Domestic frontier

August 29, 2021

Javeria Ahmad’s works contain varying degrees of psychological effects and cultural values

Domestic frontier

There is an apparent conflict between stereotypes and reality, which Javeria Ahmad’s clay ‘sculptures’ subtly articulate. The notion of domesticity lays the basis of the currently prevailing concept in her latest exhibition, To Whom It May Concern, curated by Salima Hashmi, shown at the Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq Gallery at the NCA, Lahore.

We find varying degrees of psychological effects and cultural values within the messages conveyed through five separate series of works. The agitprop suggests that in the history of eastern society, a woman is judged by her home. Domesticity and all of its trappings are regarded as the focus of her life – her sole purpose in life. Today, the basis for reaching that same judgement is not drastically different. This practice reflects a psychological tendency having more to do with envy and desire than gender equality as the perceived roles for males and females become more ambiguous. There are remnants of the past that carry over into present, manifesting themselves in more subtle tactics that are less obvious to the undiscerning eye. This is the ideological point Ahmad’s pieces, in all their splendid variations, examine for our recapitulation.

Archaeological record demonstrates that the production of clay models of buildings dates back thousands of years. Javeria Ahmed’s meticulous conception means that her houses become individual and identifiable, reflecting the habits and personalities of their occupants. Once Ahmad begins inventing her work, it no longer functions merely as a literal record but becomes an interpretation of reality dependent on the details she chooses to retain, invent or exclude, acknowledging the subjectivity of her interpretation.

In To Whom It May Concern I, the ceramicist chooses to arrange variegated iconic houses in a circle, signifying different tribes, communities, ethnic groups or families, congregating to decide on a girl-child marriage through a jirga. This installation is a critique of the incipient indoctrination of girls to their perceived role in society. Ahmed’s visual manifestations of that critique are unique in ceramics and aesthetically brilliant.

Likewise, in To Whom It May Concern II, identically glazed red houses arranged in a circle are a naïve reminder of games that young girls play, especially in the rural environs, like Kokla Chhapaki Jumeyraat Aayi Jay.

Is Javeria Ahmad a feminist questioning patriarchal authoritarianism and chauvinism? Or is she a post-feminist, distancing herself from the radical bias of any extremist orthodoxy? As with most contemporary existence, Ahmad equivocates between these positions and in the process discovers the middle ground, portraying our collective perception of humanity – both its disappointment and wonder. Despite the critical stance she sometimes appears to take, she delivers her recapitulation with elegance. Her work is simultaneously witty and serious, clever yet sad, proving her criticality a double-edge. In Western cultures, extreme viewpoints are black and white, leaving no room for grey. Ahmad celebrates the grey, the banality, rejoicing in the simpler things in life, hand painting cups of coffee. Ahmad explains, “I can validate and encourage the reactions of those who see beyond the surface to find a message of tenacity, power, perseverance, resourcefulness and transformation of limitations into strengths.”

In the installation titled Conversations, the work fits into a predominantly city-sophisticated style with hand illustrated stoneware cups that express a unique, post-domestic take on the venerable traditions of the tea table. It brings together a cogent body of work devoted to the ubiquitous tea and tea cup. A familiar context for the work is established by the fact that they are tea cups. They traditionally belong in a familiar domestic environment where potters have always played a significant role in reflecting social fashion and culture by providing wares for our quotidian activities. The hand-fitting size of the vessels tends to reinforce the cosy intimacy of the domestic setting.

But that is where the comfort zone ends because none of these cups will ever hold physical liquids of any sort. With the negation of their teatime function, this installation marks the turning point where Ahmad has finally cut the umbilical cord with traditional domestic ware. All that remains is the suggestion alluding to the culture of long conversations over cups of tea. With this major shift in mindset, it would seem more appropriate to review the show in terms of aesthetic conventions such as space, colour, surface, expression and content as signifiers of conceptual concerns from which to extract significance and meaning.

The ritual cups arranged neatly in a circle address psychological motives of a more spiritual nature. The meaning embedded in them is more enigmatic and introverted. There is no movement within the form. The cups do not invade one another’s space. No cup is led or followed by another. If they converse at all, it is through the illustrations that have been hand-drawn on them.

Not all of Ahmad’s work struggles with such issues. Some pieces are more prosaic, more straightforward, more art. They do not have the same rigorous criticality that is present in the other series. In almost every case, Ahmad is careful not to use women’s bodies to ‘sell’ the work, sidestepping the objectification of the body. In all their resplendent eloquence, Ahmad’s imagery, work and subtle alterations of form are anything but monotonous. Take, for instance, the iron and the cassette recorder, hand built in terracotta and stoneware, in the ongoing series called, Fragments of Home.

Tied to the dynamics of this group interaction is another major concept of Ahmad’s show, that is, multiples: how numbers affect the relationships of activity or discourse. One psychological consequence of group dynamics that she explores uses colour as a device to illustrate her point. All the plates on show in the installation named, To Whom It May Concern III are monochromatic, arranged in a long horizontal line except for one red cup in the middle with a golden glazed house inside it. The red glaze used is a startling fire engine red. The drawings on the plates have the appearance of classical black and white intaglio prints – dense yet transparent, perfectly illuminating fine detail and creating a sense of visual depth. While aesthetically pleasing and eloquent, the crows and birds of prey nevertheless impart an uneasy and deliberate sense of rigidity, containment and finality. Amplified by the stern black and white colour scheme, the painted surface imagery is freed from constraints and boundaries, freely following and caressing the form and sculptural relief of the surface. The imagery is something of a cross between charcoal drawing and Oriental ink painting. The tonality and mark-making varies from the soft velvety black and smudged grey hues of charcoal to the elegance and effortlessness of Japanese brushwork – owing perhaps to the artist’s stint at Shigaraki – from sharply defined brush lines to diluted faint washes of black colour. Referring to the tea ceremony in honour of the guests who visit to either accept or reject the girl for their son to be betrothed to, the crows on the plates are symbolic of the guests who prey on innocent souls.

Below the only red teacup, on the floor, is an oval pool of red ceramic shards, that gives a new meaning to “home is where the heart is” as Ahmad strikes a mortal blow to the bleeding heart, or home, of women.

As Javeria Ahmad’s work has matured it is possible to speculate on the possibility of a nascent movement away from the glamour of obvious attractions such as bright, vibrant colours. Perhaps indications of a move towards less tangible qualities are being made manifest in the esoteric nature of this group of cups in her search for the essence of things: there is a gradual paring down, a stripping away. Perhaps the most profound virtue of Ahmad’s work is the wisdom of its essentially warm, gentle nature; and her greatest feat is that she reaches beyond the stereotype and into the reality where she finds her own truth – the discovery that domesticity is home.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

Domestic frontier