Meaning in making

November 8, 2020

Artist Rabeya Jalil’s paintings, currently on display at Canvas Gallery, are about the triumph of ‘chance’

Language is the skeleton of Rabeya Jalil’s paintings, currently on display at Canvas Gallery. A viewer, however, hardly gets into letters, words, or phrases. Like bones in a body, language makes these paintings move, stand, and survive. These works are executed with an energy and urgency that we can easily associate with the artist, besides other characteristics.

Rabeya Jalil is from that small – but significant tribe of artists who have mastered two tracks of expression. Along with her practice as an image-maker, she excels in her writing, and teaching – occasionally theory related courses. She studied printmaking at National College of Arts (2005) but for her – like several others with similar training – printmaking is now a distant, though not a discarded memory.

In her recent paintings, some residue of printmaking sporadically seeps in, but primarily these are extensions of the artist, who while at her studio, also entered into the domain of language. There is an unforgettable line in a poem by Afzaal Ahmed Syed, translated as: “Only minor poets inscribe names of their lovers in their verses”. This brands as overtly ambitious artists that infuse theory in their works. There is a long list of them, from the top order to graduating students, who feel the compulsion of embellishing their visuals with grand narratives, complex philosophies, and murky content, so that their pictorial output can be read intellectually and intelligently. This does not happen though.

On the other hand, there are those involved in reading and writing (a singular act, because a writer is the first reader of his/her text; and a reader rewrites the content of what is deciphered, on the blank sheets of his/her memory) but not held back by the yoke of theory. Their images breathe freely and independently. Perhaps the best example is Barnett Newman, who contributed to various magazines and catalogues on art, but produced canvases, which do not have any recognisable imagery or quickly grasped ideology. His paintings do not describe; they initiate (and accompany) a journey outside of one’s physical reality. Sublime is their intent and meaning.

For Rabeya Jalil, too, paint is not a tool to communicate something obvious, but a means to write a text – kind of abstraction. To all of us, who have learnt a script, at schools, the nature or manifestations of abstraction should not come as a surprise. We scan a word, say, ‘apple’ and immediately conjure up that roundish, juicy, fibrous substance in our mind’s mouth. A long procedure; from the marks of different size, shapes, and arrangement (word) to physical fruit (from one’s kitchen, grocery store, back-garden) is summed up in miniscule sections of a second.

The passage from signifier to signified is through a code, which is not universal, hence the multitude of tongues. To an artist who investigated reading, meanings are not bound to visual forms and or pictures are not tied to meanings. For him/her, objects are like shapes for words, which vary their content with each cultural encounter.

Like language, Rabeya Jalil’s art is multifaceted. This is mainly due to her approach (evident in most paintings) in which a number of identifiable entities, i.e., walls, flowerpots, sewing machines, cars, human faces and figures, crabs, carts, beds etc, are placed not in a spatial order, but reverberate as open-ended words, so a viewer (like a reader) can make out any narrative if he/she wishes so. Akin to children’s amusement in picking single and separate items and constructing new stories.

Language operates in other ways, too, in the art of Rabeya Jalil. A few of her images refer to identity: private, societal and national. For instance, the triptych House Tree Person, suggests the layout of Pakistan’s national flag due to its components and construction.

Along with the ‘open’ structure of picture plane, Jalil’s choice of a peculiar mode of depiction, child-like, is rooted in how we perceive the world around us. As a child babbles about his/her observations, a way of speaking that is not clear or formed yet indicates the intended matter; in the same ‘unformed’ scheme he/she draws pictures of things from his/her surroundings. Visuals that are not clear, precise, or mimetic, yet convey what was aimed and transcribed by the maker. Rabeya Jalil negotiates with this aspect – through the abstraction of language and the abstraction of a child’s expression, to create works, which allude to children’s drawings and the scrawled lines of some ‘forgotten’ script.

Her content? Probably the artist’s continuing association with ‘writing’ has led to different positions towards ‘meaning’. In a number of canvases different elements: details of a room, furniture, machinery, animals, emerge more like signs than cogs of a solid/static subject. She confirms “there is meaning, but there is no subject matter”. You can guess these segments to be things, but they are also marks of a brush, erased areas, and layers of paint, which have their presence and significance as records of an artist’s utterance.

Language operates in other ways, too, in the art of Rabeya Jalil. A few of her images refer to identity: private, societal and national. For instance, the triptych House Tree Person, due to its components and construction suggests the layout of Pakistan’s national flag. In other works, one can identify traces of writing, paintings resembling pages of a notebook (Twenty Days, Scribble I, II, and Crossword) as well as the illusion of some uncanny, though private/possible space. All rendered in tones that suggest somebody talking casually.

Possibly that sense of casualness is the inherent content, since Jalil mentions the ‘joy of painting and mark making’. She settles that pleasure through her tactile, and sensitive surfaces, scribbles, scrawls, smudges, which occasionally recall the old master of casualness and spontaneity, Cy Twombly. “A canvas by Cy Twombly is only”, notes Roland Barthes, “what we might call the allusive field of writing”. Jalil’s paintings testify to the presence of ‘allusive’ or the triumph of ‘chance’ (which in reality is planned, though it looks random, accidental and thus natural). Her surfaces are dense, blotchy, scratchy, scraped (echoing the processes of printmaking), and apart from a few, are largely dominated by subtle and modulated hues. A trait that distinguishes her creations from a child’s attempts, and affirms the artist’s sophistication in building her imagery. Her true subject.

Jalil confides that “there is no subject matter, the method, paint, and mark-making, and its infinite possibilities are the subject” of her work. A viewer realises however that “it has its subject”: in the words of William H Gass, “memory, desire, the imagination that makes art”.

Art becomes an easily graspable theme, in three paintings, of identical imagery, composition and title (Painting I, II, and III). In these, a girl is facing a canvas on an easel or stand, and making a drawing or painting. This can be a self-portrait – not of the artist, but of her art, and reminds us, that as writing comes from writing (language), art is also about art; at least her art. The solo show, Marks and Meaning, is being held November 3-12, at Canvas Gallery, Karachi.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

Meaning in making: Artist Rabeya Jalil’s paintings are about the triumph of ‘chance’