In pursuit of paradise

June 27, 2021

Aga Khan Centre organises exhibition featuring works of 21 artists

In pursuit of paradise

For many living in the Indian subcontinent or other former British colonies, paradise is high up in the sky. However, a minor reflection can be found in London, too - a city where you seek redemption, reward, and recreation on the basis of your good deeds (basically your capacity to accumulate surplus cash and your ability to gain the UK visa). Every summer, the affluent taste a segment of earthly paradise abroad. However, this summer, there is another paradise on offer in London. The Aga Khan Centre has organised an exhibition, named Making Paradise.

Paradise is the utmost destination for the followers of monotheist faiths. To Muslims, it is the primordial garden with rivers of water, milk, wine and honey; ensuring eternal youth, continuous pleasure and lasting peace. Artists, architects, writers and other creative individuals have represented the Garden of Eden that exists in the collective imagination – and is described in religious texts. More than 130 verses in the Holy Quran mention or refer to paradise. Sadequain has repeatedly and ardently illustrated those verses.

The act of visualising paradise is based mainly on our experiences of this world. Muslim architects created gardens as replicas of heaven; and miniature painters captured scenes and sections of the Garden of Eden. Paradise has been represented as a combination of ideal shapes and forms, hence understood in terms of geometry. At the Making Paradise show, one comes across all these attempts and approaches. The show that explores “the concept of Eden through art and Islamic garden design”, is curated by Esen Kaya, gallery curator at The Aga Khan Centre, with the renowned garden designer Emma Clark as consultant. Being held from April 29 to September 30, the display comprises works by 21 artists – diverse in their practices (perfumer, sound recordist, visual artists) and regions.

The exhibition also includes historic miniature paintings, Islamic geometric patterns, calligraphy, traditional ceramic works, hand-stitched textiles and documentation of garden from the Muslim history. The layout of the installation is based upon quadrilateral garden, the classic chahar bagh, which can be understood as an interpretation of the four Gardens of Paradise mentioned in the Holy Quran. An important aspect of the exhibition is how artists, from the past and present, visualise paradise through depictions that do not match one another. Instead, they reveal more about their personal visions and cultural constructs.

In the works belonging to our era, the garden/paradise is filled with fowls, plants, water, but without human beings. Probably, the inclination to imagine a beautiful garden sans mankind is linked to the urbanisation phenomenon. We occasionally visit a pastoral land, stroll in a park, watch birds and pat animals, but by and large they are not part of our lives – lives consumed in (Bertolt Brecht’s) Jungle of Cities. A few participants have built impeccable settings – which uncannily resemble Covid-19 lockdown, where humans were hiding in their houses, while birds, insects and animals occupied the empty lots. The sky was blue, the air clear, and the atmosphere unpolluted – as raw as the beginning of the world – or somewhat like paradise. If hell was home, the heaven was outside (isn’t this the normal course of life).

That outside is rendered by a number of artists, for example, Karen Nicol. In her Into the Blue, she maps a segment of paradise. Woodpecker and sparrow on different branches next to a range of flowers suggest the tranquillity of eternal abode. Because when we imagine jannat (the Arabic word inscribed in Nicol’s painting), we believe in a place beyond aging. Akin to birds and insects; whose age we can’t deduce (we can’t spot an old crow or an ancient cockroach). For us these creatures are beyond the passage of time (though not immortal). So it is logical to identify birds in Nicol’s paradise, as well as the woodpecker portrayed in Jane Lee McCraken’s sensitive drawings. In these, you recognise the woodpecker, the sparrow or the peacock cohabiting a space composed of geometric motifs.

Ross P Taylor in his Dance Sparkle and Flow, has painted a landscape that exists somewhere on the border of this planet and the divine kingdom. The serenity, repose and stillness of a garden divided into four parts, remind us of the concept of paradise. This is reinforced in Jethro’s delineation of a plant with green leaves against a gold background. Gold being a symbol of spiritual hemisphere, transposes the tree to the other – sublime territory: paradise.

However, where is the paradise, what does it look, and how should one find it? There are different routes: architectural ones being the most convincing because the discipline does not produce an illusion of a space, it constructs it. Thus, at the exhibition, there is a “short film depicting the many historical garden(s)… as well new public gardens created to enhance the environment.” Fragments of these gardens are evident in the round weavings of Olga Prinku and glazed circular dishes of Yasmin Hayat, with yields of the Garden of Eden: tulips, pomegranates, cypress and figs.

Intriguingly, tulip and cypress trees did not originate in the Arabian Peninsula, the cradle of Islam, but as soon as other regions (Iran, Syria, Turkey) were conquered and converted, their local flora and fauna got added to the iconography - as in Mughal petra dura pictures in public buildings which signify paradise, but embody local vegetation.

Simultaneously, in conventional image making familiar things were drawn in simplified manner rather than in their naturalistic appearance. This transformation, of real into stylised, and into geometry (a process not dissimilar with language that substitutes sounds and visuals – words and script, for physical entities) is witnessed in how the tangible is translated into two-dimensional aspects. Like a mathematical equation, artists have attempted visions of paradise as the accumulation of geometric forms. Shorsh Saleh, Veeda Ahmed, and Zarah Hussain have developed their unique imagery to denote a world that is not seen, but can be envisioned. Saleh and Ahmed derive their sources from traditional manuscripts in which geometric divisions are not just patterns, but a means to fathom the reality of the sublime. In their varied formats: illuminated or miniature painting page (Saleh), geometry-based visuals (Ahmed), and three dimensional constructions (Hussain), they refer to the landscape of an ethereal kingdom.

In Making Paradise, each artist fabricates an individual view of the paradise. However, several participants’ preference for geometry remind us of Umberto Eco’s book: The Search for the Perfect Language, and its argument about primordial language in which (according to the King James Bible), “Adam called every living creature” in Heaven. There have been contradictory versions on this ‘perfect’ language, claiming it is Hebrew, Arabic, Latin etc. In one sense “…St Augustine did have a clear idea of a perfect language, common to all people. But this was not a language of words; it was, rather, a language made out of things themselves.” May be the language of their shapes, or the language of their geometry – perhaps the language of paradise.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

In pursuit of paradise