to communicate with viewers in a language that does not become outdated or alien. Confirming Italian artist Giorgio Morandi: “I believe that nothing is more abstract, more unreal than what we actually see. We know all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it”. The stick-like human being inscribed by mankind in different stages of history – is not far from similar kind of human figure in the works on paper by Quraishi. In a world, where “The skin, senses and states are porous through which one may sieve into open presence, where everything touches everything”. Through her words and works, Quraishi reaffirms the primordial vocabulary of art indicated by American critic Henry Geldzahler “Paintings lead to paintings; words never do…. Words can point, direct the attention of the audience to certain paintings of the past or very recent past, but they can never be the substitutes for looking at the works of art”. Thus, we trace triangles, arrows, rectangles and squares in these paintings layered with thin and thick coats of paint. Echoing a surface altered through the course of years, if not centuries.

Arguably the most prominent aspect of her art is that it seems to be executed without the presence of the painter. Paradoxical but plausible. The artist arrived at a stage, in which – like a master musician who plays his instrument as if sound is emanating from the organ without the command of the person holding it. Great musicians make their instrument sing. Quraishi appears to be doing the same. Marks, dabs, scratches and smudges feel like the residue of a natural process — made without the human touch.


Quraishi’s art is an entity that does not require an outside reference or validation. She stands alone in the narrative of Pakistani art. From her earlier works on paper to the most recent video, she has decided to move away from political, gender, identity, violence or any other issues and concerns, available for pictorial consumption. Her choice not to be obscure, but independent, and intense is a sign of clarity and courage. In her work Quarishi is pushing towards a language that may appear private from one point, yet encompasses public consciousness. Her small paintings can easily match with huge drawings of animals on the walls of prehistoric caves, images which were created for a particular time and for a specific group, but have kept on enchanting the human race for centuries, due to the magic and mystery in those lines, shapes and forms.

Magic entraps the gaze of someone present, transposes him to another hemisphere through a single amulet, some objects, a few words; and so is a combination of lines and inscriptions powerful enough to alter someone’s destination and destiny. Quraishi has found the essence of that magic, so such sensitive marks, basic shapes and subtle textures, that a viewer is transferred to a realm of one’s private Idaho, through that self-addressed envelope, we call the art of Ayesha Quraishi.

Magic and paint: Ayesha Quraishi’s sensitive marks, basic shapes, subtle textures transfer the viewer to another realm