“I write only for my shadow which is cast on the wall in front of the light. I must introduce myself to it.” Sadegh Hedayat
For all their apparent differences, what the works by the three artists, namely Abida Dahri, Sulaman Arshad and Tahira Noreen in the show titled: Musings, held at O Art Space in Lahore, have in common is that they each contain an abundance of elements, which, in turn, upon contemplation, yield an abundance of interrelationships.
In general, the works by the three artists are not self-referential, not exemplary of any concrete art that, by definition, represents nothing other than itself. The ‘drawings’ are complex because they are sophisticated in as much as they reflect certain multilayered aspects of reality.
Tahira Noreen makes use of the universal language of abstraction to draw upon the human tendency of overlaying reality with structures and systems to apprehend what cannot be grasped otherwise. In her ‘drawings’, the artist deploys lines as a framework for her geometric elaborations. By allowing irregularities and deviations within this strict order, she acknowledges the ever-present and unforeseen surprises that make up our incomprehensible lives.
In her practice, the artist demonstrates how we tend to follow our overwhelming ways of life through guidance of comprehensible systems, curbing the chaos that exists in reality. The lines in her aesthetics symbolise the traces along which we exist, equally appropriating time and space while trying to adjust and finding our place within.
Noreen systematically segments, or rather splinters, the drawing element of the line in her, for the most part, large-format works. With the help of a sharp cutter – scalpel-like – she incises deep into the flesh of wasli, creating a rhythmic sequence of presences and absences of a material trace. The basic element of her drawings relinquishes the classical task of the line, which is to define a form. It is a positioning of a vast sequence of marks which often penetrate and adjoin to one another.
Noreen’s irreverence towards the grid as a structure can be seen in her I Am Not A Machine, a suite of 30 small square ‘drawings’ on paper, which play with line and shape, translucency and opacity, flatness and depth, order and disorder, and pattern and noise. In these drawings, lines display the potential to both reinforce the picture plane and suggest a perspectival recession into space. Similarly, simple geometric shapes assert their flatness when they are rendered opaque but appear somewhat fugitive, floating indeterminately when articulated through fields of parallel but distinct lines, introducing the shallowest of spaces into the picture plane. Noreen makes meditative and minimal compositions by applying these visual and spatial effects dialectically.
Though idiosyncratic, Noreen’s compositions are never accidental, and motifs and strategies repeat between works, as she tests them out in different permutations and combinations. In some of these drawings the grid functions like a scaffold. Noreen then overlays it with lines, marks and shapes that purposefully exceed the rigid boundaries of the individual units, disrupting the precise order. What makes her drawings both compelling and confounding is that these disruptions are rarely unruly or expressive. On the contrary, they consist of carefully ruled lines and simple geometric shapes. They speak the same language of form as the grid but scramble its syntax and grammar. They are deployed in a manner that is generative not dogmatic, that is playful and poetic, that creates new and unexpected meanings. Resisting the tyranny of the grid, the drawings create room within its structure for narration, allowing herself and us to remember, feel, imagine, breathe and daydream; or a screen, more as a structure of support or separation than of order.
Abida Dahri does not limit her experiments with line and space to two dimensions. She also uses masking tape to draw in space, constructing exquisite configurations that often reference architecture. However, her interest in our responses to such articulations of space extends beyond the purely phenomenological to include affect, emotion, and memory. Her pieces investigate the way memories can accrue around a structure and the way architecture can evoke a powerful emotional response, its transparency emphasising the elusive nature of both memory and emotion. Her current show resituates these interests into a more intimate, domestic register. Recasting the surface as a see-through screen or permeable membrane rather than as a solid barrier, the drawing gestures towards division, scrambling spatial distinctions between inside and outside or here and there. Playing with notions of opacity and transparency, of access and seclusion, it attempts to create an open shelter, an enclosure for daydreams that does not withdraw completely from the world. Using only the most basic materials, the artist adopts a commonly unfocused and subliminal practice and refines it, resulting in vibrant artworks of great complexity.
The Pleasure in Boredom alludes to an essay by EH Gombrich, in which the art historian examines the psychology behind the act of doodling and explores its artistic merit and relevance. Dahri suggests that not only is the act a subconscious impulse, something we are naturally compelled to do in a dreamlike, absent-minded state, but that its importance lies in the fact that it is a vital tool of uninhibited expression, as well as being a way in which countless artists and scribes have practiced and refined their craft.
As an extension of this series, the artist uses the masking tape resembling textile knotting technique of macrame. By using the colourful ‘yarn’ as another vehicle to experiment with doodling, she takes the concept in a whimsical direction. In this instance the artist rejects the standard guidance of a pattern, and instead allows the shape of the work to develop organically, resulting in unfettered, irregular and amoeba-like forms.
The universal practice of subconscious, experimental drawing lends itself to creativity and innovation. By her own admission, Dahri’s examinations into this area have not yet reached their zenith and as she continues to explore the endless permutations of this adaptable form, she is still finding new and unexpected ways in which to play, which when taken together as a whole produces a series of often lively, not completely determinable cloudy forms that even in places of the highest density of marks still seem light and transparent like an airy fabric.
In Sulaman Arshad’s work, the basic material appears as a white, slightly translucent, gossamer-thin and yet strong paper, whose tactile and visual qualities have a strong aesthetic attraction for the artist. A tendency towards increasing regularity and homogeneity in the surface structure formation manifests itself in the image objects. In this type of work, pieces of paper are cut out like blossoms or conversely like pills and fixed close together on a primed wasli. The actual structuring of the work, the bringing forth of the image form, takes place in such a way that the surfaces to be delimited from one another are formed from differently shaded paper. What is basically involved here is a mosaic-like technique, albeit with a completely different material.
What Arshad is concerned about is the tension and interplay between the supporting material and the actual work, which is determined by its shaping and colouring. Here too, an evolution over time towards more regularity is apparent. It is also in keeping with this that the first visual objects of this type, despite the far more time-consuming method of working, and the concomitant impression, are basically rather minimalistically structured, i.e., very sparing in the use of colours and forms.
In some Untitled examples, the lines between adjoining differently coloured areas are further emphasised by the relief height of the fields being slightly different, a matter of nuance. Then there are works in which individual fields or shapes are left vacant, i.e., not covered by the paper blossoms. The carrier remains visible here. It must also be noted that Arshad’s style is geometric-constructive, with a few exceptions, with a great deal of value placed on symmetry. The circle and the square form the paradigms within which the artist develops his language. The concrete individual forms are often drawn from the classical, geometric ornament forms like the trefoil and the quatrefoil, Gothic column footprints, board shapes of flooring patterns, the spiral, the star, the labyrinth or even mandalas, Chinese symbols of luck and the Mughal jali. Occasionally, the work draws upon architectural drawings or floor plans of sacred architecture. The pursuit for dimensions, order and symmetry that is expressed in such plans, meets and influences the ideas of the artist and manifests itself in concrete drawing motifs.
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.