Durre Waseem’s attractive paintings, whether executed on site or in studio using a reference, on display at Ejaz Art Gallery have a sense of culture and correctness
Durre or Daisy? Who was the painter showing their work from March 30 to April 12 at Ejaz Art Gallery, Lahore? In fact, both. Like many who have an official name along with a nickname or a childhood term of endearment, Durre Waseem has been called Daisy by her family, friends and some former colleagues from the College of Art and Design, University of the Punjab, Lahore.
Actually, no one bothers about the move from a given name to an intimate form of address; it is as natural and smooth as shifting from one language to another in our daily discourse, often mixing the two – or three, thus creating a blend of English, Urdu and Punjabi/Sindhi/other regional tongues. Switching from indigenous, vernacular, local to imported and adapted and foreign. In that context, the solo exhibition, Meticulous Spontaneity, was a show belonging to both Daisy and Durre. The painter was trained and then taught at the University of the Punjab, before joining another teaching position in Karachi. She left for the US in 2001, and has been living and working in the state of California.
All those familiar with Waseem’s history as a painter, certify that this amazing, extraordinary and excellent artist nurtured in the corridors of Punjab University’s Old Campus like her predecessors, Khalid Iqbal, Zubeida Javed, Ghulam Rasul and Mussarat Mirza, invented the genre of landscape as her private idiom. Relentlessly, she rendered areas around her home, workplace and other neighbourhoods; canvases, which are not deadpan depiction – or an inventory of houses, trees, vehicles, electricity poles, but fleeting, yet lasting, impressions/experiences of a place visited and observed.
Since she migrated to the US, there was a heavy burden on her artistic shoulders to represent California, her new home, as well as Lahore, her city of origin to which she keeps coming again and again. Although the artist never speaks about the issue of identity, like every intelligent and sensitive expatriate, her work reveals the presence of displacement.
Durre Waseem has been regularly painting and exhibiting in the US and Pakistan, but it requires a deeper inquiry to determine the artist’s frame of mind in each of her journeys. At several points in time, she created paintings of buildings, streets or other ‘identifiable’ historic parts of Lahore (even works depicting Murree can be included in this league), along with canvases which she refers to as plein-air paintings. She has painted views of the outdoors that comprise urban backgrounds, people and activities that were illustrated while living in North America, or occasionally traveling to Europe.
Some of these attractive paintings, whether executed on site or in studio using a reference, somehow give a sense of culture and correctness. She portrayed her new home on a number of canvases; and on visiting Lahore also focused on the local landscape, enhanced by the outlines of Wazir Khan Mosque, Tollin’ton Market and other such structures. Blondes in the sunshine on a beach in California, or peddlers in the shadow of an old house in Lahore were no different as far as Daisy/Durre, was concerned. She remained eager to be truthful, both to her adopted surroundings and her frequently-visited, but abandoned metropolis.
Apart from the link to two different regions, there is another duality apparent in Waseem’s works. One, where she is conscious of her location, its history, geography and charm; and the other in which the painter is not responding to an address but rather interacting with light, colour and form – demonstrating her natural flair, carefree approach, abundant spontaneity – and her command in depicting what she fancies.
In her recent exhibition, the painter has liberated brush from the shackles of cultural, historic, regional responsibilities. Among the works on display, one painting, titled In Pursuit of Quid’s Dreams, portrayed Lahore’s old Gymkhana (re-baptised as Quaid-i-Azam Library); the grandiose white building was rendered from a distance – with a row of motorbikes in front, actually on the edge of the canvas. Talking about this, Waseem disclosed the dismay of her fellow painters (attempting the same spot) who objected to the inclusion of these randomly and temporarily parked pair of bikes beneath the great and historic edifice of our colonial legacy. Durre Waeem, not deterred, continued to make what she liked.
This attitude serves to recognise two aspects of the artist’s creative personality, not defined through the distinction between Daisy or Durre, nor with her choice of venues or characters; it is a split between the outside and inside. Actually, the painter has never made an abstract imagery, thus all her canvases are observations of her surroundings, landscapes, city life, human beings, ordinary and domestic objects; but the show at Ejaz Art Gallery reveals that when she attempts certain themes, she is constrained, correct and in control; while handling some other motifs, she becomes brilliantly loose, lively and daring.
To some extent, this division depends on her choice of subjects. If one analyses the works produced in the USA from observation or with picture reference, these assert the presence of typical subjects, a harbour (Marine by Sunset), a few individuals in the sun (Dada’s Here), two girls with their handbags and one holding a paper cup (Looks Familiar) or a group playing music in open air (Music on the Street). Compared to these, what she created in Pakistan, a view of busy Beadon Road at dusk, a few people enjoying coffee, an area adjacent to Wazir Khan Mosque, and several others, are almost incomplete, arbitrary and enveloped in the hustle bustle of those sites.
In a sense, it was at her solo exhibition that the difference of Daisy and Durre became apparent – almost unavoidable. Works with typical imagery such as a woman behind a bunch of flowers (By the Window), another posing on a sofa (Repose) or sitting with the sunlight coming from one side (Waiting), a portrait (Ammi’s Chokar) demonstrate her mastery in describing her models, but these do not levitate, because the artist, Durre, seems to be focusing on ‘representing’ certain people and a specific activity. When it comes to dealing with parts of the city, and individuals which for the painter, Daisy, are props or point of departure to write poetry in paint, she is boundless, inventive, exciting and amazing.
In one painting in particular, the entrance to Beadon Road (Bedon Night), a congested crossing is delineated on the canvas, with blinding lights of shop front in the evening, a few rickshaws parked, negotiating customers, some pedestrians, a couple of motorbikes. The entire scene is captured with quick, sweeping and sensitive brush strokes, emanating such vibrancy and vitality that on glancing at this canvas one is present with the painter on a particular hour at that location in Lahore. A sensation added with the glow of a bike’s backlight, illuminating just a tiny bit of its surrounding. This work is not concerned with that part of the town. (Who bothers about Beadon Road – unless you care for fresh juice, fruit ice cream or fancy lights?). It is about the play of paint, sensuous mark making, sensitive tones – it is a record of an artist’s painterly performance.
The same rings true for a number of her other canvases, including still-lifes with striped tapestry and utensils of transparent or reflective surfaces. Both disintegrate reality in a web of paint, a pleasure of distributing shades, evolving forms. Sheer beauty, not of what she paints, but how she paints. Umberto Eco in his book On Beauty informs us that Greek believed that the most ‘beautiful’ is the most ‘just’. In that sense, Durre Waseem is doing ‘just paintings’.
The author is an art critic based in Lahore