The sound of silence

October 16, 2022

Artists Maria Waseem and Waseem Ahmed have focussed on the divides in the Middle East

The sound of silence


ike Siamese twins, some countries are joined at their birth. Only it is not nature’s intention, but a political/ colonial power’s intervention. India and Pakistan are linked with each other since their independence. Similarly, Israel and its neighbouring countries Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon are locked with together on account of policies, planning and strategies of the British Home Office.

In some instances, the control of European powers towards defining a nation-state is as evident as the boundary lines among countries of North Africa – marked on a drawing board, before carving these on actual terrain.

Maria Waseem and Waseem Ahmed have been dealing with such divides. In the past, they have focused on the border between India and Pakistan, from the hills of Kashmir to the plains of the Punjab and deserts of Sindh and Rajasthan.

International frontiers of United Nations member states are valid and valuable lines, often so sacred that these are drawn, highlighted and strengthened with the blood of soldiers defending these. With some countries, the boundaries keep on changing so that the countries expand, contract, stretch and shrink. Cartography reveals that Pakistan’s territory extended with the merger of several princely states. Then in 1971, Bangladesh severed ties with the western part of Pakistan. In the Middle East new states emerged with the decline of Ottoman Empire. Since the creation of a Zionist state in 1948, the map of Middle East has been altered after every war between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

Amos Oz, the Israeli author, once described the Israel-Palestine situation as a house slashed, with bedroom in one country and the kitchen in another, garden in one state, and living room in the next. Histories, cultures, languages, customs are also hard to be divided between peoples living across such. Berlin before 1989 (split into communist and capitalist parts) and Jerusalem (segregated into Jewish and Arab quarters) are examples of this.

The notion and structure of borders and their relationship with cities, populations, their pasts, presents and futures intrigue MariaWaseem and Waseem Ahmed. The former, a trained architect and photographer, and latter, a miniature painter, have been collaborating to demolish expectations, limits and conditions related to their modes of expression. Maria uses her camera and Waseem his brush to create complex visuals that not only defy boundaries of these genres, but also question, critique and challenge lines that embody (political, religious and cultural) barriers.

For their recent body of works – a blend of photography and miniature painting, and a combination of various times – the two artists travelled to an ancient land that has witnessed many folds of Roman, Jewish and Arab history/ presence. Their art provides not merely a documentation of the area or a record of historic monuments; but also a comment on the state of human beings their common heritage; of disputed claims to territory. Looking at their photographs-and paintings, one remembers the Italian photographer and artist Luigi Ghirri, who soon “began to realise that reality was increasingly becoming an enormous photographor photo-montage”.

Maria uses her camera and Waseem his brush to create complex visuals that not only defy boundaries of various genres, but also question, critique and challenge lines that embody (political, religious, cultural) barriers.

Collage, assemblage, montage are terms used for describing works of creative artists. One may label creations of Maria and Waseem as one of these categories. However, their joint venture cannot be tamed by typical nomenclature. They successfully – keeping their independent visions, views and mediums – a dialogue among artistic forms, flow of time and neighbouring nations.

In their new series of works based upon the frontiers of Israel and Jordan, Maria and Waseem have drawn a bridge about differences and similarities, producing visuals in which history, politics and the mundane reality converge; a place where the past and the present, divergences of thought and faith and political positions exist. They generate a new entity.

Maria Waseem’s extensive research on the background of beliefs and colonial/ imperial legacies is evident in her selection of views and venues, some of which have Biblical references, such as the picture of “Al-Maghtas officially known as Baptism Site… on the East Bank of the Jordan River, considered to be the original location of the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist”. Roman columns, old temples, carvings of Petra are loaded with historical connections/ information but Maria Waseem chooses to represent a personal and sublime version of the world in front of her.

Hence, history and geography are unpacked through colours, light, textures, tones and a multiplicity of periods. Her photographs are of ancient locales, significant places in Jordan near Israel, but in essence convey a manner of adopting these into contemporary content.

One knows that there must be millions of snapshots of Amman, but seeing Maria’s pictures of the city, one is impressed by how the artist has captured the silence, desolation – and despair in the metropolis. Views of River Jordan, settlements near the border of Israel, of Dead Sea, interior of the Umayyad Palace atAmman Citadel, the heritage sites of Petra are turned into a unique imagery.

Waseem Ahmed has continued this task of domesticating external reality through his artistic interventions on Maria Waseem’s photographs; for instance adding crisp and controlled line drawings of Roman gods and goddesses into pictures of Roman ruins. He has drawn the image of Hercules with Cerberus on top of the Temple of Hercules; and a linear rendering of Hypnos, the personification of sleep, hovering over a sunset scene of Amman.

Most of their works relate to the narrative of faith. A man has been drawn by Waseem is about to take a bath on the bank of River Jordan (the site where Jesus was baptised). Maria has taken an expressive photo of Petra walls with the earliest and minimal attempts at idol making. In a prominently reddish surface with elementary carving of basic geometric/ religious shapes (of Nabatean gods), Waseem Ahmed has introduced impressions of palms in red hue, referring to the custom of sati in India where widows leave their hand marks on house walls before self-immolation as well as the prehistoric caves in which the unknown ancestors of the modern man have left their hand prints next to their depiction of animals.

Both Maria Waseem and Waseem Ahmed address the idea of deviation, division, disparity (tents of Palestinian refugees drawn by Waseem Ahmed on a mesmerising snapshot of the Dead Sea by Maria Waseem), but in its essence their work traces a common human link, beyond divide like political borders, classification of artistic techniques and the oppression of fleeting hours.

Their work negotiates with the silence of humans, of history, of politics, of repression and of segregation; it speaks beautifully, elegantly and eloquently.

(The exhibition, The Other Side of Silence, was held from September 21 to October 5, at Dar Al-Anda Art Gallery, Amman, Jordan.)

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

The sound of silence