Paintings, textile-based installations and works on paper show how the idea of home can reflect in multiple ways
In the early years of this century, a Pakistani painter, travelling in a taxi in Milan, was asked by the friendly cabbie: “where are you from?” The passenger asked the driver to hazard a guess. “Dubai”, said the driver; to which the painter replied: “oh come on, everyone can be from Dubai.” The driver’s second guess was London and the traveller’s response unchanged. Finally, he told the young Italian he was from Pakistan and that was the end of the conversation.
Cities like Dubai, London, New York are located on specific soils and part of certain nation-states but, in a sense, these are also situated in South Asia, providing venues and opportunities to artists, writers and other creative individuals from the region to meet, exchange ideas and collaborate. Such collaboration may not be possible otherwise in the subcontinent due to visa restrictions and political tensions. Given its imperialist past, the United Kingdom is a natural/ neutral haven for many professionals away from their homelands.
Diaspora, exile, migration and asylum are various forms of displacement in which a person can survive in a distant land. Recalling the past spent at the ‘home’ territory; local time of the abandoned lands is ticking inside one’s head. The search for identity has many cultural manifestations e.g. language, music, faith, food and dress.
Distance provides a wider lens to view one’s reality/ roots. A number of Latin American novelists have written about characters, places, conflicts, politics and histories of their countries and continent while residing in Madrid, Paris and London. Some of the works might not have been feasible had they been in Bogota, Buenos Aires, Lima, Santiago, Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro. Likewise, poets Noon Meem Rashid and Faiz Ahmed Faiz penned some their best verses while living in London or Beirut. Several artists from our region, including AJ Shemza, SH Raza, F D’Souza and Tassadaq Suhail lived in the UK or Europe but their art was a means to recall the reality of their place of origin, hence ingrained in script, miniature painting, tantric forms and religious, social, and cultural narratives of the subcontinent.
Four women artists trained at British art schools, formed the Neulinge (newcomers) Collective in 2018 “to debate and highlight issues that relate to global politics and their impact on women of colour”. Hailing from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, these artists (some of them based in London) are dealing with the questions of identity, tradition and heritage. Their artworks – of contemporary idiom - refer to cultural practices and popular forms.
Curated by Noor Ahmed, work of these artists was on display as Home Ground from August 11 to August 25 at Art Chowk, the Gallery, Karachi. Paintings, textile-based installations and works on paper depicted how the idea of home could be uttered in different tongues.
Probably the most exciting – and ambitious - inclusion were paintings by Chudamani Clowes. Originating from Sri Lanka, Clowes “currently lives in London, where she has spent the last forty years”. She belongs to the ‘post’ generation. ‘Post’, not in terms of post-modernity or post-colonialism, post-human or post-truth, or posts on social media; but the postage. Prior to email and WhatsApp texts, people sent, anticipated, awaited and received letters (like the old protagonist in Garcia Marquez’ novella No One Writes to the Colonel who frequents the post office to ask if he has got any mail).
Four women artists trained at the British art schools, formed the Neulinge (newcomers) Collective in 2018 “to debate and highlight issues that relate to global politics and their impact on women of colour”. Hailing from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, these artists are dealing with the questions of identity, tradition and heritage.
A postman was a major presence in villages and towns before the electronic mail. He used to bring mail, messages from loved ones. Those pieces of paper – a single page folded into an envelope to save postage cost – were words (if not the substitute) of a faraway father, brother, husband, son.
Chudamani Clowes has appropriated the format of an aerogramme letter to create The Unexpected Letter, employing canvas army tent, spray and oil paint. With its overlapped forms, patches and array of hues, the work becomes the transcript of a comprehensible language. Actually all writing is doodles, till someone deciphers it. At the Royal College of Art, London, (where Clowes received her master’s in fine art) students used to scribble home letters in Hebrew, Japanese, Greek, Arabic, Bangla, Tamil that looked like a drunken insect’s tracks. Yet, these were legible phrases for those who could read them. Clowes constructs a text that, beyond recognising the alphabets, is about identifying the signs of love, longing and loss. Many a times the handwriting betrays more than what a person intended in his/ her choice of sentences, structure of passages and editing of the content.
In the era of emails and phone messages, the only handwriting left is art. Chudamani Clowes explores it to an extent that her works become a pictorial vocabulary. Her loosely scrawled lines, marks and strokes convey the complexity of narrative, along with the painterly quality that turns the work into a strong visual, accessible to people with diverse geographies and different histories.
The link to past was also visible in the art of Divya Sharma, a London-based artist from India, who graduated in sculpture from the Royal College of Art (2021). For Sharma “home is a state of mind.” She resurrects it through her textile and thread hanging (Shape of Identity, 2022). The work, with it connection to local textile, offers layers of weaves that are more about colour, shape and texture than an apparent concept. However, one cannot miss how various materials, mediums and techniques have a political, historic and gender background. The British introduced oil on canvas as the sublime and supreme medium in a land where other modes of imagemaking were in practice, like gouache on paper, fresco, embroidery, wood and stone carving. Sharma’s preference for textiles is significant, since the medium stands marginalised (being non-art), particularly for its association with women weavers/ workers.
The act of recognising and respecting forms of representation was evident in the work of Maryam Hina Hasnain. Her images of bleeding patterns in blue/ green (Blue Prints, 2022, ink and bleach on tracing paper) suggest the way one’s identity is not static or still or strict (or stagnated). The drippy ends of a traditional motif on large rectangles, address the reality of tradition in a vibrant, vital and vigorous manner unlike the safe mode observed in the painting and chalk pastel on paper by Marium M Habib in portraying the Ashura procession and a beach house in Karachi. Convincingly rendered, these surfaces do not step outside the expected ‘notions’ of indigenousness. A hut at the sea as well as religious rituals to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (peace be upon him) become stakes of identity – and attraction.
Whether you come from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, or/ and are living and working in London, your creations are not confined to these shifting localities. The art belongs to the hour in which the ground beneath one’s feet is neither home nor a foreign country.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.