Of sins and stains

March 1, 2020

Sabina Gillani’s latest exhibition explores the duality of violence and beauty


Regardless of the differences in our retina function, we generally view in monotones of black and white. For instance, when we imagine a terrorist, we believe he is a terrible person, a human incarnation of devil; and nothing more. Likewise, the saint is the embodiment of purity, virtue, sanctity, and devoid of sin.

But contrary to our assumptions, reality is different. For instance, a terrorist may admire roses and birds, be in a relationship, beautify his physical appearance, alongside organising bomb explosions or suicide attacks and shooting civilians. Likewise, a pious person can have a dark shadow or a human failing, mostly unknown to those around him.

We are all made up of contradictory traits; both the beauty and the beast exist in one body. Sabina Gillani has traced this duality in her latest solo exhibition Un/Weave which is on from February 20 to March 7, 2020 at Rohtas 2, Lahore. A graduate of National College of Arts, Lahore (1987) and the Slade School of Art London (1994), Gillani has shown extensively in Pakistan and internationally. She has lived abroad since 1998, and presently resides in Paris.

Warp and Weft III.

Many creative individuals have left their homes, like writers from Latin America who went into exile, but never abandoned their countries. Instead, they discovered the human element in their content.

Sabina Gillani seems to be seeking the same. Her works, mixed media on handmade paper, refer to reality at home — terror, violence, blood, death, and pain. She weaves elements from the now-familiar elements such as a suicide jacket, bleeding kurta shirt, outline of explosive devices, and floral patterns. Once this imagery was peculiar to certain countries but with the expansion of global information, it is equally familiar to the developed world.

Hence it is valid for artists, no matter if they belong to this or that country, or have a creative connection to more than one state. Instead of opting for an immediate reaction, Gillani contemplates on the structure of power, its link with religion and more precisely to tradition, on the association of beauty and death; since those who kill others in the name of faith do it for a better and blissful afterlife. Gillani explains that she has “addressed the dichotomy between the act of extreme violence perpetrated to achieve a state of sublime beauty, that is, Paradise”.

But let’s get back into the mind of the militant. A young man who wakes up on his last morning, washes his face, offers prayers, has breakfast, receives final instructions, changes into suitable clothes. In the process, he ties explosive devices to his body by pulling strings,

Warp and Weft II.

fixing dynamite, balancing the weight of bullets, or wears his suicide jacket under some ordinary clothes, combs his hair, and perhaps puts some perfume on his body and clothes. All to end up in a puddle of blood, his own and of many others.

In her paintings, Gillani draws this state, rather the state of mind. In her mixed media works on paper which the artist describes as portraits, you find detailed drawings of bombs, bullets and other ammunition used for terrorist attacks alongside aesthetic patterns picked from miniature painting. Or superimposed on patterns that remind the viewer of traditional textiles. She un-weaves a complex set of characters, with her sensitive drawings of weapons of destruction, decorative elements, blood-like marks: dried, erased, smudged, layered, washed.

Gillani repeatedly makes the outlines and details of explosive devices, filled with painterly marks along with intricate motifs. The quality of line, both for items of destruction and floral imagery, reminds one of rendering of miniature paintings. These pictorial elements next to dabs of browns and stains of reds, denote a world that is distant if not hostile to Western modernity. In modern Europe faith lost its papal power to secular thought, and craft surrendered it prestige with the triumph of Industrial Revolution. To an ordinary Western, both Islamic fundamentalism and Arabesque, on a superficial level, represent what is defined as the East, rather the Middle East and even South Asia is considered the nursery of terrorism. The artist who lives in a European capital is aware of this chain of identity, in which her country/community is associated with fundamentalism and extremism.

Viewing her works, from 2009 to 2019, one recognizes the sophisticated approach of the artist to build her narrative, that refers to a local history, glorious heritage, sensibility of contemporary painting and political subjects, all blended through a language that is poetic and pleasant. The care in making this delicate imagery echoes the passionate portrayal of the extremist, Blue (Lajvard), from Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. It also reminds one of the diction of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, which compels a reader to cherish a line about the death and oppression of masses. It is sung, memorised, quoted and loved because of its elegance and eloquence. Gillani’s work, in a sense, follows the aesthetics of the great poet, as the painful content in her work is uttered in a poetic manner.

Paintings incorporate conflicting elements to communicate one reality. Three of her works have the dominating presence of a kurta shirt not on the body of a person but in its basic form, and either filled with intricate patterns layered with white paint or reflecting streaks of blood, evoking the victims of terrorist attacks. Handled in different ways, this symbol also connotes other brutalities and conflicts from our cultural past. For instance, the brothers of Prophet Joseph (peace be upon him), who “killed a sheep and soaked Joseph’s shirt in its blood” and “brought his shirt” to their father Prophet Jacob(peace be upon him) to convince him of his death. Or the killing of Caliph Uthman, as Amir Mu’awiyah (in the words of Philip K Hitti) “exhibited in the Damascus mosque the blood-stained shirt of the murdered ruler”.

In a sense, shirts in Gillani’s work are beyond the demarcation of time or location, as are the objects of terrorism. These are weaved together to convey our milieu’s fascination with blood. Somehow her paintings, with their subtlety, beauty and perfection, bring to mind the marsiyas of Mir Anees, which describe the atrocities of Karbala, but narrate those in such a magnificent manner that a reader or listener, despite the gruesome history, is engulfed in the aesthetics of verses.

Everyone who knows Urdu is familiar with the massacre of Karbala, but by accessing the powerful poetry of Anees, they are transposed to that period, and can relate closely with the imam and his family,. Correspondingly, the works on display at Rohats 2, take a viewer to our world stained with the blood of innocents and sins of silent spectators.

Of sins and stains: Sabina Gillani’s latest exhibition explores the duality of violence and beauty