The land of grass

July 18, 2021

Artist Wardha Shabbir explores the unbearable experience of living in present times

The land of grass

The September 11 attacks are still vivid in the memories of those who watched the two planes penetrating the Twin Towers, and how the world changed after that unfortunate Tuesday. However, there are other 9/11s. One mentioned by Chilean author Ariel Dorfman “an 11th of September filled with death”. It was “that day in 1973 when Chile lost its democracy in a military coup” led by General Augusto Pinochet, and sponsored by the CIA. Martin Amis, the British writer, recalls another such date, referring to the so-called Clash of Civilisations, “…it all began with the retreat of the Turkish armies from Vienna and the confirmation of Islamic decline. The year was 1683 and the day was September 11”.

In our midst, we came across a different 9/11; on the morning of September 11, 2020, newspapers across Pakistan reported the gang rape of a woman in the presence of her children. The cruelty, the heartlessness and the crime shook the entire nation. This included Wardha Shabbir. As the rape took place in a field away from the road, leaves of grass were witnesses to it. Shabbir sees them as symbols for the helpless. She has produced a one-channel video, A River. It is the footage of rice paddy fields, bent by the force of wind (actually managed through heavy-duty fans). One can associate the video location with the scene of assault, as rice fields in upper Punjab spread everywhere, especially near Sialkot.

Like every worthy artist, Shabbir adds other components that make her work not about an individual atrocity, but the unbearable experience of living in the present conditions where life is stifled by abuse against women, children and minorities, and coping with the Covid-19. The sound in her video installation is the recording of someone’s breathing behind the face mask. The sound of survival in pandemic is thus linked to the silent struggle of a rape victim. One can imagine her cries for help, her protest and her struggle that died in the middle of rows upon rows of rice plantation.

Leaves and green meadows are not new to Wardha Shabbir. She has been incorporating these in her work for several years. It is, however, only at a certain point that one recognises a bridge between your one’s imagery and content shared by a large community. It is not only the Motorway incident, leaves in her art refer to many forms of striving.

Her paintings are filled with leaves, flowers, trees and a few insects and birds. All that sounds familiar to the level of being banal. However, Shabbir then constructs compositions that reveal more than mere vegetation. Traces of tradition, attitude towards territory, attempts to transcribe land in diverse pictorial formats, are all visible in her miniatures. Even though her imagery has moved miles away from what is traditionally understood as miniature painting, it is still rooted in the historical genre.

She explains her link to the Pahari School, since Lahore, the city of her residence and studio, was part of the Pahari School (she says that the vegetation in her paintings belong to Lahore). The style of miniature painting is known for rendering of nature, i.e., plants, clouds, birds, animals in a sensitive and elaborate manner. I can never forget the dark monsoon clouds portrayed in a Mandi miniature (Virahini Nayika, 1820) at the Lahore Museum or a Kangra painting (Lovers Watching Rain Clouds, 1780), from Mrs John F Kennedy collection.

The land of grass

As in past miniatures, the inclusion of trees, flowers, a stream and birds has a meaning/code. In Wardha Shabbir’s paintings, these elements guide us to other concepts. Her plants stem from the soil of imagination: no shadows, no daylight, no lines of spatial depth. All these are treated like motifs on paper. In some works, (Flecked with Stars, The Parent Garden 2 & 3) one notices a sequence of receding planes, which indicates distance, but basically these exist as components of a two-dimensional aesthetics (another link to traditional miniature painting, as well as to modern and contemporary art after Paul Cezanne and the Cubists).

For the last few years what Wardha Shabbir has been making is probably not painting but a map. A painting, even if it is a miniature produced during the Mughal period, is an extension of reality on paper, whereas a map is a substitute for the actuality, a concept, a calculation, a conjunction. It is a description; and when someone describes or narrates a story, along with its content, we also grasp the intent of the teller. A map is a blend of observation and assumption, to track a destination – a house in London, or an island in the Pacific Ocean: a practical purpose. However, if we assume that Shabbir constructs maps, where do these take us?

I am not sure about others but on several occasions I have opened Google Maps and looked for a street in London, a house in Dhaka, a Gallery in New York City, a cinema in Madrid; places I have visited in the past. I can revisit those thanks to that application. Wardha Shabbir employs Google Maps to create some of her compositions: demarcations as uncomplicated as an expanse of pastoral land, or a boundary-walled area. In her paintings (A River Land, and Growing in Silence), one comes across borderlines separating two fields, or a circular patch of plantation in the centre of bright yellow background.

Along with maps, labyrinths (or their layouts) also fascinate Wardha Shabbir. She differentiates maps and labyrinths, as “to find and to lose”. However, one is forced to ponder over the disparity between the two pursuits. Are both the same? Lately, she has been drawing maps from physical experience: the route from her hotel to her gallery in London, and from imaginary settings: a tiny compound, a small enclosure, or some scattered spaces. This shift is evident in her paintings that have a geometric foundation, the illusion of a map/labyrinth with a wealth of vegetation (I Have Seen an Ocean, RGB, The In-Between, A Study Land 1 & 2). Sitting on strong reds, greens, yellows, oranges and greens, these demarcations of walls, displaced barrier, disjoined labyrinths (besides reminding one of the strong surfaces of Basohli miniatures), suggest another narrative. In her words, “making a line of a border is a way of separating an unwanted field”.

Looking at her works on paper in the glow of her video installation, one realises that no field, no garden, no roadway is a non-hostile venue for a human being, let alone a woman in our country, who is compelled to prefer maps to places as maps are safe, securely stored in our mobiles, minds and manhood. (Her solo exhibition Green Matter is being held July 13-24, 2021, at Canvas Gallery, Karachi).

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

The land of grass