Artists have unique ways of looking at objects around them. Almost any object in our surroundings, including abandoned items, can appear on an artist’s canvas. It can also become a symbol or part of a code that brings strength and adds value. Painters started exploring meaning in plant materials in 17th Century. Over time, plants became a regular subject referring to various aspects of life including loyalty, peace and love; and sometimes pain and grief.
A set of images titled, Foliage, is currently on display at the Art Chowk Gallery. The artworks have been contributed by Amira Farooq, Anum Ashraf, Ayesha Akbar, Bailey Constas, Farrukh Shahab, Mariam Mushtaq Kazi, Sana Anwer, Tanweer Farooqi, Umaimah Mustafa Khan and Zehra Fatima Tooba. Curated by Jamal Ashqain, the show is a celebration of foliage and an aide mémoire on the history of leaves and flowers in the arts. The mediums used include oil on canvas, acrylic on board, ink on canon paper, mixed media, water colour and digital prints.
The arrangement of foliage in each oeuvre pronounces its significance in the arts as well as human life. The curator of the show, Jamal Ashqain, says he wanted to bring this subject to the onlookers to comprehend the history of the use of leaves in painting that is often taken for granted. “From a fragile nascent shoot to a dead maple leaf displaying vivid colours, artists have used foliage in countless abstractions, forms and contexts. Here with this exhibition we are exploring the use of this very simple element in the modern visual vocabulary by artists today,” he says.
Jamal says for this show, he had asked the artists to work in their unique styles and elucidate their understanding of foliage. He says he was happy that the artists had vividly put together their thoughts. Some of them, he says, had stretched their boundaries and given new meaning to their work.
Tanweer Farooqi has painted flowers in a striking red in an ordinary arrangement. This has allowed the freshness of flowers and the calm of the environment to come through. Farrukh Shahab has painted a self-portrait dressed in a Sufi dervish attire in a contemplative posture. Leaves and flowers appear in life colours and not as block prints on the dress.
Ayesha Akbar, on the other hand, has added patterns and lines that hint at a certain discipline. The round forms in her work speak of the indefinite beauty of leaves and flowers.
Some of the paintings narrate the artists’ experiences. We are reminded that foliage has always been a part of our life and that it enriches our lives. In Zehra Fatima Tooba’s image titled All that shimmers I, the leaves, attached to a fragile root, grow out of the soil and go through a circle which hints at the cycle of life before moving in an upward direction. In another image, two stems grow in opposite directions. Mariam Mushtaq Kazi appears to have freely thrown around colours on the paper. The deliberate addition of thick colorful dots on the trees is deceptive. On closer examination of the images titled Forest I and II, one realizes that the added layers are composed of leaves which add life and colours to the environment. Wajood is an emotionally charged image showing that even a barren tree is a home for birds.
Anum Ashraf has played with dark hues in watercolor. She has blended colours together to form the images. These images turn out to be trees, leaves and lotus flowers reflected in a water body.
Amira Farooq’s work provides an insight into the botanical magnificence as well as its relationship to humans. The flower shaped void in a human figure is shown on the other side. In that missing part, there is a tiny human being nurtured. Farooq seems to emphasise life in flowers and leaves that humans seem sometimes to ignore or take for granted. Bailey Constas, too, merges the nature and human existence together. In his work, the cycle of human life revolves around nature.
The works are pleasant and striking in the way they speak of the artists’ prowess. The narrative the artists weave really comes through.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi