For the show, Allegory of Alienation, artist Shazia Qureshi has put together pictures of action that she has aligned joyously with the activity of painting. Returning to Karachi’s Chawkandi Art Gallery after three years, her works speak of discontent and detachment.
Most of her titles are action filled. There are frequent references to “conflicting”, “defying” and “colliding.” A perennial tension appears to occupy her practice that largely revolves around the human condition. Qureshi has explored themes of restlessness, political constraints and limits upon the individual. Her 1999 show, A Life of Restrictions, had explored similar themes. In 2016, she completed a master’s in philosophy. It’s no surprise then that the title of this show refers to Plato’s allegory of the cave, where chained prisoners’ only reality is the shadows they see on the cave walls. The shadows are caused by a fire and look mysterious to the viewers. Qureshi borrows and expands on this analogy — the cheap and easy satisfaction of the trivial and immediate; the inability and unwillingness to climb “the rough ascent” into sunshine, truth and knowledge.
When she talks about the show, Qureshi moves her palms upward, “if you raise yourself,” she says, “you increase your radius, your whole view. I feel like (through painting) I’m talking to everyone.” Qureshi has been fascinated by aqueous tools like ink, water colours and bitumen solution. She trained as a printmaker at the Karachi School of Art. Her images show a life that has nothing seamless or neat. Her lines appear to jostle with one another jostle and expand all over the paper. Qureshi, who has been in art education since 1995, is currently teaching at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS) and The Millennium University College (TMUC).
She gives us footholds or prompts. Some figures appear. Other marks form shelves of depth and fissures. Her arrangements of primary colours offer multiple viewpoints, keeping the eye in motion. In Beyond Intellect I, two mighty rivers flow down the page, separated by a gold stream. It is at once a dichotomy and a crossroads. Qureshi works intuitively and loosely. In Conflicting Drive I, II, and III, the colours used are soft but the lines are charged. Her figures, appearing and disappearing in a mesh of marks, are in disarray and distress. Working and re-working an image, she invites us to question our realities. In Enslaved Freedom 1, her lines zigzag in pools of colour and shadows. As black marks, mysterious figures or shadows, melt down the page, there is a hint of dirt, blood and sky. This, and other works have a batik-like richness, and remind you of the artist’s printmaking training. Enslaved Freedom III and IV have her spidery forms on translucent plains of warm colours.
The show’s title is a reference to Plato’s allegory of the cave, where chained prisoners’ only reality is the shadows they see on the cave walls, caused by a fire. Qureshi borrows and expands on this analogy.
Qureshi’s artist’s statement is a lament of a darkness that defines the times: lust for material gain, narcissism, relentless desire and ecological disaster. She is concerned with the angst of today, the delusive nature of consumerism and our rituals, our focus on the insignificant (comforts and status). She sees damaged souls riding a luxury train, on broken tracks, headed for ruin. However, within this negativity, her technique – the vigorous, slashing strokes, the webs of lines and veils of ink – provides glimmers of light and possibility. There are chinks of yellow peeking through — suggesting we are capable of change, that our realm, though broken, is dynamic and evolving. The fallen figure in Conflicting Drive III can get up again, separate himself from the chaos and be better.
The late South African artist Ernest Mancoba once described the object of art as a means “to discover new concepts by which to regard the world for the salvation of man”. Qureshi has similarly lofty ambitions. Her artist’s statement alludes to ‘rising’ to a nobler, more tranquil existence, about nurturing a vertical axis that can elevate and release. It is a feeling one understands while watching Colliding Realities — the only installation in the Allegory of Alienation. While her paintings are a flurry of colour and action, the main wall of the gallery is all angles and light.
Suspended from the ceiling, the piece is an encounter with time and space, making you stop and take a seat on the gallery benches. Thirteen clear cubes, measuring 9 inches and 12 inches, gently rotate and caste magnificent shadows on the gallery’s walls. Crafted from acrylic, their cuboid sides are printed with clouds of black and white drawings, which appear to be both contained in the air and disintegrating into it. As one turns away from the action paintings, there is a feeling of looking alternately at jewels and desire, both inside and outside — entrails or secrets, as well as the façade and the performance. Ovals of reflection and light move from the ceiling to the walls. For seekers of truth, like chained men in Plato’s allegory, it’s hard to look away from the hypnotic pools of light.
The author is a Karachi-based artist and writer